Gillian Harvey explains how positive body language has helped her gain control in the classroom in her nine years' experience as a teacher.
As a newly qualified teacher at the age of 22, I found myself in front of a class made up almost entirely of 16-year-old boys, most of whom seemed twice my size and whom you might describe as ‘reluctant learners.’
At a diminutive 5 foot 2 inches, and with more than my fair share of timidity, it was clear I was going to have to think outside the box to ensure I had sufficient classroom presence. After some time, I found the answers lay less in shouting threats until I was hoarse, and more through appearing as though I was completely in control.
Rather than jumping out of the window, or hiding under the desk (and believe me, there were moments when I was tempted to do both), I did some research on ways to appear calm and in charge, when at times I felt anything but.
Four years on, when I fancied myself a seasoned teacher, I changed establishments and found that – as a new face on the block – I had to employ some of my tricks again in order to get back on top.
In the process, I’ve found that appearing confident on the outside not only helps with initial classroom behaviour management, but also creates a feeling of inner confidence – the adage “fake it ‘til you make it” has truth at its heart.
Here are some of the things I found helped me to gain control in the classroom:
1. Greet students at the door
Rather than allow students to flood into your room the minute the bell rings, greet pupils at the door with a confident “good morning”. In addition, you may wish to suggest students sit in designated seats. This will establish how they are entering your space, and that you are very much in charge.
2. Save your shout
There’s nothing worse than seeing a teacher lose their cool. Not only does raising your voice leave you with nowhere else to go if it doesn’t work, it also shows the class you’re feeling threatened. (For me there’s another reason not to shout: being softly spoken means my shout is more squeaky than scary.)
Whilst the voice is a valuable tool for any teacher, it should be used wisely. Use silence – a mid-sentence pause – to gain attention; lower your voice or use direct eye contact to let a student know they’re on your radar. Raise your voice only on occasion and watch the impact.
3. Be consistent
Outline at the start a code of behaviour you expect your pupils to adhere to, and emphasise the benefits for them – for example, better results, a more positive environment, a wider variety of learning activities.
Always take action when a student crosses a line – even if they’re usually well behaved. Students will soon pick up on any inconsistencies and exploit them. For me, this occasionally meant a frisson of guilt when a normally very well-behaved student ended up with a sanction for a minor misdemeanour– but it’s important to be fair.
4. Learn names as soon as possible
With several classes to teach per week, teachers can sometimes have more than 200 names to remember. Learning students’ names quickly is a positive way to show your authority. Being able to bark a name across a class to reprimand a wayward student is a quick, simple way of taking action. You’re not going to pick them up overnight, but try to memorise a few names during each lesson.
5. Make eye contact
When all eyes are on you, it’s tempting to focus on a neutral spot in the distance, or stare at an on-screen projection, but make sure you make regular eye contact with pupils as you speak. This sends the unconscious message that you feel confident and in charge.
6. Adopt an open stance
When we feel threatened, we may find ourselves adopting typical defensive stances, such as crossing our arms. Make sure you use gesture, with palms open and facing your class. This shows you are open and gives you more of an in-class presence.
7. Use the whole room
When you’ve got a challenging class, it’s tempting to teach from behind your desk, rather than use the whole room. Sometimes, if little clusters of reluctant learners develop, ‘no-go’ areas can be created, so keep mobile, making sure you teach from all areas. Once students are at work, walk around the room, talking to individuals about their work. This will demonstrate that you are in control.
8. Dress for success
Whilst some institutions have a dress code, most teachers are allowed free reign over what they wear. However, particularly if you’re young enough to blend in with pupils, it’s important to establish difference. Wearing smart, business-like clothing to emphasise your status can work wonders. On my worst days, I always dust off my trusty black business suit.
9. Forward thinking
As well as ultimately helping you with classroom-management and making you feel more genuine confidence on the inside, projecting a professional, confident exterior will also be hugely beneficial when it comes to progressing your career – whatever your age or experience, enabling you to exude confidence in meetings, presentations and when dealing with more senior members of staff.
10. Fake it
My final piece of advice is to put your shoulders back, paste on that smile, and if you don’t feel confident remember to ‘fake it’ until you do!
Gillian Harvey is a secondary school teacher and former Head of English department with nine years’ teaching experience. She now works as a freelance writer and English tutor.