Alex Quigley – teaching with body language

Real communication involves more than words, says Alex Quigley – and working on our physical language skills could make us better teachers…

I hate speaking on the phone. I loathe it with a singular passion and look to avoid it when I can. Why do I experience such a visceral response to something so, well, ordinary? The answer: a phone call deprives me of the crucial stuff of good communication. Like every working teacher, I rely on the essentials of facial expressiveness, meaningful movements and telling gestures.

Our attempts at physical communication are indeed the implicit stuff of great teaching. It may be the smile at the classroom door, a strategic raising of an eyebrow, or the slow lowering of an outstretched arm that dampens the hubbub at the lesson winds to an end. Each expression and gesture sets the tone in the classroom. We need to make this implicit communicative power explicit for us all.

And yet, when was the last time you did some professional training on the marginal details of your body language, or your non-verbal communication skills? I do not have wizened veteran status yet, but I have sat through a plethora of training sessions and in well over a decade, I have had no training on such a fundamental aspect of my communicative skills. Nada. Nothing.

Take a stand

We live in a society with an education system that can too often see the human body as little more than a pedestal for the thinking brain. We need to recognise that how we communicate physically to our students matters a great deal and it can even mean the difference between understanding and miscomprehension of our verbal content for learners. We should be watching ourselves on video and talking about it in our training.

We know from psychological studies that people are more likely to believe, trust and respect someone whom they view as being confident physically. Now, that can no doubt prove problematic, as confidence does not always determine competence, but we must harness this shortcut in our judgment to teach and communicate more effectively. Such confidence is often a very physical act. When we focus with explicit intent, we can see confidence in the subtle, physical micro-behaviours of the expert teacher and we note its absence when a new teacher flounders and flails in his or her classroom. What does an expert teacher do that exudes such ‘presence’ with seeming ease?

In reality, such expert teachers may be, shall I say – vertically challenged – but they still ‘stand tall’ in the classroom. That is to say, they stand up straight, always purposely moving about the key hot spots in the room. They don’t roll their shoulders with a slump, hunkering half-hidden behind the teacher desk.

The expert teacher creates a small but meaningful repertoire of gestures that helps maintain the flow of the lesson. Time on task matters and small disruptions accumulate, stealing hours of learning. Quick, consistently deployed gestures save time, reduce low-level disruption, and retain the flow of the lesson. Students just need a little training in your particular repertoire of gestures.

Send a message

Our body language is, of course, hugely important to our behaviour management skills. Slow, calm movements can help convey confidence when aligned to concise, authoritative instructions. I hear too many teachers shushing their group like a panicked steam train, when a simple command of ‘quiet’, aligned with two arms raised above the chest being slowly lowered, conveys the message with greater clarity and confidence.

It is crucially important to consider our body language when we are dealing with a truculent teen. We need to assume a non-threatening body position, such as turning to our side and not facing the student head on. It is important to take care with our eye contact, sharing eye contact momentarily without lingering and inducing an anger-filled response. It can also help to mirror the body language of the student, easing the instinctive sense that both of you are a physical threat to be feared by the other.

Naturally, our words matter greatly, but how we bear them physically matters a great deal too.

Non-verbal communication can communicate control, but it can also enhance the learning of our students. It is not just in aspects of the curriculum, like dance or physical education, where people learn using their body. We know that gestures are very important to how we learn. In mathematics, we may better understand ratio with some clear and demonstrative hand gestures. An expert teacher may do this unconsciously, but it is also done consistently. Our students often don’t realise the importance of these gestures in a conscious way either, but their memory logs them in mind.

We needn’t become an army of automaton teachers gesturing in perfect union – but we should certainly pay more attention to the nuances of our physical communication.

About the author

Alex is Director of Learning and Reseach at Huntington School, York. He writes regular blogs at http://www.huntingenglish.com. His book, ‘Teach Now! English: Becoming a Great English Teacher’ is out now (routledge).

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