In the classroom, teachers spend plenty of time concentrating on what we say: the quality of our explanations, the way we approach questioning and the language we use to manage behaviour.
But can all this focus on our words mean that we forget about what we are doing with our bodies?
Body language makes up a huge proportion of what we actually communicate. And having an awareness of this can greatly improve your classroom practice.
The expression on your face can often tell a very different story to the words you are using. In fact, facial expression is one of the most powerful methods of non-verbal communication that we have: this makes it a really valuable teaching tool.
With the right facial expression, you can deliver three-quarters of the message before you say a thing. Think carefully about the stock of facial expressions at your disposal and how you can use them to pre-empt having to utter a single word.
The power of a simple smile or scowl shouldn’t be underestimated. A disapproving look can be used to avoid conflict before it arises and, similarly, a smile can congratulate a pupil without having to draw attention to the praise.
For some pupils, facial cues are the crucial signals that will help them to stay on task.
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Proxemics – the space between people – is of paramount importance in the classroom. Having somebody in your personal space can be uncomfortable, and the nature of teaching means that, quite often, we have to move into a pupil’s personal space to help them with their work. In some cases, this can lead to a negative reaction.
Be mindful of the space between you and the pupil you are speaking with. Realistically, most classrooms are relatively small and don’t allow for you to always keep your distance, but you can still judge the situation. If you’re dealing with a behavioural issue, think about where you are standing. Are you being overbearing? Are you being too intimidating? Are you, in fact, too far away? Quite often, distance will determine how effective your words are.
Never underestimate the power of eye contact. We can communicate a significant amount of emotion through our eyes, but eye contact can be used for a whole lot more in the classroom – and is one of the best behaviour management tools a teacher has.
Making eye contact with a pupil who is misbehaving sends a silent signal of acknowledgement. This creates no disturbance, no fuss, but still gets your message across: “I know what you’re doing and I don’t like it, so stop.”
On the flip side, eye contact can be used to positively reinforce behaviour. Maintaining eye contact creates a sense of personalisation and value. It shows that you are interested in what a pupil has to say and this can be a huge motivator.
Eye contact also has the benefit of allowing you to recognise when a speaker is becoming uncomfortable, giving you the opportunity to move on and to make that pupil feel safe.
Not only this, but eye contact allows you to model confident non-verbal communication. Speaking and communicating effectively and openly is something all pupils will need once they leave school, and maintaining eye contact is high up on the list of things that exhibit confidence. By making eye contact with your pupils, you are helping to teach them effective communication.
To successfully engage your pupils, you must command their attention. Barricading yourself behind a desk and a computer is never going to engage anyone, no matter how flashy your PowerPoint display is.
Hand gestures are a great tool for getting pupils to pay more attention. Have a think about your own practice: what do you do with your hands? What does this say to your pupils?
Holding out open palms suggests openness and sincerity, while putting your hands in your pockets shows that you are relaxed and comfortable. These gestures might sound small, but they are the type of action that actors will consider all the time. Ultimately, there is a component of acting to commanding the attention of a class, so it pays to think a bit more explicitly about what messages your hands convey.
In reality, we all react to situations instinctively. There will always be elements of our body language that we can’t control, no matter how hard we try. But simply being aware of our idiosyncrasies is a powerful way of improving our practice in the classroom, and body language is just as much a part of that as the words we use.
Adam Riches is a specialist leader of education and lead teacher in English