What the Students Saw

Greetings all and a very happy new year! I hope the second half of your school year has started off well. I’m excited for my upcoming January / February classroom management course online (if you haven’t taken it and are interested, see more https://fluencyfast.com/product/classroom-management-course-with-jon-cowart-january-2023/ ).

               In anticipation of my upcoming course, I wanted to write about something that has been on my mind – teacher presence. Teacher presence refers to our body posture, body movements, and voice that we use when in front of students. It is a vital tool that we have in our repertoire that can sometimes be the difference between successfully managing a group of students or not. It is a topic that I address in depth when leading trainings or professional development with school districts and teachers (and something that we discuss in my online course), because it’s so important. Where we stand, how we stand, and how we inflect our voice are things that students see immediately and pick up on. Students try to find out quickly which of their teachers are push overs and which ones mean business, and our presence is the first thing that we introduce to them. When we get it right, it is a great tool to increase our performance. When we get it wrong, it can ruin a potentially great lesson.

               Over winter break, I read a book that’s been sitting on my shelf for a little over a year. The book is What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Galdwell, and it goes into sociology and psychology around many different topics, one of which is, well, what dogs see when they look at humans. I dived into this book just wanting to expand my knowledge of stuff and things, but came out of it with a reinvigorated passion for talking about teacher presence. The chapter in particular that struck me was about Cesar Milan, better known as “The Dog Whisperer.”

               I admit that I have never seen an episode of this show, but after reading this chapter, I binged an entire season of it. I love dogs, having 2 myself, and I also love psychology. This chapter meshed both together and set off so many epiphanies in my brain that I couldn’t NOT write about it and share what I learned. So, if you’ll indulge me, I’m going to share what the chapter talks about and my thoughts on how it relates to our work.

“Cesar Milan and the Movements of Mastery”

At the time this book was written (2009) Cesar Milan lived in California with 47 dogs on his property. That’s right … 47 dogs! But it gets better. This isn’t just a random group of dogs he rescued from a shelter, these were hardened outcast dogs, many of whom were on death row due to their history. These were dogs who were abused, put into fighting rings, and/or abandoned. Some of these dogs had killed other dogs, attacked humans, or both.  Gladwell visits Milans’s property and observes these dogs for himself, and what he saw sparked the whole premise of his book.

In the chapter, Gladwell chronicles what he saw: happy, well-behaved dogs playing games, eating out of their own personalized bowls, and obeying every command Cesar gave them without hesitation. “What you are witnessing,” Milan tells Gladwell, “is a group of dogs who all have the same state of mind.” Gladwell immediately compares Milan to his grade school teachers, and writes:

“He is the teacher we all had in grade school who could walk into a classroom filled with rambunctious kids and get everyone to calm down and behave. But what did that teacher have? If you’d asked us back then, we might have said that we behaved for Mr. Exley because Mr. Exley had lots of rules and was really strict. But the truth is that we behaved for Mr. DeBock as well, and he wasn’t strict at all.” (Sound familiar)? … He continues “What we really mean is that both of them had that indefinable thing called presence.”

               I cannot stress enough how much I appreciate that statement by Gladwell. In my first year of teaching, I taught high school juniors and seniors who ran all over me. I struggled mightily to manage behavior and get a calm classroom, and when I couldn’t, I blamed it on my identity. I wasn’t loud, imposing, or strict, and that’s what I thought students responded to. It wasn’t until I visited other teachers’ classes who were teaching the same students I was and saw that it had nothing to do with being loud or mean or strict. My colleagues had presence, they talked and carried themselves with an intentionality that was hard to put to words.

