"Don't smile until Christmas," I was told as a new teacher. When I asked why, my mentor simply shook her head and said, "It's the best advice I can give you."
Perhaps you've heard something similar. The real message those veteran educators are trying to convey is that new teachers often try to get students to like them by being buddies rather than teachers. What often happens, however, is that students lose respect for their teacher. Instead of being a leader, the teacher is seen as a peer -- and treated accordingly.
Setting just the right tone with your students can be very tricky. You want to be yourself, but you also need to keep in mind that you are the leader of the class. You want students to be comfortable with you, but you don't want them to get so comfortable that they feel you are easily controlled. You don't want to be a wimp, but you don't want to be a dictator, either.
So how do you maintain a good balance? How can you develop a positive classroom environment that also embraces structure and accountability? How can you set just the right tone starting from day one? The key to that balance has everything to do with you -- your body language, eye contact, and tone of voice.
Your appearance, posture, and attitude send a clear message to students (and parents, and colleagues) from the first moment they see you. What you wear does matter. If you are dressed professionally, you will be seen as a professional. You don't have to wear a suit or other formal business attire, but wearing stretch pants with a t-shirt sends the message that you aren't willing to put care and effort into yourself or your job. Short skirts and tight tops also give the wrong impression -- especially if you're teaching middle or high school. Business casual -- comfortable clothing that also looks nice -- is the best option. Your appearance communicates a strong message about who you are as a person and as a teacher, so keep that in mind as you ready yourself each day. How you look provides the very first sign of that tone you want to set.
Posture is equally important. Slouching, looking down, and shuffling your feet all give the impression of uncertainty and fear. Standing tall with your shoulders back, keeping your head up, and walking with purpose convey confidence and authority. When addressing students, stand up straight and maintain direct eye contact. Your students might not be consciously aware of it, but those actions put you clearly in the driver's seat. Students respond positively to that type of body language and eye contact, and realize innately that you are the leader.
Eye contact also is important when going over important information with students. Look at everyone throughout your presentation. Don't stare, but look each person in the eye for just a moment. That action conveys the message that you're talking to each student and you will hold each accountable for the information.
Pausing frequently also reinforces the importance of what you are saying. Don't rush through the presentation of your expectations and other important information on the first day. Instead, pause a moment after each statement and look at each student individually. Some students might be looking down at their desks while you talk. Pausing will cause many to look up so you can catch their eye and get their attention. If some students still are looking down after a brief pause, continue to pause until they look up. Again, you are reinforcing the message of accountability -- without saying a word.
Finally, your tone of voice sends a clear message to students. When going over expectations, procedures, and other important classroom information, use a firm, steady tone. Firm does not mean loud. Your tone, however, should be clear and confident. Pace yourself and speak a little more slowly than you might normally. When you're nervous, it's very easy to talk quickly and rush through information. That tendency by itself communicates fear. Force yourself to slow down; it will have the double effect of reinforcing the importance of what youre saying and communicating confidence. (During a fun activity, lighten up the tone a bit so students can see you have a humorous side as well.)
You might want to practice those three elements -- posture, eye contact, and tone of voice -- in the mirror at home. After you've written down your expectations and procedures (See Laying the Groundwork), practice how you'll present the information to your students. Listen for the ways in which your tone changes when you're going over serious information and when you're giving directions or telling a joke. Practice standing tall with your head up. Practice pausing and looking your audience in the eye. Let yourself be nervous so you can see what that looks like. Then take some time to practice gathering your courage, and notice how your body language changes.
Even after all that practice, you'll probably still feel incredibly nervous when you get in front of the class. Don't fret. That's perfectly normal when meeting a new class -- even for veteran teachers. Just pretend you feel confident, stand up tall, and look students in the eye. Before long, everything you've been practicing will come naturally -- and you'll probably find you're too busy to be nervous.
Oh, and don't forget to smile.
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