Visual Profiling in Educational Settings

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Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk about the relationship between body language, communication and power has left me to re-examine the worlds to which I belong.  As an educated and perceptive individual, I have always known that we speak in many ways, including with words, gestures, mannerisms, posture and clothing.  I have also considered how our, or other people’s, body languages can reveal messages, whether intentional or not, while communicating.  However, I had not considered the deep psychological relationship between body language, power and impact on the ways we see ourselves.  I was intrigued by Cuddy’s advice to practice assuming positions of power, some of which might look very unlady-like, and to “fake it until you become it.” It is almost like the adage that my mother repeated to me over and over when I was a teenager, which was, “What you confess is what you possess.” Placed in this context, it is “What you practice, you will become.”

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One of the purposes that Cuddy’s advice serves is that it equips individuals with the armor necessary to combat visual profiling, a practice that is quite prevalent in educational settings.  As a part of our collective understanding, I feel as though we have created expectations for what teachers are to look and sound like. First off, when we think of an elementary school teacher, many of us would envision a younger female who is energetic, kind and caring.  I was even surprised at my own reaction when viewing the Annenberg Learner professional development video.  Prior to viewing, I prepared myself to examine the teacher through the lens of appearance. However, my first momentary reaction was that the teacher was a young male teaching the fifth grade.  What about that view conflicted with my created notion of what a fifth grade teacher should look like?  Now, as the mother of a 9 year old boy, I would love for him to have his first male teacher, so why then, did I experience that initial reaction to the fact that this fifth grade teacher was male?  Perhaps it is because I have absolutely bought into the collective view of a typical elementary school teacher.  As discussed in “How We Are Judged by Our Appearance”  from Psychology Today , “all our perceptions…help to shape and construct the more complete picture we consciously perceive…In our perception of people, and their perceptions of us, the hidden, subliminal mind takes limited data, and creates a picture that seems clear and real, but is actually built largely on unconscious inferences that are made employing factors such as a person’s body language, voice, clothing, appearance, and social category.” I did not have the same reaction to the second video, entitled, “Rick’s Reading Workshop,” perhaps because I had already identified and negotiated my bias while viewing the first piece; therefore, my attention was drawn instead to Rick’s physical appearance and his free-flowing mannerisms with his students . His appearance seemed inviting and laid back without the formality of a dress shirt.  Interestingly enough, during a conference with a student, he says, “You gotta wear the right clothes. I certainly acknowledge that “the right clothes,” is very dependent on who is viewing.  To some, Rick might seem approachable and real, while for others, viewing him might conflict with their preconceived ideas.  Their views are the result of lenses that they have created on what that image should look like.

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The image above shows an initial Google Image search for “Elementary School Teacher.”

Before I started my first teaching job at the age of 22, I remember going shopping for the “right clothes.” That was when I purchased my first of many suits and my professional attire has really not changed.  At that time, my clothes was a way for me to assume and reflect power in the classroom because, as a young teacher, I felt like I needed to project that sense to my students and among my colleagues.  In some ways, it was to convey that I belonged there.  After being in the classroom for 15 years, II still dress in a similar fashion, but now it is mostly because I feel as though I have a responsibility to model for my students what it means to be a professional and clothing, along with certain behaviors, certainly plays a role. 

On the subject of body language, I definitely see that there are moments when I assume positions of less power.  However, I am beginning to think that some of that is somewhat deliberate because in those situations, I want to allow the other person to feel powerful.  For example, when speaking at a parent teacher conference  with one of my children’s former teachers who was in her first year of teaching, I assumed positions of less power because I knew that she was nervous and it was my way to make her feel empowered during our conversation. Also, when conferencing with my students, I never sit at my desk; instead, we sit at a table where we are on the same physical level.

Therefore, in thinking about visual profiling, I realize that it a practice that is so ingrained in the ways in which we view our world–so much so that we hardly notice it in ourselves.  I would like to be more thoughtful about what I am projecting to others through my body language and appearance.  I would also like to be more perceptive about what others around me are projecting.

Form Notes:  I chose to use a blog form for my discussion because it presented an opportunity for my readers to experience visuals to accompany my thoughts.  At first, I considered a video presentation, but decided against it because I felt like seeing me present might detract from the subject because they might be busy reading my body language and appearance.

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