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First Impressions

By Barbara Ogúrek

In less than sixty seconds, people form their first impressions of you. Before you even speak—how you dress, how you carry yourself have made an impact. And when you do speak, the tone and pitch of your voice are also registering on the listener. Teachers, who are seen and heard for hours each day by so many, are being “sized up” and judged more than they might imagine.

Rather than being daunting, this information can be used to your advantage. In other words, you can control, to a large degree, the impression you make upon others.

Dressing for success is not a superficial myth. I have heard students—younger and older—make astute comments about how their educators dress. One group tallied the number of times a former colleague wore the same outfit each week. The sum wasn’t insignificant. On the other hand, students are quick to compliment teachers who take the time to dress well. Why? Because we are their role models. They want and need us to look well presented.

Clothes that are clean, pressed and appropriately professional (leave the jeans, T shirts, revealing, overly-tight or baggy, out of shape outfits at home) make a positive impression not only on our students, but also on our colleagues and administrators. Many teachers “dress up” for parent conferences or for an observation. They want to be seen in their best light. But aren’t we being observed all the other days?

Dress is the first visual image, followed closely by posture. Actors can quickly modify a characterization by their posture. Is the character less assured, or does he have a low sense of self-esteem? An actor will slouch, pull his head down and hunch his shoulders forward, even push his stomach out. Is the character confident, self-assured, in control? An actor will stand up straight, ears above shoulders, rib cage up, shoulders back and down. Even if we don’t feel confident, we can appear confident. Further, how we look can directly influence how we feel.

Students not only expect, but require their teachers to have self-assurance. Research shows that educators who project confidence, are not only more effective as teachers, but they also inspire confidence in their students.

How you carry yourself is just part of your body language: silent, but speaking volumes. It’s important to be aware of the message your “language” sends. Experiment and try to be conscious of what it is you do with your body when you’re with someone you like as opposed to someone you don’t—or with someone with whom you feel comfortable or uncomfortable. If your body language is similar to or “mirrors” the other person (she leans forward, you lean forward; he crosses his legs facing you, you do the same—you are, essentially, “open”), you are probably feeling comfortable with them, and will be perceived that way. If your body language is dissimilar (she speaks and leans forward, with palms up; you cross your arms and do not come forward—you are, essentially, “closed”), you are probably feeling uncomfortable and will be perceived that way.

Think of your body language with your students, your colleagues and your administrators. What are you conveying? Is this how you want to be perceived? We can monitor ourselves, not to create a false impression, but to help make a positive impression.

Reading what messages another person conveys is just as important. Is someone feeling closed or open with you? If someone leans back and crosses her arms when you are speaking, think about what you have just said. It may have had a negative effect. Conversely, what body language shows you are having a positive effect? Having said this, bear in mind that the body language of men and women may differ a bit (men may lean back when they’re feeling more relaxed, for example). People of different cultures display different body languages. To become more knowledgeable, you can read the ample literature in this field.

If dress and carriage make the man or woman, voice proclaims the same. You need to sound assured as well as look assured. When you become excited or nervous, your voice can waver and/or quicken and its pitch can rise. Taking a deep breath to calm yourself, consciously lowering your pitch, or making your voice a little deeper can make you sound more confident and in control. Breathing and speaking from the diaphragm (rather than “from the throat”) helps, as well.

Women, especially, have the tendency to make a declarative sentence sound like a question by “raising” their voice on the last word. (Women tend to be afraid of being aggressive and can err on the side of being less assertive.) So it would sound like, “I worked hard on this lesson?” rather than, “I worked hard on this lesson.” To the listener, this conveys a lack of confidence. Statements need to sound like statements.

It seems that every generation has its vocal idiosyncrasies. “You know,” “uh,” “so he goes,” “so I go,” “and I’m like,” “dude,” “like…like.” (My pet peeve may be obvious.) To make the best impression, it’s advisable not to let your favorites control you in a professional setting.

You may be surprised by the extent to which students model themselves after you: how you look, speak and behave. They absorb your attitudes toward them, toward school, and even toward yourself. The impression you make may be one they carry for many years. Finally, it is especially important to make your first impression positive, professional and sincere. The respect you earn will be returned many times over.