Do you speak body language correctly?

As teachers, we may think that we mostly communicate with our students verbally. We describe and explain things and notions, ask and answer questions, warn, and assure our learners every day. Yes, we do use some visual cues to help understanding, too. However, it is not about what, but how we communicate information. This factor is crucial to the effectiveness of getting messages across. The studies show that only 7% of meaning is communicated verbally, the rest comes from the visual body language and vocal element of speech (Borg, J., “Body language. How to know what’s really being said, 2013). Will a teacher presenting an exciting topic sitting at the desk and looking bored be convincing and inspiring? It is the subconscious channel that influences the effectiveness of teaching and learning. It influences students’ attitudes, motivation and confidence levels. As teachers, we should encourage, support and create productive learning environment, at the same time ensuring students see us in a way we want them to perceive us.

In this post, I will focus on teacher’s body language and how might students potentially interpret it in a classroom situation. These interpretations may be very subjective and not definitive for every situation we are in, but some patterns emerge.

Our emotions affect our physiology. By positive body language we display positive emotions, we look encouraging and inviting, which subconsciously attract our students. If we say that we are excited about something, but with a sad face, that we are excited about something, our words don’t match the body language, hence, the audience will feel confused and distrustful (Borg, 2013).

We want to convince our students we are fully present, we have positive attitude and we are willing to teach them. As a result, they will subconsciously want to listen to us, and consequently, engage, remember more, learn, achieve and feel happy! To build a positive rapport and be considered as enthusiastic, eager, effective with and passionate about teaching, we need to pay attention to the following aspects:

  1. Appearance – should be neat and appropriate. It says a lot about you and influences people’s first impressions. It may be useful to check and follow your company policy (eg. no jeans or flip-flops). Always convey a professional image, but also consider your students’ circumstances (eg. Would you wear a lot of expensive jewellery while teaching a group of asylum seekers?). You are at work and you should try to make your students feel comfortable when being around you.
  2. Be natural, relaxed and confident – to look welcoming and attentive. “open your body” and orientate it towards your audience, stand straight, have your arms loose, head up and firmly plant your feet. You are in charge. Mirror students’ positive body language in a natural way.
  3. Eye contact – make sure it is balanced with everybody and intermittent. This way you show you are fair giving all students your attention and that you listen to them, building trust at the same time. If necessary, increase your eye contact to persuade, but too much eye contact is intimidating. If you need to observe a student, be discreet.
  4. Smile – even if it is your bad day, force yourself to smile! This will make you and people around you feel better. In addition, it encourages positive interactions. If a context is relevant and a situation appropriate, add to creating a positive atmosphere by animating faces. It is important to show you have a sense of humour too!
  5. Listen actively – with your whole body. You attract attention when you listen. As teachers, we are programmed to talk, but what really matters is using listening skills effectively, says J. Borg. You empower your students by encouraging and letting them speak. Have your posture open and head tilted to show interest or curiosity. Show you pay attention by:
  • keeping eye contact (but don’t gaze),
  • raising eyebrows and eyelids,
  • leaning forward,
  • nodding (slow shows understanding, rapid indicates willingness to interrupt),
  • asking open questions, paraphrasing and summarising.

Be aware of your facial expressions. Don’t interrupt and, if with a group, manage the group’s responses too. Observe if a student who talks feels comfortable with what they talk about, react accordingly.

  1. Hands – communicate more than words. If you want to gain your students’ trust, don’t cross your arms or hide your hands (eg. in your pockets), keep your hands out with palms up instead. Show your hands all the time. What is more, use your hands to offer clear illustration points when speaking, to reinforce verbal messages and support understanding. By doing that, people see you as friendly and honest, as well as they are more likely to follow your requests. Turning hands towards the audience influences harmony and encourages cooperation. A pat on the arm with a full palm shows appreciation, care and reduces stress. Your hands on heart convey your desire to be believed or accepted. Point with the whole hand rather than with a finger while speaking as pointing with a finger is an impolite gesture indicating talking down.
  2. Legs and feet – should be orientated towards the listeners. Stand still to show you are calm and willing to stay in a particular place. Keep the legs uncrossed.
  3. Get down on student’s level – to avoid being perceived as too authoritative. If possible (eg. when giving feedback), choose to sit down next to a person rather than opposite them, to eliminate barriers.
  4. Personal space – relates to our spatial needs that make us feel comfortable with other people. The recommended comfort zones for a classroom situation vary between 18 inches and 4 feet.
  5. Voice – plays an important role. Monitor your pitch, volume, rhythm and tone. Talk slowly but with confidence. Make your learning environment comfortable to offer better learning experiences. Show that silence is not always bad, give time to think.
  6. Promote good habits – by practising what you preach. If you have specific rules relating to using mobile phones in class, follow the rules yourself. Be punctual. Be (or at least look) calm and organised, so your students will feel the same. Students mirror your body language subconsciously.
  7. Barriers – all need to be removed. Do not put big bags or boxes on your desk. Forget about sitting or standing behind the desk. Try to move around the classroom as much as possible, approaching each student. This way, you can observe them better, but also you show interest.
  8. Stress, anxiety, discomfort, negative attitude or frustration are displayed by the following actions:
  • narrowing your eyes,
  • crossing arms and legs,
  • scratching head,
  • clasping hands,
  • interlacing fingers,
  • covering mouth or cheeks,
  • facial contortions,
  • touching ears,
  • fidgeting,
  • fumbling,
  • biting nails,
  • chewing gum,
  • fiddling with clothing, pens, glasses, jewellery, or keys.
  1. Cultural twists – are very important to be aware of and remembered about. If you teach a multicultural group, it may be worth having a discussion and compare various gestures, such as “thumbs up” (eg. negative in the Middle East), and their meanings. There may also be differences in how appropriate (or not) keeping eye contact is, as well as understanding of a “comfort zone”. Make sure you avoid misunderstandings and create respectful environment to promote equality and diversity.

Borg highlights the fact that our behaviour affects our mind and equally, our mind affects our behaviour. Body language, tone, pitch and pace support comprehending our actual words. Synchronise all of them to succeed in a classroom. When our actions and words are congruent, we create a positive and friendly environment. We make our students feel good and they get positive experiences when learning with us.

Every situation and group of people we work with is individual, and knowing our learners, we can learn to plan influencing positive interactions. A role of a teacher is not easy, one has to be a listener, an observer, a disciplinarian, a motivator, and a companion, at the same time promoting mutual respect and learning by being genuine and transparent, but as a result, making students feel valued!


Next time you teach, try to pay attention to what your body presents in a particular moment.

What do you try to communicate?

Do your students see that exactly?

Is your message clear or confusing?

See what students’ responses are.

How could they interpret it?

Are you planning to change anything?

Are there any bad habits you would like to control or eliminate?

How are you planning to do that?

Make some notes to identify patterns and think about solutions that may work for you.

Have you found anything interesting to share?

Please comment below.