George Lucas Educational Foundation
Classroom Management

New Teachers: How to Develop ‘The Look’

Check out this effective, nonverbal tactic for managing students without calling anyone out in front of the class.
A teacher gives her class a “don’t mess with me” look.
A teacher gives her class a “don’t mess with me” look.
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While taking teacher preparation courses, I was lucky enough to sign up for a class with Dr. Sharroky Hollie, author of the book Culturally and Linguistically Responsive Teaching and Learning.

The course was on classroom management, specifically for new teachers working in urban public schools. There are several things that really stuck with me from the class, and they have stayed with me all these years. For one, Dr. Hollie brought in a community member to talk to us about gangs and the history of gangs in Los Angeles. We also learned about tagging (the messages it sends and its purposes), as well as reasons behind kids being drawn into this life.

We were taught the importance of always having an activity during those crucial first minutes of class, and for Dr. Hollie, it was silent reading. Each class, we were to bring something to read, and we would all spend the first 10 minutes reading silently and share after with a neighbor what we had just read. Some of us would forget to bring a book, newspaper, or magazine (before cellphones), and it was embarrassing. I realized later that the partial intention of this activity was to show us that, hey, we all forget sometimes (to bring a book, homework, a pencil, etc.). The other more obvious and important reason was to see the value in this activity and to use it with our students to nurture a love for independent reading.

Learning The Look

As for the most memorable of his lessons? At the beginning of one of our earlier classes, Dr. Hollie asked us if we all had The Look down yet. Most of us glanced around, confused, not sure what he meant (we were all first-year teachers). A few students understood, nodding. He then explained that it’s essential that every effective teacher develop The Look.

He told us that this facial expression serves as a nonverbal signal to a child that you see that they are off task and talking or doing something they shouldn’t be doing (e.g., chewing gum or trying to distract another student who is trying to complete an assignment).

Dr. Hollie said that, if done correctly, The Look silently conveys a serious warning, and it’s a great tactic for managing without calling a student out in front of the class. The Look should not be mean or angry; in fact, it can convey calm and is often free of any expression.

He then had us practice in groups of four or five. After much laughter and dramatics in our groups, he asked us to come to the front of the room and at the count of three, all do The Look we had created. The rest of the class would comment, critique, clap, and then give each group a grade: Definitely a B+. No, I’d say it was a B- because someone laughed!

It was a fun activity and very informative. I realized after that day and throughout my first year teaching that many occasions arise in the classroom when we can use this tactic (and other nonverbal ones) to signal to students that we are cognizant of their behavior. Sometimes situations do not warrant words—mere eye contact or going to stand next to where a student is seated will do. Nonverbal classroom management tactics like these help keep everyone’s dignity intact in the room, as calling out students’ behaviors in front of the class can be embarrassing for the child. (That conversation is better and more effective one-on-one with the student once the bell rings.)

Does It Work?

Over the years I taught high school English, I had a number of students comment to me about The Look. They told me they would consciously avoid doing things that might get it sent their way. They understood that it was something I didn’t do often, but when I did, the reason was serious and the student was not going unseen—he or she was accountable.   

To new teachers: Now is the time to practice. Do so with a colleague and take turns. Coach each other, and also practice in the mirror and fine-tune an expression that conveys this idea: “I see you. I’m on your side, but you know what the task at hand is.”

What nonverbal (or verbal) classroom management tactics do you find helpful that you can suggest to novice teachers? Please share in the comments section below.

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Karen Mitcham's picture
Karen Mitcham
Read professional literature.

A combination of a non-verbal relaxed and pleasant look on one's face coupled with a firm tone for teacher's key words, e.g. HS - "Pen to paper," MS - "Share response w/neighbor," ES - "Eyes on me." Teaching Channel has some great teacher videos on non-verbal cueing.

Virmared Santiago's picture
Virmared Santiago
A happily ever after story of a Spanish teacher working on her masters on Curriculum and Instruction.

I really respect if only The Look works for others, but I have been teaching for 23 years and that works with certain type of students about only some things of their behavior. I taught in a charter school in a really good neighborhood in South Florida, where there were no gangs or anything too bad and my classes were plagued with the type of student that doesn't care at all what you silently do. Your entire interaction with them would be about trying remediation of something, whether it was academic or behavioral. I am sorry, but that is not living or teaching!!! So, I left and found paradise. And even in paradise, chewing gum and The Look have their days!! :)

What has really worked for me is to have them always on producing something relevant, not just busy and have policies that I enforce systematically and that they have clear in their course profiles and well practiced the first weeks of class.

JenK's picture

I work in Elementary classrooms and this works well when the kids are getting too chatty and not coming back to the topic at hand. I usually have a timer somewhere nearby - one of those little ones that beep when you push the start button. I don't say anything. I just push the start button and then sit/stand there just looking around the group - occasionally glancing at the time elapsed. One or two notice and the next thing you know everyone is going quiet because they are pretty sure I am timing them and that means . . . something. They have no idea what, but whatever it is, they are not going to like it. Much more effective than clapping or holding up the peace sign for quiet. Once it is quiet I press stop and go on with the lesson.

Elizabeth De La Garza's picture

Every class is different. In some classes, the LOOK (which the children called my Teacher Look, or the Mal de Ojo) worked great. In other classes I had to couple it with something more concrete, such as a hand briefly on the shoulder, or a pointed throat clearing. The Teacher LOOK was one of the many tools in my class management tool belt.

Alaa Zeidan's picture

Personally speaking, I'm a more than ten years high school teacher of English and I find it so intriguing having your classes managed in the proper way you aspire to. This management tool you are mentioning here, the LOOK, I Find it useful and effective with girls, but when we come to boys, the matter is so different and difficult. I use many other things beside it, such as going directly to the person and bat his shoulder gently to stop talking. also, be silent until all of them pay attention. Or I can proceed in my lesson with the attentive students until the others follow us.

Brooke Hill's picture

I think this article reflects the importance of body language and communication skills. As the saying goes "actions speak louder than words". In a world where emotions or face to face contact with young people is different from what is was may 10 or 20 years ago we have to work that much harder to know and understand body language. As teachers we need this understanding more than ever. I appreciate this article because it reminds us that how were use our bodies sends a message to our students. The "look" can be a useful tool if applied properly. I know from experience I would not begin class or lesson until all the students were quite. I would scan the room and glance at each student until I had their full attention. Paying attention and teaching students this valuable skill is very important.

nur's picture

I agree this method works with some students, but at the school i'm more is required. I would welcome any advice in dealing with difficult students at the high school level

Marisa Kaufman's picture

The "look" only works with some students and you have to be serious the whole time. You cannot switch gears. I have learned this with working with middle school students. My students know when I give them the look I mean business and am not pleased with their behavior.

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