Eyes front and think 'Boots'

9th January 1998 at 00:00
Will your body language help or hinder your efforts to controla lively classroom? Victoria Neumark offers some tips

Have you ever gone to dog-training classes? There are some basic rules for dealing with Fido which are invaluable guides for the novice teacher. I wish I had learned them before my first day confronting a lot of unruly 16-year-olds climbing on desks to pull down the curtains. Still, it's never too late to change your ways and ever since I met the amazing Annette Conn, dog trainer extraordinaire, I have approached classes of reluctant learners with renewed vim and vigour. So here is my (and Annette's) guide to the body language of successful teaching.

u Assume the superior position. This is not a guide to more innovative bedroom practices but a statement of ethological fact. (Ethology is the study of animal behaviour.) If you are above someone, he or she will have to look up to you. It is not by accident that "looking up to" denotes respect, it is not some abstruse metaphor. Command the heights of the room, range above the students. In short, make sure you are standing up and they are sitting down. It may be hard on your feet and back but it will give you the edge. Later, when you are all friends, you can sit down, though rising to dominate if need be, but at first, stand up!

u Close the door. The classroom is your domain. That means you must control ingress and egress. Those who wish to come in must knock, those who wish to go out must ask. You do not want passing students to look in, snigger and wave to their friends. Nor do you want the headteacher just to pop in because they were passing and heard the row. Or if you do, you should consider taking a break.

u Face front. A dear friend of mine complained that whenever he wrote on the board, unruly teenagers threw rolled up bits of paper, rubbers etc at him. "They don't respect me!" he wailed. What he didn't realise is that by merely turning his back he was encouraging them to disrespect him. You only turn your back on those you trust. Teachers tend to write on boards three-quarters turned away from their classes at most . If this is not possible, reframe the lessons to ensure that for the first few weeks at least, you do face front.

u Stillness. Like wild dogs, pupils sense agitation. Before each class, take time to compose yourself. Take a few deep breaths, go down inside and connect to your own stillness. Remind yourself that whatever happens, you are safe and calm deep inside. To reinforce this, don't move about too much and specifically don't move your head too much. A still head denotes authority.

u Eye contact. Forget everything you've read about staring down. Direct eye contact is highly intimate. Do you want to bare your soul to Year 10? Thought not. Look in the general direction of students, but fix your gaze a little above their eyes. That way you won't be put off by any grimaces or clusters of acne you may notice.

u Voice projection. Teachers' throat is a common affliction, developing out of the even commoner classroom roar. Relax that throat, lower that vocal range and PROJECT. Voice projection (there are lots of classes on it) can save your breath to cool your breaktime coffee. The basic rule is to control the breathing, bring the voice up from your boots (think "Boots") and aim it like a barrage at the back wall, from where it can roll sonorously around.

u Don't get angry. It's a job, not a personal contest. Pupils who are disruptive are acting out personal problems, even if the personal problems are nothing more than being the nastiest child ever born. Try to see why they are being difficult, refrain from feeding it, and remove the satisfaction, by not responding, by repeating endlessly over the top of it (the "broken record") or being very, very understanding. Don't be threatening, that ups the stakes dramatically.

u Be chary of physical contact. Unless you are a primary teacher, there is no need to touch your students to comfort them - and never to reprimand. If you are a naturally touchy-feely type, control this until you feel it will be interpreted correctly. You only stroke your dog when you know it will like it. Never hit an animal, it promotes aggression. Never hit a pupil, it's against the law.

u And finally - know when to listen. You must set the agenda, but - and here is where the dog-training analogy breaks down - you have to give space for learning and response. But, of course, it will not be safe for your students to show their intelligence and enthusiasm until they perceive the classroom as an orderly, structured environment which provides a benign climate for their education. Paradoxically, by demonstrating the body language of animal dominance, you will liberate the pupils' human intelligence.

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