Become a Status Master

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In discovering status as a concept, Keith Johnstone's amazing book 'Impro' influenced me tremendously. He was a teacher who became a theatre director and playwright. He created 'Theatresports'; the competitive improvisation shows seen the world over, which eventually produced the hit TV show 'Whose Line is it Anyway?' The book discusses Education in a very profound way. It is a must for teachers of Educational Drama or English as his thoughts on spontaneity and narrative skills have provided me with classroom storytelling games that I have used and taught for years.

What is status?


The correct use of status is the single most effective way of changing pupil behavior that I know. Status, as I will refer to it, is a very specific term as defined by the brilliant improvisation teacher Keith Johnstone, in his book 'Impro' (See above). Keith's ideas on Education influenced me tremendously as a teacher, and none more than this amazing discovery.

Keith discovered the concept when he was teaching improvisation to actors. He was encouraging his actors to play scenes but they seemed lifeless. As an experiment, he asked the actors to repeat the scenes but to get their status a little above or below their partner's. The gap should be minimal. The actors seemed to understand instinctively what he meant and their work was transformed:

"Suddenly we understood that that every inflection and movement implies a status, and that no action is due to chance or really 'motiveless'. It was hysterically funny, but at the same time very alarming. All our secret maneouverings were exposed. If someone asked a question, we didn't bother to answer it, we concentrated on why it had been asked. Normally we are 'forbidden' to see status transactions, except when there's a conflict. In reality (they) continue all the time." p33.

Status Players


Keith then applies these findings to teachers. When you read the following extract, I'm sure you will be able to think of examples from your own school days:

"We've all observed different kinds of teachers, so if I describe three types of status players commonly found in the teaching profession you may find that already know exactly what I mean.

I remember one teacher, whom we liked but who couldn't keep discipline. The Headmaster made it obvious that he wanted to fire him, and we decided we'd better behave. Next lesson we sat in a spooky silence for about five minutes, and then one by one we began to fool about - boys jumping from table to table, acetylene-gas exploding in the sink, and so on. Finally our teacher was given an excellent reference just to get rid of him, and he landed a headmastership at the other end of the country. We were left with the paradox that our behavior had nothing to do with our conscious intention.

Another teacher who was greatly disliked, never punished and yet exerted a ruthless discipline. In the street he walked with a fixity of purpose, striding along and stabbing people with his eyes. Without punishing or making threats, he filled us with terror. We discussed with awe how terrible life must be for his own children.

A third teacher, who was much loved, never punished but kept excellent discipline, while remaining very human. He would joke with us, and then impose a mysterious stillness. In the street he looked upright, but relaxed, and he smiled easily.

I thought about these teachers a lot, but I couldn't understand the forces operating on us. I would now say that the incompetent teacher was a low-status player: he twitched, he made many unnecessary movements, he went red at the slightest annoyance, and he always seemed like an intruder in the classroom. The one who filled us with terror was a compulsive high-status player. The third was a status expert, raising and lowering himself with great skill. The pleasure attached to misbehaving comes partly from the status changes you make in your teacher. All those jokes on teacher are to make him drop in status. The third teacher could cope easily with any situation by changing his status first." P35.

Obviously the suggestion is that you become an expert yourself, and learn to raise and lower your status at will, in order to keep you one step ahead of your pupils. So how do you start?

Understanding Hierarchy


Keith suggests that we begin by understanding hierarchy, and that we look to the animal kingdom for examples that will shed light on our own interactions;

"that all social animals have inbuilt rules which prevent them from killing each other for food, mates and so on. Such animals confront each other, and sometimes fight, until a hierarchy is established, after which there is no fighting unless an attempt is being made to change the 'pecking order'." p41

If you were to sit in your staff room for 20 minutes and try to establish a hierarchy or pecking order, based simply on what you already know about high and low status players, you could easily pick ten colleagues and place them on a 'pecking order' based on the highest and lowest players. If you were to ignore job descriptions as such and focus purely on behavior, movement, inflection, use of space, etc, you would learn a tremendous amount about this skill.

Be prepared, however, to never see the world in quite the same way again!

TIP: How about trying the same exercise on one of your classes? In the section on

Rapport we look more carefully about how to deal with the highest players in your classroom. If you have the opportunity, go and observe a number of different players as they interact with students, both in and out of class. You will pick up numerous tricks from them, and perhaps learn what not to do as well.



