Do you know a superteacher with ninja classroom management skills? One whose kids are always on task? Who seems to effortlessly command the room?
I’ve known a few. And I used to wonder what their secret was.
Were they just gifted? It seemed so.
But when I dug deeper, the main ingredient of their classroom management became obvious. And I realized that any of us could get the same results.
It’s this —- Less is more.
Of course, this applies to all classroom management, but today we’re looking at just 3 parts:
- body language
- language choice
- voice manipulation
Why it works
To understand why this trifecta works, let’s look closer.
Put yourself in your student’s shoes
Have you ever been to a lecture or talk where the speaker doesn’t seem to know what they’re doing?
They look unsure of themselves. Maybe they’re saying a lot, but you can’t pay attention.
It’s uncomfortable, isn’t it?
Sometimes, if you’re in a generous mood, you feel compassion for these people and, rather than focusing on the content of what they’re saying, you try to buoy them up with encouraging looks and smiles.
If you’re crankier, you’re irritated that they’re wasting Your time. You pull out your phone and scroll.
That presenter may be brilliant and the best in their field, but without essential teaching skills, they fall flat, as does your attention.
Imagine the opposite!
Now picture the same situation but this time a confident, friendly-looking soul walks on stage. They don’t look like they’re out to prove anything. They’re just delighted to be there, sharing something they’re passionate about with a crowd of lovely people.
You don’t worry for this person, do you? You forget you have a phone.
Because this person is in control. You’re learning. You’re attentive. You may even be entertained.
The time flies.
This is the kind of educator you want to be. Someone who makes kids glad they’re there. The teacher they can’t help but learn from.
These three classroom management skills will get you there.
Pick an educator who’s got incredible classroom management skills and study them. Maybe it’s a teacher in your school, a karate instructor, or the principal.
Specifically, watch their body language. Observe their shoulders. hands. eyes. feet.
Watch their breathing.
Powerful body language
While every educator has a unique style, a great teacher does the following:
- shoulders back and down
- eyes relaxed
- eye contact with all parts of the audience
- an open face
- arms relaxed
- both feet planted firmly on the ground
- body calm and still
- if excited, uses deliberate movements
- friendly and genuine smile (most of the time)
Whether they’re a dynamic jumping-on-the-desks teacher or a quiet presence, you will notice that their confident stance. They’re not mindlessly fidgeting. Instead, they look purposeful. Deliberate.
What powerful body language says
When you display this body language, you’re communicating to your peeps:
“I know what I’m doing.”
“I’m really happy to here with you.”
“I’ve got a solid plan for today’s lesson.”
“You can test me if you like, but my reaction will always be calm and comfortably predictable.”
“We’re going to have fun!”
“I’ve got this.”
“I like you.”
“I get you.”
“I respect you.”
Ineffectual body language
Contrast that to a teacher who doesn’t have those classroom management skills yet.
Here’s what you’ll see:
- shoulders up/tense
- rounded shoulders
- arms folded across chest
- hands nervously playing with hair or touching face
- closed face // tight, defensive expression
- unsure face // not maintaining eye contact
- if standing, one foot crossed in front of the other
- trying to appear small
- OR trying to appear tough
What weak body language says
This body language screams to all,
“I’m not sure what I’m doing.”
“I’m uncomfortable being challenged.”
“I don’t mean what I say.”
“I wish I wasn’t here.”
“You intimidate me.”
“I’m focused on myself.”
“I don’t see you.”
“This is going to be a long and unpredictable day.”
“You can test me, and I won’t be sure how to react.”
You probably see yourself in both of these categories.
Why? Because you’re human. And nobody taught us these skills.
The good news?
Anyone can be that stellar teacher.
Changing our body language
For most of us, being a strong presence doesn’t come naturally. Like any learned skill, we have to practice it.
The first time I tried this, it felt really weird. So I treated it like an acting exercise.
I pretended I was that calm, in-control educator I wanted to be.
Amazingly, I noticed my shoulders sink into a new relaxed position. I fidgeted less.
My body got edgy after a few minutes and tried moving into its habitual nervous stance, but I held firm.
