Case study: Penrice community college, Cornwall

3rd February 2006 at 00:00
We have been teaching students about body language and status for a long time in Year 9 drama, but only recently decided to run similar sessions for the staff. As advanced skills teachers at a training school, my colleague Geoff Dunn and I are constantly reflecting on all aspects of teaching practice, and we both felt this was an area which had been overlooked.

After all, most people are aware that body language is significant, but how much do we consider that when we're at work?

Every teacher at our school, in addition to work-ing with students, is either a mentor to a trainee, a mentor to a peer, or both. Giving feedback is an important part of both teaching and mentoring and we thought an understanding of body language might make it easier to offer advice without causing offence. When observing or giving feedback, it's useful to make sure that you are sending out the right signals of interest and empathy.

We began by reading a book on body language by Allan and Barbara Pease (see resources), which suggests that body language can't be faked and that small details will give away what you are actually thinking. It was helpful to learn the different kinds of negative signals that people sometimes give out. If the person next to you is tugging on their ear, they have probably heard enough of what you have to say or want to speak themselves. If you find yourself tugging on your own ear, you need to be aware that you're doing it.

We ran some sessions for trainee teachers, exploring posture in the classroom. We considered the advantages of an asymmetrical stance, which is more relaxed, in contrast to an upright symmetrical stance, which suggests tension. If you are at all tense, students can sense it immediately. I have experimented with this on a number of occasions, testing the time it takes for classes to fall silent for instructions when I stand symmetrically and then asymmetrically. The more relaxed stance is the one that gets the best results.

We also invited body language expert Dr Alan Jones (see resources) to lead some workshops. We learned a great deal about how the body and the brain work together. When you remember information, your eyes go upwards for visual recall, sideways for auditory recall and down for a recall of feelings. So it is possible to help students with recall by guiding their eyes in certain directions.

Becoming aware of your own body language means you are better able to read the body language of your students. Most of us are good at interpreting signals, but we often do this subconsciously. We may think that a student is arrogant or disinterested; analysing their body language helps us understand why we feel that way. Leaning back with your arms behind your head may seem relaxed and laid back, but it also gives off an air of superiority. That's why teachers sometimes do not respond well to students who adopt this posture. Also useful are all the little signals that help a teacher to judge the level of attention in the classroom. A head resting on a hand indicates having heard it all before. If the whole class is doing that, a new strategy for the topic is needed!

Sally Griffin is head of creative arts and physical education at Penrice community college, St Austell, Cornwall. She was talking to Steven Hastings

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