Wouldn't it be wonderful to command instant respect from even the most difficult class, just by the way you walk into the room? To know what pupils really think of your lessons? To scale the career ladder, three rungs at a time? You can do all this - and more - when you uncover the secrets of body language. Or so the "non-verbal communications" gurus would have us believe. But are they right? There's only one way to be sure. Watch their eyes.
Code of conduct
Long before humankind began to develop spoken language, we relied on gestures to communicate meaning. Even today, it is estimated that between 70 and 90 per cent of communication is non-verbal. The ability to read other people's body language (decoding) or to use our own bodies to send out a message (encoding) hasn't been lost, it's just that much of the time we do it subconsciously. For example, we may feel that someone dislikes us, even though they are behaving in a friendly way. In such situations our brain is instinctively interpreting the other person's body language.
However, not everyone picks up on these kinds of signals. "There are huge variations in people's encoding and decoding skills," says Dr Peter Bull of the University of York's psychology department. "Some people are extraordinarily good at reading body language; to others it's a closed book."
First impressions count. When you stand in front of a new group of pupils, they will make up their minds about you before you even open your mouth.
Hunched shoulders, clasped hands, feet turning inwards: you're on the defensive. The class will sense weakness. The ideal stance, according to Liz Banks, managing director of Skillstudio, a company which specialises in improving presentation skills, is one where your weight is evenly spread across both feet, and where your body is upright, with no tilting inwards of the ribcage or slumping of the spine. Your chin should be level, not angled down. But don't overdo it. "We're not looking for a military-style stance," says Ms Banks. "Check your knees aren't locked or your shoulders tensed; the aim is to appear poised but relaxed."
Improving your posture temporarily is easy enough, but it's much harder to make lasting changes; old habits are likely to resurface when you're under pressure. To develop something more lasting, try tai chi, yoga or the Alexander technique. And it's not just about looking good. A well-balanced stance will help you to avoid backache and problems with your voice, and should give you a general sense of well-being. "Standing tall helps you to feel calm and in control," says Ms Banks. "If you walk around slouched all day, then you'll soon feel depressed and put upon."
Teaching is essentially the art of communication, which means that verbal and non-verbal elements are both important. "It's about being in full control of the message you are giving out," says Dr Bull. "When your body language and verbal language match up then you achieve 'congruence', and that means that what you are saying carries much more impact."
So if a lesson doesn't seem to be going as well as usual, it's possible that your body language is to blame. However enthusiastic you sound about glacial formation or the Russian revolution, if you're unknowingly casting glances towards the door, or looking at your watch, your class will pick up that you have other things on your mind. It sounds obvious, but the problem is that many of our physical actions are carried out subconsciously. Most people, for example, have a range of comfort gestures - scratching their neck, tugging at clothes or touching their lips - which they unknowingly resort to in times of stress. Indeed, your class is likely to be much more aware of your body language than you are. They can probably tell when your temper is wearing thin, just from the way you change your sitting position, fiddle with your pen, or tighten your jaw. Filming yourself teaching a lesson and then analysing your body language is probably the only way to see what messages you are really sending out.
One of the advantages of non-verbal communication is that it is much less intrusive than spoken language. Using small gestures to convey approval or disapproval allows you to get a message across without interrupting the flow of a lesson. A discreet, well-timed wagging of the finger is less likely to lead to conflict than a verbal reprimand, which attracts the attention of the rest of the class.
Seeing eye to eye
When talking to the class, try making eye contact with a particular student for a few seconds, then switching to another person. "Teachers sometimes just look in a general direction," says Liz Banks. "But if you make definite eye contact with individuals it is less intimidating for you, and more engaging for your audience." In one-to-one conversations, eye contact is always a good idea as it shows respect for the other person and helps you to read their true feelings. It also makes arguments less likely.