Keith then devised a series of actor workshops in which he experimented with teaching these transactions with a number of behaviors, which he did not divulge to his students until after they had fed back to him on how they changed his status in their eyes.

Firstly, he looked at the idea of eye contact. In theory, holding eye contact with someone will raise your level because in the animal kingdom the pattern of eye contacts often establishes dominance. This theory in humans is disputed although it is worth experimenting with for yourself. Keith's theory is slightly different, in that he is more concerned with breaking eye contact:

"In my view, breaking eye contact can be high status so long as you don't immediately glance back for a fraction of a second. If you ignore someone, your status rises, if you feel impelled to look back then it falls".

Keith then asked his students to experiment with holding and breaking eye contact, looking away and then looking back.

TIP: Combine this trick of making eye contact and then looking away, with saying 'no' to a request from a pupil for example and you will have discovered a vital high status classroom trick.

Strangely, your use of the 'er' sound can indicate your level as well:

"I might begin to insert a tentative 'er' at the beginning of each of my sentences and ask the group if they detect any change in me. They say I look 'helpless' and 'weak'. Then I move the 'er' into the middle of sentences and they say they perceive me as becoming stronger. If I make the 'er' longer and move it back to the beginning of sentences, then they say I look more important, more confident. Then I explain what I am doing and...they're amazed at the different feelings the length and displacement of the 'ers' give them. The short 'er' is an invitation for people to interrupt you; the long 'er' says 'Don't interrupt me, even though I haven't thought of what to say yet'" p43.

Finally comes the simplest but the most effective high-status 'trick';

"Again I change my behavior and become authoritative. I ask them what I''ve done to create this change in my relation with them...'You're holding eye contact', 'You're sitting straighter' - I stop doing that, yet the effect continues. Finally I explain that I'm keeping my head still whenever I speak, and that this produces great changes in the way I perceive myself and am perceived by others....actors needing authority - tragic heroes and so on- have to learn this still head trick" p43

TIP: I have taught this trick to many teachers who all report a tremendous difference in the way that their classes react to them. Have a look at the examples in the

Presence Videos section, of how to combine this technique with voice projection, then try it and feel how differently your voice sounds and how your eye contact changes. Then take it into class and enjoy!

Your Preferred Status

Keith's next theory seems to link nicely with assertiveness:

"My that people have a preferred level; that they like to be low, or high, and that they try to manouvre themselves into the preferred positions. A person who plays high is saying 'Don't come near me I bite'. Someone who plays low is saying 'Don't bite me, I'm not worth the trouble'. In either case the status played is a defense and it'll usually work. It's very likely that you will be conditioned into playing the status that you've found an effective defense."

The point is that very few of us ever consider how we use this skill as a defense mechanism and still fewer recognize how 'unnatural' it can seem to play a different one. Keith's logic is that the reason that we don't choose to play high if we are comfortable playing low is that we will feel 'undefended',as we are exhibiting new and unfamiliar behaviors. Luckily Keith was working with actors when he developed his ideas and they were able to experiment in a rehearsal room. As teachers however, our experiments will have rather higher stakes. My advice is to try these ideas out in your life before you bring them into the classroom.

As a younger, rather passive individual I would obviously play low, in order to get people to 'like' me. I still do and to be honest it works rather well, both with children and adults. The difference is that I learned to combine assertiveness assertive discipline with some high status behavior in order for adults and children to also take me seriously. I found that the kind of approach that an actor would take; an 'outside-in' approach, where you experiment with opposite behaviors until you feel comfortable with them, worked well. Eventually they seem to become a 'part' of you that you can switch on and off as necessary. Up until this point however the 'fake it till you make it' rule applied.

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An experience I had in Status management (in the classroom) using a certain technique, was using the "head still" trick when left alone with a class …

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I believe that you are born one or the other and its either chemical condition in the brain or its like that after and before we are born. the two types …

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I found the session very helpful in particular the hints on having to "act" the role of someone assertive. After the session I am now more aware of how …

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I think that this session shed light on some aspects of behaviour management that have not been considered previously. It demonstrated how to initially …

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The session on status was very useful because we learned to use body language, silence and eye contact to command a presence in front of a class. We were …

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