One of my mentors at the time, Sherrie Lyons, highlighted the power of presence. She was a short lady with a very small stature. I thought she was an office assistant when I first met her. When she got in front of a group of students, they quit whatever they were doing, turned off their phone, stopped talking, and gave her their undivided attention. I never heard her raise her voice, act frantically, or “light into” students. Instead, she was impeccably calm, stood tall, and calmly and robotically told students what to do. One time, we were managing the cafeteria together, and when it was time to go, Ms. Lyons stood up, and asked for attention. When students did not quiet down immediately, she moved to the corner of the stage in the cafeteria, stood up straight, and started emphatically thanking the tables who were quiet and looking at her. After a few seconds, the rumbling quieted down, minus a few tables. Once she had about 80% attention, she looked at the tables who were still talking and very calmly said “I will dismiss this group once you’ve done what I’ve asked you to.” She continued to thank the quiet students, and eventually all students were silent. In that moment, she paused, embraced the silence, and then smiled. She smiled, said thank you, and dismissed the group.

Later in the chapter, Gladwell talks about a moment where all 47 of Milan’s dogs are in the yard playing a fetch game with an automated tennis ball shooter. Gladwell described the scene as “chaos … but organized and safe chaos.” After about 10 minutes, Milan blows a whistle, and all of the dogs stop immediately. He says, “this game should be played for 10 minutes, maybe 15. You begin. You end. You don’t ask, ‘please stop’, you demand it.”

When I think about this scene, I think about all of the times in my lessons where students were released to do an assignment, have a class discussion, or play a review game. If you’ve ever played Elimination with your students, you can relate. If you haven’t, you MUST. Check out Martina Bex’s blog about it here: https://comprehensibleclassroom.com/2015/04/16/elimination-the-language-game-of-all-games/. I played this game 4-5 times each school year with my students, and inevitably, when it was time to stop (or getting too chaotic), wrangling them back in was hard. Getting them to stop was hard, and even after we stopped and tried to transition to a different activity, there was always residual resistance when I tried to continue teaching. The way I corrected this was with my presence. I started giving students clear time warning (we only have X minutes left, when we’re done, we’re done), and then just … ended the game. I would say, very calmy but very directly, “great game, it’s over, time to move on.” The first time I did this, I encountered the usual “but … just 5 more minutes … come on .. tomorrow we’ll be super good if you just …” and etc. I remained calm and assertive, and repeated “the game is over, we’re moving on to new vocabulary.” The first few times, students didn’t believe me and pushed back. After the 2nd time, the resistance faded and our transitions to the next part of the lesson became more and more smooth. Other parts of classroom management – countdowns, whole class resets, behavior narration, redirections, and consequences – only work with the pre-requisite skill of presence.  Presence is the motor that drives that makes management “go”. Without it, it’s hard to implement other strategies.

The story of JonBee

               In the chapter, Gladwell describes an episode of The Dog Whisperer where Milan tackles a challenging dog named JonBee. JonBee was a particularly challenging case, having bitten many past dog trainers that the family had hired. One trainer even told the family to get rid of the dog, that it was beyond help. Enter Milan. The first thing he wants the dog to do is sit and lie down. He puts a leash on it, gets close, and begins to get it to lie down. Then, all hell breaks loose. The dog lunges at Milan, barks, growls, and jumps all over the place. The family starts to panic and yell, to which Milan asks them to leave the room. Once the family leaves the room, Milan works his magic, and within minutes the dog is lying down, calm, and subdued.

               How does he do this? What is the “magic” that he works? This is the question that Gladwell attempts to answer in this chapter, and it’s a question that I was dying to know the answer to as well. It’s a similar question to the one I asked back during my first year of teaching – how in the HELL do my colleagues get these students to quiet down and listen during a lesson? It turns out, there is a science behind what Milan does that is applicable to child and adolescent psychology, and something that anyone, especially teachers, and can learn and apply.