It's good to break the eye contact occasionally, so you don't appear too intense. Keeping your eyes wide open - not ridiculously so, of course - makes you seem more open and engaging. Narrowing your eyes, even slightly, can make you look shifty or distrusting. If you find yourself in a confrontation where a pupil is trying to stare you out, you have two options: to keep eye contact, or to look away and not bother looking back.
Either will maintain your authority. Avoid looking quickly away and then back again, which will make it seem as though you are on the defensive.
To smile or not to smile?
Body language is closely linked to status. When animals meet, they quickly establish a social hierarchy through the way they position their bodies. In human society, too, body language is one of the principal ways we establish status. For example, keeping your head very still when talking will increase your status, as will entering someone else's personal space. On the other hand, looking at the floor a lot, or touching your face with your hands, will lower your status. The adage that newly qualified teachers shouldn't smile before Christmas reflects the fact that smiling can also diminish your status.
But becoming locked into one type of body language - high or low status - isn't helpful. Skilled operators adjust their body language depending on the circumstances. If you're dealing with a difficult pupil, you may have to use high-status body language, whereas using the same approach with colleagues will result in your being seen as arrogant or pushy.
Managing a class becomes much easier if you're able to vary your status.
Too high and you'll be seen as unfriendly and aloof; you may even make yourself more of a target for any pupils wishing to test their own status.
Too low and you will be seen as weak. Try pitching yourself somewhere in the middle - higher than that of your pupils, but not by too much - and then varying it according to the situation.
Body mirroring is the art of changing the way you stand or sit to match that of the person you're talking to. Done subconsciously, it's a sign that you like the other person, and that you're on the same wavelength. Done deliberately, it's a kind of confidence trick, used to manipulate people and make them like and trust you. Car salesmen, for example, are sometimes taught to sit in the same way as potential customers, to create a rapport.
It's easy to see how a similar technique could be used in the classroom to establish empathy between teacher and pupils. But be warned: attempting to engage your Year 10s by slumping in your chair and picking your nose could damage your professional dignity.
Nodding heads, furrowed brows
The body language of young people is generally easy to read. You should be able to tell how engaged your class is just by looking at the way they are sitting. Are they leaning forwards or backwards? Are their faces and eyes alert?
But there are still plenty of subtleties to watch out for, even with primary children. A child may give you eye contact, but if their body is angled towards another person or another part of the room, then they probably aren't focused on what you're saying. If you want to know whether a child is struggling to understand, look at their forehead. For adults and children alike, a lowering of the brow is often the first indication of negative feelings. Pupils who are asked if they understand something may nod their head enthusiastically, but their brow often tells a different story.
Also tricky are those body signals that are open to misinterpretation. It's easy to think that children who don't make eye contact are shy, or don't like you. In fact, it may just be that they are thinking hard; when the brain is very active we tend to make less eye contact. And while a child fidgeting with a pen may well be bored, it may also be that they are feeling anxious because they don't understand or want to say something.
The fact that young people's body language tends to be more overt should mean that it's easy to tell when a child is trying to deceive you. But it's not that straightforward. Some experts claim that darting eyes are a sure sign that someone is lying, while others say that liars are actually more likely to maintain eye contact than truth-tellers. Other supposed giveaways include someone putting their hand to their mouth or touching their nose as they speak. The best advice is probably to watch someone's body language when you know they are telling the truth, and then see whether it changes when you think they might be lying. Above all, don't just look at their face, as facial expressions are generally easier to control than movements of the feet or torso.
Moving on up
The body language industry is awash with books promising success at job interviews. Different experts offer different advice, but the following tips are among the most common.
* Try to lean forward slightly, particularly if you're being interviewed across a desk. But don't encroach into your interviewer's personal space.
* Avoid very high status body language, such as the "hand pyramid" where you put the fingertips of your hands together while keeping your palms apart.
* Don't cross your arms. Crossing your legs isn't so important; most experts reckon it's the upper torso which sends out the strongest signals.
By the same reasoning, if you really must fidget, channel your nervous energy into your feet not your hands.
