When I was teaching, I became so immersed sometimes in what I was doing that I forgot sometimes that I was front and center all the time, with a total of 150 pairs of eyes on me each day. Sure, I thought about what I wore to school, and made sure that my fly was zipped, but I didn’t really think about how my face, eyes and body could be very influential and frankly, pretty obvious.
I’ve been told that people can read me like a book, and I guess it’s true. I have worked hard to make sure that whatever I say is really what I mean, so that my emotions won’t betray me. However, I know that people can tell when I am excessively happy, angry or sad, just by looking at my eyes and how I carry myself.
The conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein has a wonderful way of conducting sometimes – he does not use his arms and hands, but his face. This article, with a video included, shows the clear emotion and connection he has with his musicians, and they know exactly what he wants by watching his facial expressions and his eyes. It’s worth watching because it’s very moving – the music almost takes a back seat to his experience.
How important for us – to remember that we can give all the verbal instruction we want, but students are watching us too, and acutely. Students talk about what we wear, if we have a stain on our shirt, if we cough or stutter or sniff or gesture too much or too little. The way in which we appear is (for some unknown reason, which is a whole different post) interesting to them, and sometimes distracting. Wendy, our online director, talks about her former teacher who dressed in such a way that the young women in her class kept track of how long she would go without repeating an outfit.
We can spend a lot of time worrying about our clothes, or frankly, we can concentrate on less frivolous aspects of our presence like our body language. Students pick up on that stuff too, although they probably don’t talk about it. They can read an authoritative or passive stance and respond accordingly. They can perceive a firm but gentle tone as “yelling,” and they can see right through a veiled compliment or inauthentic praise. How you present your non-verbals can govern the relationships you have with your students, and how the classroom is run.
Bernstein is quoted in the article saying that a conductor “must not only make his orchestra play, he must make them want to play. He must exalt them. Lift them.” You may not think your body language is that essential to how students respond to you, but if one of the world’s greatest composer conductor can make musicians respond with his face, you can certainly lift your students and make them want to learn.
Do good work.