Arms Folded

The Power of Silent Communication 

A particular curse befalls most English teachers. You know the one.

We see the world through a constantly shifting mosaic of overanalysis, empathy, and symbolism. To us, everything means something. Nothing is an accident. We are convinced that every writer of every piece of literature chose to take pen to paper in an attempt to provide the world with the foundation for a profound lecture, a thoughtful writing prompt, an eventual film adaptation.

Our students sit obediently as we pontificate on the importance of the green light in The Great Gatsby, the brilliance of Cormac McCarthy’s lack of punctuation, the beauty of Shakespeare’s sonnet number 18. Basking in our own analytical glow, we convince ourselves that, yes, everything does mean something.

During a routine walkthrough, I stop in on several teachers without a clipboard, without a cell phone, without a laptop.  For me, walkthroughs are as much about getting out of my office as they are about seeing our talented staff work. Doing so without the pretense of an evaluation signals to teachers that I support them and am happy to provide, usually ultra positive, feedback on any given lesson.

Last year, at the end of the day after such a walkthrough, a math teacher stopped into my office, a bit sheepishly, to ask if everything was alright. Did I see something, she wondered, that upset me. Dumbfounded, I told her I didn’t know what she meant and that I didn’t yet get a chance to send my thanks-for-letting-me-pop-in email.

“Oh, ok. It’s just that you stood off to the side with your arms folded the whole time. I thought maybe something was wrong,” she said. “I’m just not used to seeing you stand like that. Usually you get involved in the lesson.”

She was right. I did stand off to the side with my arms folded the whole time. For me, it was just the preferred posture for that brief moment in time. For her, it was tacit disapproval of something I saw. It was a disappointed father of a girl who missed curfew, a harrumphing customer in a too long line at Target.

On one hand, the fact that the teacher, any teacher, is “used to seeing me” is a positive sign that I’m seen enough to have a typical, or in this case, atypical pose.

But on the other hand, and much more importantly, that teacher’s reaction to me standing with my arms folded provided confirmation that, English teacher curse or not, everything does mean something. It just doesn’t mean the same thing.

Since then, I have been uber mindful of my body language, voice inflection, and eye contact. The subtle ways in which I communicate often speak more loudly than does my voice. Ask yourself how you communicate with the world when you’re not speaking. As teachers, do we bend down when consulting with a student? As leaders, do we wear an expression that belies or supports what we’re thinking? As parents, do we indicate that we are proud of our kids without having to say so?

Unfold your arms. Wipe away that pesky RBF/RDF (you can investigate these on your own). Smile more often than you don’t.

Because everything means something.