Notes from Tools for Teaching Part 8

May 8, 2005

The Regal Turn
I lean down slowly in order to say, “Excuse me, Robert.” Then:

  • A thousand and one: I stay down and breathe in gently.
  • A thousand and two: I begin to straighten up (about halfway) as I look toward the disruptive students over my shoulder (head).
  • A thousand and three: I finish straightening up as I look toward the disruptive students (head).
  • A thousand and four: I rotate my shoulders and waist toward the disruptive students.
  • A thousand and five: I point one foot toward the disruptive students as my hips come around.
  • A thousand and six: I bring my other foot around to complete the turn as I square up to the disruptive students. Both feet are pointed squarely toward the disruptive students — a partial turn leaves the issue of commitment to discipline in doubt.

This is not the way people would normally turn. When you slow down in order to turn in a regal fashion, you discover an additional dividend. You have plenty of time to observe the students and to think. In addition, the students have plenty of time to read your meaning. Often, when you slowly turn your head to look at the students, they catch your look and “shape up” before you have to turn the rest of your body.

In sports terms, your body telegraphs your next move. As you can see, it also telegraphs tentativeness. It signals any ambivalence you might have toward dealing with the problem. A partial turn is one of the most common tentative gestures in the classroom. It almost always accompanies nagging and posturing. Make it a rule never to use a partial turn when dealing with a discipline problem.

During the turn, make fixed eye contact with one of the disruptive students throughout the standing and turning. Otherwise, with poor eye contact, such body language usually means that the teacher is worrying about the rest of the classroom while attempting to deal with the disruptive student. The teacher’s attention is split, and the resulting fragmentation of eye contact undermines the perception by the student of cool resolve on the part of the teacher.

With good eye contact, there is a tension between the teacher and the student that builds with each passing second. This tension represents an expectancy on the part of the teacher. The student almost always understands this expectancy — get back to work. When the tension builds to the point where it finally dawns on the student that the teacher is serious, the student typically breaks off eye contact and gets back to work. Once again, by clearly signalling commitment, teachers who mean business save themselves a trip across the classroom.

Further positioning:

  • Hands down. If you relax your body, your hands will be down at your side. There are some advantages to simply putting your hands behind your back. First, this is a semiformal posture rather than a casual posture. Second, you turn your palms away from your clothing, which reduces cleaning bills due to chalk dust and paint. Finally, the students cannot see your arms. This is particularly helpful in the beginning when you are still learning to relax since the last vestige of nervousness is usually some fidgeting with the fingers.
  • Jaw down. Setting our jaw or clenching our teeth is one of the most predictable signs of tension in the body. Nervous tension tends to remain in the jaw muscles even after we have relaxed the rest of the body. While some teachers will set their jaws while setting limits, others will smile. The last thing you want to do while attempting to mean business is to signal students that everything is okay. You want to have no facial expression whatsoever. Remember, “We are not amused.”
  • Mental relaxation. Relinquishing adversarial habits of thought seems to be more difficult than learning to relax the muscles. Teachers often struggle with the notion that calm is strength when it runs against our nature in the heat of the moment. Relaxation is the passive voice.

Body language can only be mastered through practice, practice, practice. As we approach mastery, the delay between the fight-flight reflex triggered by the disruptive students and the subsequent relaxation response triggered by us becomes shorter and shorter. At mastery the delay approaches zero. At that point we become truly unflappable.

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