The Importance of Personal Presentation - It's not what you do but how you do it.
In a recent Newsletter we discussed the importance of the way you present yourself to the school community, particularly your class (See Newsletter 202 - Survival Tips for Casual Teachers – 30 May 2022). In this essay we will expand on how you present yourself to your students as this is critical in controlling their emotional state. It is often suggested that 93% of the emotional content of any communication is conveyed through non-verbal cues, these being facial expression, body language and tone of voice. The percentage may be in dispute but it is true that the feelings you have towards a student will not be conveyed by the words you use but how you deliver them.
This is so important when you are correcting the behaviour of highly disruptive students who have a history of abuse and/or neglect. Your use of these non-verbal cues will go a long way in deciding if you maintain a positive relationship whilst delivering unpleasant consequences.
This opinion goes beyond ‘common-sense’ it is underpinned by neurological knowledge. We are social creatures and how we are accepted in our community determines our safety and security. Our survival depends on how we can carefully convey to others what we want and also understand the intentions of others when they are dealing with us. The rich array of neurons that exist in the brain to support the various functions includes a specialised set called mirror neurons.
Essentially, mirror neurons are intimately involved in our movements. At the basic level mirror neurons fire when we generate a physical action. They also fire the same neurons in ourselves when we watch an action taken by someone else. This helps us to imitate that action thus providing the proof why the demonstration of desired behaviours to students is so important. More than this they allow us to experience the associated emotions and predict the possible outcomes that will likely follow any observed behaviour. They are responsible for myriad of other sophisticated human behaviour and thought processes.
At the University of Parma in 1996, a group of neuroscientists were busily mapping the neural pathways associated with hand movement in Macaque monkeys. The team of Rizzolatta, Gallese, and Fogassi uncovered what is potentially the most significant neurological component in human behaviour. These researchers placed electrodes in the ventral premotor cortex of the macaque monkey to study neurons specialized for the control of hand and mouth actions. They recorded electrical signals from a group of neurons in the monkey's brain while the monkey was allowed to reach for pieces of food, so the researchers could measure their response to certain movements.
In a break in the experiment one of the research team reached out to pick-up a piece of food. The research subject had remained connected to the recording device and to their amazement they found the same neurons fired as they did when the monkey picked up the food themselves. This explained the link between imitation and learning, not only skills but also importantly the emotional intention of others. (To provide more detail about mirror neurons in the Resource section of our webpage I have included a copy of a Chapter from my book - The Impact of Modern Neuroscience on Contemporary Teaching, 2017. Published by Xlibris and availably on Amazon).
Our focus has always been on those kids who, because of their history of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of their early childhood abuse and/or neglect are hyper-sensitive to the emotional signals given by adults in authority. They really struggle to accurately interpret the message the teacher is sending particularly when they are about to receive a negative consequence. Another feature of mirror neurons is that they not only fire when they perceive actions they infer a purpose on that action. How they predict what will happen is significantly influenced by their assessment of the teacher’s emotional state and that message will come almost entirely from the non-verbal content of the communication.
There is much available regarding non-verbal messaging on the internet and the following is a brief summary focusing on the broad categories of tone of voice, body language and facial expression.
Tone of Voice
It’s true, especially for the dysfunctional kids, the way you say things has more impact than what you say. The emotional content is interpreted long before the cognitive substance of that message. And your emotional state will be communicated through your voice. The tone you use must match the attributes of the message you are delivering. If the message is about a serious issue then your voice should convey that sentiment, if it’s good news then your tone would be more up-lifting. Of course, the tone must match your facial expressions.
Not everyone has good control over this feature of communication and the following tips may help:
- If you speak with a slightly lower volume level you will be seen as having more ‘authority’. However, too soft and the students might not hear you. If you have a voice that is too loud then you will come across as being abrasive. Most importantly the class or individual must hear you!
- The pace of your communication is another way you can manipulate the message. If you slow-down a fraction it projects a sense of confidence which will be conveyed to the children. It also gives them the opportunity to absorb the message. If it becomes too slow they will disengage and conversely if too quickly you will appear to be anxious and nervous.
It is not easy to change the way you speak but mastering the art of giving a message with the right emotional content is the hallmark of a great teacher.
How you hold yourself projects an impression on those who observe you. In general terms if you present an ‘open’ posture, that is stand up straight, feet firmly planted on the ground and chin up this projects to the students that you are friendly, open and confident. They will be willing to trust you.
However, if you present a ‘closed’ posture, slumped forward, hands in your pockets or just lazing in a chair at the front of the room you project an unfriendly even hostile persona which will make the students anxious.
The use of your hands is an important indicator of your personality. Sometime ago, as a new principal I was sent to a workshop on communication. At this venue the presenter emphasised that we needed to coordinate our hand gestures with what we were talking about. These days, when I watch TV shows like the Drum, where professional ‘talking heads’ give their opinions I cringe when some of them flap their hands about as if conducting the whole speech. There needs to be some hand movement otherwise you will appear wooden but too much either makes you look anxious or you just distract your audience.
If you touch you face or hair too much you really will look either nervous or disinterested in what you are saying.
Facial expressions are really tied to emotions. There has been plenty of research that confirms that our facial expressions communicate our emotional state and more importantly if you think about the qualities of our mirror neurons they also project to the audience the intensions of the behaviour those emotions will drive.
There is strong evidence of seven universal emotions that are conveyed through our facial appearances. These are anger, contempt, disgust, fear, joy, sadness, and surprise.
The eyes are often described as the mirrors of our soul but it is the mouth that provides the major clue about our emotional state. The following are ways the mouth does this:
- Pursed Lips – the tightening of the mouth indicates a level of disapproval or disgust
- Lip Biting – this will convey a feeling of anxiety or stress
- Covering the Mouth – this is an attempt to hide your emotions from others. This indicates a lack of trust both ways. You don’t trust yourself to be authentic and the audience will not trust you because they will conclude you are not honest.
- Turned-Up or Turned-Down Lips – The direction the lips go has a direct correlation with your emotional state. If they are up, you’re smiling then you are happy. Down, frowning you are emotionally ‘down’. It is very difficult to have a turned-up smile on your face when you are angry at a student; that smile will be so obviously false!
Eye contact is also important. This varies on whether you are dealing with an individual student or the class. Looking at others captures their attentions but like hand gestures there is a balance.
If you are dealing with a single student eye contact is a real challenge. If you are discussing a behaviour issue, you may be delivering an unwanted consequence then eye contact should not be too intense. A rough guide would be about 60% of the time. BUT, if the student is really damaged, eye contact is really difficult for them and I’ve even found it better if I sit or stand beside them so I don’t set them off.
When talking to the whole class your eyes should be constantly scanning the room. However, if there are particular students whose attention you need then hold eye contact with them for about three to five seconds then move on. If you really do need to get that student’s attention still move away but come back relatively quickly.
Throughout these Newsletters predominantly considering how teachers help those students whose behaviour disrupts their learning and that of others, we have emphasised the importance of the level of stress a student experiences. This stress is a reaction to the emotional content of the environment they are experiencing at the time. You are the teacher and providing the learning environment is your professional expertise. This is why, to be an efficient educator you need to master the non-verbal skills outlined in this essay.