It felt foreign but freeing at the same time.
Incredibly, many kids responded immediately to the shift.
There was backsliding of course, as there is with any habit change. I’d be back at square one again, with my old habits and so-so classroom management.
But I’d center back on pretending to be that teacher I admired.
After a few months of continued practice, the pretending stopped and I was owning this new body language. And, just like you, adding my unique stamp.
Acting like another person doesn’t feel right to everyone. If that’s you, try focusing on one part of your body instead.
So for week one, focus on the lungs. Breathe deeper and slower. Set a timer on your watch or phone every 15 minutes as a reminder.
The following week, add your shoulders. Pull them back and down. They should feel comfortable, relaxed, and confident, not rigid.
With time and practice, the changes will travel to your whole self. Your knees won’t feel tense anymore. Your face and jaw will relax.
You’ll probably find yourself smiling more.
And the best part, aside from feeling better?
Your kids will react to this change.
They’ll still test you, of course. Their behavior won’t be perfect, but it will improve week by week.
Your children will pick up your signals and will respond in kind.
The words we use are vital.
And if you’re worried about that, I’ve got great news. You don’t have to be a skilled wordsmith to command a room. Again, LESS IS MORE.
The first step — and the one where you see the biggest impact — is trashing these words.
Get rid of these cottony noisemakers:
kinda // kind of
sorta // sort of
These words are worse than fluff because they detract from your message by muddying it up.
About twenty years ago, when I was a K-12 teacher in Bolivia, I was as green as teachers come. Other than enthusiasm, I had zero teaching skills.
I learned that I used “Okay” as a placeholder in most sentences. How?
The students. They joyfully mimicked me. “Okay!…hahaha! Okay! Okay!”
It didn’t take long to trash this word.
Cutting out mundane words equals higher student attention.
So instead of saying, “You should kinda look your work over before you pass it in to see if you made any mistakes,” say, “Use the checklist to edit your work. Then pass it in.”
The former communicates that reviewing one’s work is optional. The latter’s clear cut.
Phrases to delete
Some other phrases that make us less effective:
We’re not going anywhere until you are quiet and ready to walk in the hallway.
If you could just …
I used to rely on a few of these.
Then one day I noticed that I was frustrated, the kids were frustrated, and, most notable, nothing was improving.
Going to recess or specials
These days, I stand at the front of the classroom with a friendly smile (’cause I do love these kids!) and say nothing. Perhaps I’ll remind them at recess line-up, “Your fifteen minutes of recess starts now.”
Then? I shut my trap. The only time I’ll utter anything is to oh-so-quietly give praise to the kids who are right on track. So perhaps I’ll say (again, super quietly), “Alex, you look ready to go. Go enjoy your recess. We’ll meet you out there.”
Boy does that get the line quiet. Particularly when you’re subtle, like you’re trying to do it without their noticing.
If you’re walking your cherubs in the hallway and they start chattering, stop the line, turn around and wait.
Just as important? Do it with a genuine happy face. Giving the death stare might work once in a while, but it’s generally exasperating to everyone. Plus it comes across as a challenge rather than an invitation.
If you’re walking to specials, consider allowing the quiet kids to go ahead of you. Getting to walk early to specials with no teacher is a big thrill for the kids — they love the independence and the chance to have some extra attention from their specialist teachers.
(Clearly, letting kids out to recess/specials early is something that depends on your circumstances. You can’t send kids out early to recess if there isn’t another teacher there.
Do what works for you. And brainstorm ways you can quietly reward the kids who are on task.)
Starting a lesson
Friendly teacher silence works equally well at the beginning of a lesson.
Just stand comfortably at the front of the room with a goofy smile on your face, and they’ll settle down pretty quickly.
Silence is so powerful and it’s easy to forget its magic.
But I promise that if you use it — again with friendly love, not with angry stares — those kids will be eating out of your hands.
Because when you speak, they know that the words coming out of your mouth matter.
The following phrases are oh-so-common, but if you can train yourself to omit them, you’ll notice the difference.
