Written by Natalya Ganchina M.Ed.
Children are great mimics, observers, and learners – and teachers are a big influence. On average, students spend about 1,000 hours per year at school. With this time, they are learning more than just algebra and geography. They are also learning how to communicate, express themselves, and develop their priorities. What your students see, they may remember and copy, even if it is nonverbal or unintentional on your part.
According to a 2016 study, nonverbal cues and signs make up 60 to 70 percent of what humans communicate to one another, and are in fact “more believable” than verbal communication: “when verbal and nonverbal messages contradict one another, most people believe the nonverbal.” This means students actually pay more attention to what you do than what you say.
So, every educator should understand that they are constantly teaching, even if they are not delivering a lesson. In the classroom, in the hallways, in writing, children are learning the standards and patterns of behavior that will become part of their everyday adult lives. Here are some examples:
It is no secret that healthy relationships start with good communication. How do you communicate with your students and colleagues? Do you talk to your students in a way that shows you value their needs and interests? Do you roll your eyes when a particular colleague comes into your room? Do you require that students communicate with each other with respect? Students will notice if there are office feuds or a lack of communication between teachers or administration. By trying to be nice with others at school, you can a good example for your students and make your life easier at the same time.
It’s so tempting to use a mobile device while a class is busy with work or a test, but do you want to set a precedent for students to do the same? It can be helpful to be connected and reachable, but there are phones in the office and free periods to check your email. If you are waiting for important news, tell your students that there is a good reason your phone is out. While digital tools can be helpful in the classroom, be mindful of why and how you use them, and avoid distractions. Many of us, especially our students, are addicted to our phones. School is a place to try and set digital boundaries for the sake of long-lasting learning habits.
Organization and planning
How prepared are you when you come into class every day? Do you teach your students to organize their binders, folders, or cubbies? Many teachers and parents expect students to know how to organize themselves. However, without explicit instruction and a good example for organizing information, belongings, and schoolwork, students can struggle. Organizational habits help students develop study skills and learn quickly, so it is important to demonstrate good organization through your own classroom preparation and space.
Fairness and equality
Fairness is a complicated idea, and it is best learned through showing not telling. Students will notice if there are arbitrary rules, favoritism, or bias. Whatever your specific ideas of fairness are, recognize why you make specific classroom decisions, and understand that you are setting an example that will impact all students. The feeling of unfairness can make children misbehave, so acting fairly in the classroom can also help address behavior problems. While there may always be students who think that teachers or schools are unfair, it is up to you as the educator to minimize opportunities for inequality between your students.
How to handle mistakes
Sometimes, students are afraid of making mistakes or being imperfect. Showing your own mistakes is not weakness. It is important for students to show that teachers are human too. Do not be afraid to tell your students that you do not know everything, or that you forgot something – but then always follow up by learning more, making up the work, apologizing, or whatever is appropriate. Set an example for how to admit a mistake, take responsibility, and either fix it or make amends.
Lifelong, enthusiastic learning
It is hard to be energized and optimistic every day, especially for teachers. But children take their cues from your attitude. If a teacher has a good sense of humor and brings positivity to a classroom, students learn the material better. If a teacher is excited about the material, and bringing their love of learning to the class, students will pick up on that too. When you share your enthusiasm for learning by drawing on your own outside knowledge, using inspirational quotes and images, and encouraging exploration, your class improves.
High expectations and self-esteem
Studies show that students excel when their teachers and parents expect and believe they can succeed. At school, students come across difficult situations, and how they respond makes a big difference in their lives. They can learn how to say “yes, I can,” or how to justify giving up. By working to develop your skills as a teacher, you can show that you have high expectations for yourself. When you expect and help your students to complete their work, students learn they are also capable of achieving their goals. As J. K. Rowling said through Harry Potter “Working hard is important. But there is something that matters even more: believing in yourself.”
Lastly, healthy habits are good for you and for your students. You can incorporate activities like physical exercise and stretching, cooking and eating healthy food, or meditation and yoga into your classroom. Avoid talking about drinking, smoking, and partying as if they are positive, even if it might make you more “cool” to your students. While developing healthy habits is a lifelong process for everyone, consider what aspects of your life are visible to your students and how you can all work together to live your best lives.
Remember, you are always a role model to your students, whether you realize it or not. Along with your academic lessons, think about what life lessons you are teaching in your classroom. Your impact can only grow when you are mindful of the skills and attitudes you want your students to walk away with at the end of the year.
Fontenot K. A., “Nonverbal communication and social cognition”, Salem Press Encyclopedia of Health [serial online]. January 2016; Available from: Research Starters, Ipswich, MA.