               The first thing dogs do when encountering a human is to size them up. They sniff, explore, and most importantly, WATCH the human. Dogs care deeply about human posture. They are obsessed with humans and pick up on even the most subtle changes in our demeanor. Gladwell discusses some specific examples, which I’ve charted here:

Human PostureDogs’ Interpretation
Leaning forwardAggression
Leaning backNonthreatening
Head straight / Staring into dogs eyesAggression
Head cocked slightly to the sideNonthreatening
Standing straight / Shoulders squareYou mean business. Dogs will obey.
Shoulders slumpedDogs ignore you

Studies have shown that dogs even pick up on differences in human breathing and eye dilation. When humans breath slowly and deeply, it calms dogs’ nerves. When we hold our breath, it heightens their fear. When our eyes are rounded and our pupils are dilated, it signals aggression. They even pick up changes in our facial tension and jaw – all signifiers of tension or relaxation. Gladwell points out that most dog owners are shockingly unaware of these truths. For example, when two dog owners meet in public with both dogs on the leash, we tense our bodies and hold our breath – the exact opposite of what we should do. I’m very guilty of this!

               What Cesar was doing with JonBee was essentially sliding through the continuum of warm/strict depending on how the dog responded. When JonBee would get jumpy, Cesar would tug the leash in a

way that was so subtle, “it was easy to miss.” This is using your presence to be strict AND least intrusive. As the dog starts to squirm Cesar engages in a series of warm / strict actions. He pulls, he waits, he pulls, he waits, he pulls, he waits, and etc. To a panicked dog with no training, this brings stability and consistency, what Gladwell calls rhythm. Cesar provides the dog space to make decisions and corrects them when needed. It’s not all pull, pull, pull.

The same is true of human behavior. When humans meet an authority figure (ie, students meeting their teachers), we size each other up. Whether we’re aware of it or not, we are keen to pick up differences in body posture, movement, and voice inflection. Children who grow up in poverty have an even greater ability to pick up nonverbal cues from our presence; it’s one of their superpowers. The more aggressive we are with our presence, the more heightened our students will be, and vice versa.

Body Movement Research

The latter part of this chapter gets into really interesting research on body movement. In true Gladwell fashion, he brings in PHD expert Karen Bradley from the University of Maryland to analyze what Cesar Milan does and why it works so well. One of the most interesting terms that is discussed is called phrasing, that is, the “combination of posture and gesture.” Every time Cesar approaches a dog and issues commands, he matches his words and voice with intentional body movement. He moves his hands with an intentional speed, places them intentionally across his body, at his side, out away from his side, and etc. It’s like putting your foot on the gas pedal while driving to speed up and slow down as needed. When the dogs are compliant, he eases off, when they ignore him, he applies gentle pressure. His body posture mirrors his commands. I found this interesting video of Dr. Bradley explaining more about expressive movement: https://today.umd.edu/how-dancers-think-when-they-dance-e13290c6-4d2f-4fb7-ad3e-0222047e5e2c

Here’s another table to chart out some of Dr. Bradley’s points

Desired CommunicationBody Movement
Emphasize a pointLean forward, lower hands to waist level, and draw hands towards body. (Leaning forward signals “strict”, lowering hands balances that out with “warmth”).
Welcome discourse / InputLean backwards, bring hands up at side, palms open.
Explaining key pointsShort bursts of arm movement mixed with long pauses, hands in front of body. Move your hands as you talk, stop moving when you stop talking.
Facilitating inquiryLean back, cock head to the side, hands towards your own face.

               This idea of phrasing as it applies to being a classroom teacher is fascinating to me. At first glance, it seems like common sense. If you want to be assertive in front of an audience and ensure that you make your point with emphasis, you stand square, move your hands and arms in a fluid and assertive motion in front of your body. If you’re unsure of something, you shrug, and etc. But I think that as teachers, if we are more aware of our body movement and add intentionality to it, it has the possibility of increasing our teacher presence and affecting positive culture in our classrooms. I could write 5 more pages about this idea of phrasing, but instead I’m going to highly encourage you to read this chapter and explore some more. It’s worth your time!

               January is an excellent time as a teacher to start over. Many of us get a new group of students at the change of semester, and even if you don’t, this is the golden time to reset expectations and re-norm on how you run your classroom. I cannot stress enough the importance of developing and improving your skills in teacher presence. I hope this blog helps to give you some ideas, and if you want to learn more, check out my 4-week crash course on classroom management. Let’s make it a great year!

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