“I want…” change to “You will…”
“I need you to… ” change to “You will…”
For example, instead of saying “I want you to pass in your assignments and to be quiet while you work,” try this:
“Work on this quietly and pass it in when you’re done. If you forget what to do, reread the instructions on the board.”
You can even go a step further and get them jazzed to do their best:
“As you work quietly on this, refer to your list of transition words and use at least three in your piece. You will see an immediate improvement in your writing, which a pretty cool feeling. If you forget what to do, reread these instructions. If you need to ask each other questions quietly, can you do that. But otherwise keep the volume silent so that everybody can do incredible work. Have I created any questions? … Go to it.”
See the difference? It goes from teacher-centered to student-centered.
Because the point is that they learn to do these things for themselves, not for us. We’re simply coaches who help them become independent with new skills.
In a year or so, we’ll be old news, but the gained skills will last forever.
Delete “I need you to”
The “I need you to” phrase weakens teacher credibility. (Trust me, I used it for years.) Nothing turns kids’ ears off quicker.
So instead of saying, “I need you to listen to get line line and stop talking,” try “Get in line,” or “Switch spots in line.” Instead of “I need you to put that away and go to your small group,” you say, “Put that away. Then go to your small group.”
These tweaks might seem a little blunt or even rude at first, but they can be delivered in a very friendly, confident, and easy-going way. You can say it with a wink and a smile.
It’s vital that they know you like them even while you’re correcting them. Otherwise it feels like a power-struggle. And many are more than willing to play that game.
To learn more about word choice in teaching, check out The Power of our Words by Paula Denton.
Like a good storyteller, an educator needs to vary their volume.
Sometimes a booming voice is what’s needed.
And a whispered, engaging voice can be equally effective — if not more so — at getting kids excited.
Experiment a bit with this. Watch popular TED videos and notice when they soften their voices and how that affects the audience. Become a student of volume and have fun!
Pitch is how high or low one’s voice is. All of us have natural tendencies in pitch. Our voices often hit the same 4 or 5 notes.
Vary your pitch. If we keep with our comfortable tones, we can lull our students to sleep.
Particularly useful is paying attention to your pitch at the ends of sentences.
Does your voice go up at the end of each sentence? Or when you give a direction? Does every statement sound like a question? Sort of like this paragraph?
Train yourself to end your sentences with confidence. When we’re nervous or unsure, our voices rise in pitch. Practice lowering your voice pitch and see how that sounds.
Again, have fun with it. You can even share this experiment with your students so that they speak more effectively as well.
Most of us speak much too quickly.
This is my weakest area and something I’ll forever be working on. My Gramma tried her whole life to break me of this habit.
Every year, I work on slowing my naturally rapid speech so that my kids can understand me. It takes practice, but it makes a big difference in their comprehension!
Are kids like dogs?
A while back, we took our sweet dog Sadie Nugget for some obedience training.
I’d been avoiding it, because the whole master-alpha thing always struck me as a power-trip. But she’d become more barky with strangers, so it was time.
How my dog taught me classroom management
Our trainer taught us what the alpha-thing is really about.
When we don’t take the lead, the dogs feel like they need to protect us, which results in aggressive behavior.
They want to get in front and keep danger away.
But when we communicate through our body language that we’re their protectors, the dogs chill.
“Oh,” they realize. “Mom’s got this. Sweet.”
The “less is more” deal was key in Sadie Nugget’s training. When we started talking to her, the teacher corrected us:
“No words. You’re confusing her. Bring the leash back. That’s the signal. The consistent calm action is all they need. Keep it simple.“
This worked. Less was WAY more.
What great educators do
And this is what great educators do. They communicate through their body language, words (or no words), and voice manipulation — “I’ve got this. I know what I’m doing. You’re safe.”
And the unexpected cherry on top of owning these three classroom management skills?
Teaching becomes SO much more fun! You can get silly and really get to know your kids.
They’ll trust you and they’ll love coming to school.
Because you’ll be communicating not just boundaries and expectations but the message that you like them and GET them.
Now It’s Your Turn!
Tell us in the comments below:
- Which strategies will you work on this week?
- OR … Which of these strategies have you already mastered? Tell us your story!
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