Body language: It’s one of those things that you learn about when you’re mid-way through teacher-training, right after a string of horrendously stressful lessons and before you go home and cry over your lesson reviews, future plans and endless piles of marking. And while we all find it very interesting, for many staff, it’s often one of those things that we just never make time to come back to and review.
At least, not in respect to ourselves.
We’re all absolute pros at analysing, commenting on and correcting the body language of our students. I can tell you what pupils X, Y and Z will be doing in each of my classes, depending on the time of day and topic covered, before they even know themselves they’re going to do it. Like many, I even have a bag of tricks complete with stress balls, doodle pads and blue tack for some of my more attentionally-challenged students.
And I know I’m not alone. For many teachers, assessing body language of pupils is a fundamental aspect of teaching a good lesson. Aside from a way of maintaining listening, it’s incredibly useful in assessing the mood of the class, their levels of interest/curiosity in the topic and task, and of course, actually judging whether you’ve pitched the lesson right and they’re actually going to be able to understand and complete what you’re asking of them.
But what about our own body language? Personally, I think I did have to put a lot of thought into my own body language when I started out, mainly because I was a nervous wreck. By the end of my PGCE year, I could barely hold a conversation without having a panic attack – I was fully in the midst of ‘Social Anxiety’ and seriously re-considering if teaching was really the right vocation for a frail little flower like me. But after a course of CBT(Cognitive Behaviour Therapy), I was willing to think of body language as something that I actually had control over. More importantly, I realised that just as I would tend to think and feel a certain way, and unconsciously hold my body in a way that demonstrated and enhanced this feeling; equally, I could adopt a positive stance and hold my body in a confident position, and actually trick my brain into feeling the positive emotions associated with this.
This TED talk is one of my favourites – I’ve watched it again and again, especially if I’m feeling a little apprehensive about an upcoming meeting or presentation. Amy Cuddy completely reinforces the idea that you can control and use your body language to ‘fake it until you become it.’
As she reports, her team have tested people in a lab, asking them to strike either low-power poses or high-power poses for 2 minutes, before giving them a series of tasks to complete. Remarkably, results showed that those who had held the high-power poses demonstrated not only a greater willingness to take risks, but they also showed a 20% chemical increase in testosterone compared to a 10% drop in those holding low-power poses. Alongside this, those in high-power poses saw their cortisol (“the stress hormone”) drop by on average 25% and those in the low-power poses, saw it increase by 15%. As a social anxious teacher, facing ‘the mob’ in the classroom along with a series of fairly stressful adult-interactions, I really found this information to be invaluable.
As Amy says, this information would probably prove most useful to people in ‘threat situations’ like when you’re about to give a presentation, or go to a job interview. Whether facing difficult classes, unpleasant conversations with staff, parents or school leaders, or giving presentations to adults, for many school staff, ‘threat situations’ can be a regular part of school life. And whilst I prefer to think of them as ‘charm challenges’ rather than ‘threat situations’ myself, a good high-power pose certainly doesn’t hurt either way (I’d just suggest doing the ‘Wonder Woman’ in the disabled loo to avoid strange looks!)
For me, when I’m lined up on ‘death row’ at the front of staff INSET training in the hall, waiting to speak to a sea of tired, cynical faces, I just do a quick body-scan and ensure that I’m sitting like I’m a really relaxed, confident person; like one of those bullshit artists (usually gents – sorry!) who seem to just waltz through job interviews despite not knowing a thing about the job. And I’ve got to say, it really works for me in this situation, and I feel much less nervous, particularly at the beginning of the presentation which is when the real anxiety always used to hit; I loosen up much more quickly and find my body language really opens up and flows throughout; I actually genuinely enjoy presenting to adults much more than I did previously, something that I previously would have never thought possible.
In a classroom situation, it’s a little different. Though there are peaks and dips throughout the lesson depending on if you’re speaking to one student, one rebellious student, lots of students, or lots of rebellious students… really, you need some solid body-language skills to get you through the lesson.
Thankfully, Ofsted have long-since moved away from the idea that teachers has to be some kind of extroverted performer (think ‘Newsround’ presenter meets lion tamer) in order to get a good lesson grading, now allowing the more introverted of us to rely on an exciting lesson plan and some solid behaviour management strategies instead. But still, researchers argue that over 90% of our communication is apparently based on non-verbals; thus whether you’re naturally a lion tamer or shrinking violet, you can’t afford to ignore this aspect of your teaching if you want engaged, well-behaved pupils.
So whether you’re a teacher in training, struggling to control an unruly rabble of angry teens; an NQT, contemplating how you’ll start your first few lessons in September; an experienced staff member facing one of the toughest classes of your career; or anyone, in any profession or role that deal with these ‘charm challenges’ on a regular basis, it’s a good idea to take half an hour out of your day to watch this TED talk and have a really good think about your body language.
Ask yourself – are you consciously controlling your posture/expressions/movement? Are you using your body effectively to support successful teaching? Does your body language help you to manage behaviour, or does it send mixed messages? Does it encourage interest in the lesson, or boredom?
Be honest – if you were one of your own students, would you be one of the engaged or the disengaged? *If your school has any capacity to film lessons and watch them back (it only needs to be you watching!) this is a fantastic way to take note of what your body is unconsciously doing, albeit horrifying when you hear your voice/see your hair from the back/realise that you say ‘Okaaayyyyy’ every few minutes like a deranged parrot.*
To this day, I swear that the reason I ended up doing A levels and eventually a degree in History, despite being much better at other subjects, was the passion and curiosity instilled in me by my high-school History teacher. That man had crazy hair, overactive sweat glands and a not-so-discreet-as-he-thought need to scratch his privates every few minutes that resulted in actual tally charts doing the rounds; but he also leapt – physically leapt– around the room with excitement for his subject. And as a result, my rather attention-challenged mind soaked up every single word that man said.
Ultimately, if you want your students, colleagues and people to listen to the words coming out of your mouth, then you need to have a serious think about the language coming out of your body too.