Body Language in the High School Classroom and What It Can Tell You About Your Students

The funniest thing about being a teacher is learning the body language of your students and discerning the meaning of their sometimes ineffable facial expressions.
Kids vibing in the classroom.
The Typical Layout of a Classroom Allows for Plenty of Observation into Human Behavior     
      When teaching a lesson, classroom teachers face the class so they see everything their kids are doing during a lesson (even though kids do not sometimes register this fact). On the flip side, kids are typically looking at their teachers all day which explains why kids are often flawless in their uncanny ability to imitate their teachers. Trust me. They can. I've seen it happen.
Photo by Jerry Wang on Unsplash
Kids Signal How They Are Feeling Through Body Language
      Here are some common messages your high school students are sending while you are delivering quality education in your classroom. N.B. I am not a clinical psychologist and I have not professionally studied human behavior — so take my observations with a grain of salt (or, leave your comments below detailing what you have observed).

  • If a kid has his head down and does not look up for a considerable amount of time, most likely he or she is texting.
  • If a high school student has a pen or pencil in their mouth and they're chewing it with wild abandon it probably means their mind is on something entirely different from whatever you're teaching.
  • If they are twirling their hair: the same thing. But they are probably thinking about someone (not you).
  • Head on the desk: not enough sleep at night. Disengagement.
  • Fidgeters: these kids need to be more active during your lesson. Make them write on the board or do some kind of kinetic task to get that excess energy expended. 
  • Smiling: they are listening. 
  • Staring off into space: something else is more important. Or, they have something on their mind.
  • Blank stare. Does not respond when called. They are listening to music or something. This is a perennial problem in the age of smart devices.  
Nipping Negative Behaviors in the Bud Before They Bloom
      Kids bring into your classroom whatever has happened to them during the course of the day. I did not teach him, but I knew a kindergarten-age child whose father would bring him to school and the kid would cry miserably when dropped off and was unpredictable and incorrigible for the rest of the day. But when the mother dropped him off, the child was well-behaved and acted appropriately for his age. The teacher, who was savvy, told the father not to enter the building for drop-off, and the teacher would meet the child at the entrance to the school when it was the father's turn to bring his kid to school. This school had breakfast available, so the teacher would make sure the student had breakfast and was able to check-in with his feelings — which typically made his day better. The point of the story is that kids bring with them their emotional baggage into the classroom. Most students are not as extreme in their behaviors as the kid I just described, but if as a teacher you stand at the threshold of your classroom as kids enter and take their seats you can pretty much do a "temperature check" of emotions and catch kids who might appear off or "not themselves". It works! One of my high school students would get into arguments with one of his classmates and their frustration with each other would often trickle into my class. But I wanted to get some teaching done and not have to worry about their squabbles. So, I made it a point to always observe these two when they entered my class and very quickly nipped it in the bud if they came in "hot". I would say, "one of you needs a moment. Take a minute by yourself and walk around outside for three minutes and come back".
Making Group Expressions Fun in the Classroom 
       My favorite is group expression: group laughter. I love it when the class acts as a group and the students respond spontaneously to the material and join in expressively. Take a few moments and tell a story. We were talking about embarrassing elementary school experiences: one kid told us how his teacher braided his moppish hair and I spoke about how I pulled down on my second-grade teacher's cardigan at a Halloween Haunted house. I was so scared. When we came out through the other end I had made her sweater into a dress.
       Don't make your lessons boring. Think — would I want to do this? Now. Granted. It is not your job to be the Pixar entertainment center for your students. Academic work can be taxing and kids need to learn self-discipline. We all have experienced tasks that feel tedious — like inputting grades in the grade book or taking attendance. The problem with being a teacher today: it is hard to make every lesson exhilarating. Sometimes, the lesson is boring. How do I make articles interesting? (especially at 7:40 in the AM). And: students are highly critical of their teachers. But, we demand a lot from them, so it goes both ways. Geez, if the opprobrium of the grade would disappear! Anyway: best moment this year: sculptures. Worst moment: being blamed for losing a notebook. Jesus, do I look like a housekeeper? Let's get back to nouns, verbs, and sh&(.


  1. Greig: You have become such a creative and passionate educator. I love when students laugh together out loud too. My favorite moments is when they make me laugh and I can't stop. They can be so creative too. The connections they make with the material is hilarious. One student makes a hip hop song about the bodhi tree--that's my favorite.

  2. My favorite moments are when students make crazy connections. Like creating a rap with the word bodhi tree as if it were a body part.
    Greig: you have become THE MASTAH educaTOR, my friend. Happy Exams.