Reading Body Language

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Reading body language: what your secret body language tells are communicating to your students.

Could you watch 5 minutes of someone else's lesson and accurately rate their effectiveness as a teacher?

What if we reduced that time down to 30 seconds? And turned the sound down?

The shocking answer is that both you and your pupils would most likely be able to make a very accurate judgment on the effectiveness of that teacher, just by reading body language.

This was the amazing result of an experiment carried out by a researcher, Nalini Ambady, quoted in the fantastic book ‘NLP for teachers’.

The point is that your pupils are reading body language and are unconsciously rating your effectiveness in the same way in every lesson that you stand in front of them.

What this book suggests, in Chapter 6, ‘Streetwise Body Language’, is that most teachers are totally unaware of the secret body language ‘tells’ that they are giving away.

They may feel that they are communicating effectively but may be ‘leaking’ signals which suggest a whole range of negative feelings and attitudes; from a basic lack of confidence with a particular group, to deep insecurities about their abilities as a teacher or behavior manager or about their motivation to do the job in general. The truth reveals itself to students, who are reading body language first and listening second.

One of the main premises of this site is that, try as we might as teachers, we cannot separate our professional and personal selves completely.

What we struggle with in life, we will struggle with in the classroom. Because we can only teach out of who we are (and ultimately, who we become), we need to learn to manage the process of moving towards greater competence very carefully.

At the start of my career, I had to ‘fake it till I made it’ and learn the tricks of high status, for example.

So I learned that keeping my head and body still can have a great impact on a class.

Are there any other physical tricks that can help me to communicate a more confident and congruent persona?

Body Language Categories

Chapter 6 of the book deals specifically with what are referred to as ‘Satir Categories’. For the purposes of our discussion, it is not necessary to explain Virginia Satir’s professional work as a family therapist or how she came to develop these categories of gesture which help us in reading body language.

It’s enough to understand that each has a specific unconscious message attached to it and that crucially, you as a teacher can train yourself to use the ones which contain the most powerful and congruent messages whilst avoiding those which communicate either confusion or passivity.

Satir describes five communication categories in her work with families.

It may help when you are reading these descriptions to visualize either your colleagues or even to visualize your own school teachers and see if any faces or names come up!

Interestingly, the first three of the five categories also seem to correspond to the different points on the Assertiveness Triangle 1. Blamer

Points their finger at others and uses stiff gestures. Generally wants to shift responsibility and speaks in generalisations. Despite the actual words used, when blamers communicate they often unwittingly create some form of conflict or disagreement. Can be aggressive.

2. Placator

The blamer’s counterpart. They seek sympathy and may even accept the blame for just about everything. Their body language is not forceful and will often include the palms up ‘placator’ position’. (Imagine someone saying ‘don’t blame me!’. Placators tend to be passive individuals who may seem like a victim. However, if used intelligently, this position may be a good one to use when giving bad news for example, as it contradicts and thus softens the effect of a difficult message.


Whilst the placatory is palms up, the leveller is palms down (see the video below for a comparison). They use this grounded position to make them come across as ‘on the level’. Their posture communicates that they are being true to what they think (palms pressing down at mid body height). This posture has a calming effect. They will use assertive and influential language and communicate honesty, accuracy and factualness.

4. Computer

This gesture communicates thinking and being calm and collected; computing or thinking things through logically. It requires a stiff spine one arm stroking one’s chin with the other folded across the body. It is a very powerful posture to use when you want others to dissociate from the emotion of a situation and think things through.

5. Distractor

The distractor will switch quickly between all the above positions and communicate confusion and the idea that ‘I really don’t want to be here’. They will come across as making no sense or being irrelevant whatever they may actually be saying. Their gestures will be angular and off centre. They may be passive or compulsive low status players.

Children, parents and teachers will usually use a mixture of these in communication. However, we all have preferences and may rarely or never use other styles.

How your pupils 'read' you

So looking again at those teachers who the children rated poorly, based reading body language alone on a video clip, we could make an educated guess at what the categories of body language might be that these teachers are displaying.

If for example a teacher felt in any way uncomfortable, or lacking in confidence, this may be betrayed by placating or distracting body language denoting passivity.

An aggressive teacher who has problems controlling their own anger may unconsciously be using blaming body language and wondering why their aggressive stance is being reflected back to them by their pupils.

However a confident and assertive teacher, whilst teaching is likely to be levelling (when giving instructions) and computing (encouraging students to think before answering a question).

When sanctioning they may occasionally use a more aggressive blamer stance but will often give give bad news by using the placator stance (‘there’s nothing I can do; these are the rules and you chose to misbehave’).

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