Opinion Blog

Peter DeWitt's

Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Body Language: What Are We Telling Our Students?

By Peter DeWitt — June 10, 2014 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

In ten seconds our students can size us up. They made a judgment on who we are, how we will treat them, and whether they like us or not. Malcolm Gladwell refers to it as the “Blink Effect.” Fortunately for classroom teachers, the interactions they have with students can either change that perception, or cement it.

That’s not really a surprise is it? We all make quick judgments we witness. It might be one we are somehow involved in, or one we are watching from the sidelines.

If we think back to our own formal education, we can remember the teachers we wanted to spend countless hours with, and those we hoped we would never have to spend a minute more. I clearly remember a fifth grade experience, where my teacher told our class we needed to stop talking.

A class filled with fifth graders talking is not a surprising story. Fifth graders care about their social interactions with peers. As much as I can clearly see what happened next, I cannot remember why we were talking. I guess to the teacher it only mattered that we were. Talking.

At the top of his voice he yelled that we needed to stop talking. And then he gave us homework to prove his point. That night we had to write that, “We would not talk in class,” 400 times. Looking back now he probably wanted us to talk again, just when he commanded us to. I went home that night, and wrote, “I will not talk in class,” 400 times. Yes, my mother made me do it even though I cried. My brother was angry that I had to do the assignment. He and I both thought it was unfair.

The next day I walked in with the prize possession of the tedious and abusive homework assignment. It wasn’t seen as abusive when I walked in, but it certainly changed to that perspective about 10 minutes into the day. As he told us to take it out, he brought a garbage can with him. He slid the garbage can from desk to desk, as he ripped the homework in half and threw it away. Cue in Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” at anytime.

One by one, we watched as the punishment we endured was ripped in front of us. I learned a few things at that moment. First and foremost was that I hated my teacher, and some people should not be able to work with kids. Perhaps my visceral reaction also comes from the fact that my dad died about a month before this event, and this classroom brought me no solace.

Hattie and Yates (2014) say, “The teacher is positioned as an inevitable role model, the visible representative of the adult worldview.” This teacher was not much of a role model. It was unfortunate because my reading teacher that I could escape to every day was one of the best teachers in the school. He made reading fun, he was a beekeeper, and he knew how to connect with students. The short time that I could escape to his room and the special area classes brought me the solace I needed.

Keep in mind, I was retained in fourth grade, and waited two years for this experience. It was not the welcome into the middle school (5-8) that I was hoping for while I sat in the K-4 building.

Our Body Language Matters - I remember how my fifth grade teacher used to talk with one student. He would scream at him, put him in a corner, and one time the student came to school unbathed, and the teacher took care of that by embarrassing him in front of our class, and sending him to the locker room to take a shower. Kids have to learn about hygiene. But this student came from a poor family. Did he have to learn about hygiene in such an abusive way?

When certain students would talk, this teacher would smile and praise. When others would talk he would cross his arms, and dismiss the answer. I know body language, and so do our students. They know when the adults around them mean when they roll their eyes, cross their arms, or speak in short curt sentences to some students, while they smile, pat on the back, and speak warmly to others.

In the Science of How We Learn (2014), John Hattie and Gregory Yates say,

Universally, it has been found that students form strong views as to what they want from schools, and how they expect teachers to behave. These general criteria are then used to evaluate individual teachers on the extent to which they measure up."

Hattie and Yates go on to say, “The adult who goes against accepted standards of basic interpersonal conduct is disqualified from standing as a credible role model.” So it is really up to the teacher to decide which side of this they want to be on. We can blame accountability and mandates for many things, but we should not blame it for how we treat students.

Our students watch us. They watch how we interact with other adults, and how we interact with other children. They see their teachers speak kindly to one student, and harshly to another. Many students are survivors. They know how to fit in so they can stay unscathed with a mean teacher. Other students are escaping a harmful home life, and we should want to be a beacon of hope for them.

In the classroom we spend lots of time with our students, and during the year we spend lots of time with our colleagues. If we videotaped our typical reactions to negative events, what would we see? I was in the classroom for eleven years as a teacher, and eight as a principal. I did not do everything perfect. Every year there was a student who tested my limits, and I’m not sure if I always liked who I was when I reacted.

Seeing a presentation in the south one time, the speaker called them “Children of God.” They make it tough to love them, but surely God must. She said it respectfully with a smile, in a pleasant southern accent and I never forgot that. I had a few “Children of God,” in my time in the classroom.

In the long run my fifth grade did provide me with some important lessons. He taught me how not to interact with children.

How do you want to be remembered?

Connect with Peter on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.