On a frigid morning last December, I sat in front of 30 11th-grade students preparing my body and mind to speak about the unspeakable—the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary. As a new teacher, I was painfully aware that awkward or nervous delivery would cast a negative shadow over—or possibly even mute—a powerful conversation. Like at any moment in the classroom, I knew students would feed off a teacher’s body language. And today the stakes were high.
Preparing for this experience brought to mind September 11, 2001. I was 11 years old during the terror and confusion that followed the explosions at the World Trade Center, one of 25 sixth-graders squirming through a normal day. Suddenly, the metal door to our classroom crashed open.
“Have you heard? Have you seen the news?” a confused gym teacher cried. I remember both teachers’ facial expressions and unnerved body movements. Fear. Uncertainty. All of these silent emotions and signals projected with stunning clarity onto my classmates and me.
Soon all the major news outlets filled our classroom with the noise of anchors trying to make sense of those painful images. But through my sixth-grade lens, it was not Brokaw or Jennings that I tuned into. It was the reaction of my teacher that alerted me about how to feel.
I know my teachers had only seconds to comprehend the unimaginable tragedy (unlike myself after Sandy Hook). And—all things considered—they handled themselves with professionalism. But memories of that moment combined with my student teaching experience 11 years later yielded valuable insights for me. I learned not to underestimate the power body language plays in an instructional environment, and not only in moments of crisis.
This is a difficult skill to practice. Because it is a nuanced facet of teaching, there is no playbook that outlines a go-to method for controlling body language. However, what does work is establishing and maintaining a certain mindset as you plan and teach.
I treat spoken language and body language as equals. This philosophy reminds me to check and regulate my body language. Without honoring these communication modalities simultaneously, words lose their power in moments of crisis and controversy. Remembering this encourages me to be prepared before I teach, and reflective during and after instruction.
Carreno is a social studies teacher in Wisconsin.