* Only attempt body mirroring if you've practised beforehand, otherwise you'll look obvious and awkward.
* Maintain eye contact, and if you're being interviewed by more than one person be sure to share eye contact evenly.
* Try to relax. Tension can cause facial muscles to seize up, resulting in a glazed look that makes you seem less alert or even bored.
It's a performance, darling!
According to Dr Bull, whenever scientists conduct trials to assess people's body language skills, actors always come out on top. "Teachers, as a group, have never been assessed," he says. "But you would expect them to do very well in this kind of test, because like actors they are constantly interacting with an audience."
But whereas actors at drama school study body language in great detail, most initial teacher training courses offer little advice, other than to stand up straight. That may be changing. Sheila Morrissey, a former drama teacher, works on the presentation skills of trainee teachers at the University of East London. She says that just as actors create a stage presence, so teachers need to develop a classroom presence through their posture and gestures. "Most people instinctively use gestures when they talk," she says. "But in a classroom those gestures need to be large enough to be seen and interpreted clearly by the whole class."
So should teachers be hamming it up and turning lessons into theatre? Dr Bull believes many good teachers already do just that. "Actors don't always feel like going on stage and giving a performance, but they find a way of doing it," he says. "It's the same for teachers. Sometimes you need to appear enthusiastic, even if you're feeling a bit down." How do you make your Monday morning smile appear genuine? Apparently, you have to learn to use the tiny muscles round your eyes, as well as the ones round your mouth.
Non-verbal communication does not just affect the behaviour of classes: it is also an important part of the learning process. Research by Dr Daniela Sime of the University of Strathclyde has shown that teachers use three kinds of gestures in the classroom: cognitive gestures to make what they are saying easier to understand, perhaps by emphasising key words; organisational gestures to control turn-taking during discussions or to initiate particular activities; and emotional gestures to communicate something about their own state of mind. The last can also be used to create a positive feeling in the class.
Students interviewed during the research said that teachers who used lots of hand movements came across as more enthusiastic and engaging. "Children are alert to the use of non-verbal communication," says Dr Sime. "But teachers themselves are largely unaware of just how influential their gestures and facial expressions can be."
Research carried out at the University of Chicago in 2001 found that speakers' gestures helped their listeners to remember what was being said.
The report also suggested that using hand and arm movements can help the flow of your own thoughts. For example, people asked to recall items from a list were able to remember 20 per cent more when they were allowed to gesture than when they were asked to keep their hands still. The study noted that even blind people use gestures when talking to other blind people, and concluded that "producing gestures can lighten a speaker's burden and free up cognitive resources".
* Skillstudio (www.skillstudio.co.uk). Tel: 08456 444 150. One-day presentation skills courses, pound;277, plus VAT.
* Body language expert Dr Alan Jones: www.solstice-training.co.uk.
* Visible Thought: the new psychology of body language, by Geoffrey Beattie (Routledge, pound;9.95).
* Peoplewatching: the Desmond Morris guide to body language, by Desmond Morris (Vintage, pound;8.99).
* Communication under the Microscope, by Dr Peter Bull (Routledge, Pounds 17.50).
* The Definitive Book of Body Language, by Allan Pease and Barbara Pease (Orion, pound;7.99).
Did you know?
* Between 70 and 90 per cent of all communication is non-verbal * Decoding is the ability to read other people's body language; encoding is being able to use our own bodies to send out a particular message * If a pupil tries to stare you out, keep eye contact or look away and don't look back. If you look quickly away and then back again, it'll seem as if you're on the defensive * Keeping your head very still when you're talking will increase your status; smiling can diminish it * Body mirroring can be a kind of confidence trick. Car salesmen, for example, are sometimes taught to sit in the same way as potential customers, to create a rapport * Children who don't make eye contact with you may not be shy, they may just be thinking really hard Photographs: Neil Turner Additional research: Sarah Jenkins