The Way You Walk

It’s the way you walk.

This is what my instructor said at orientation when I started teaching at a state prison. In that session we learned about a study in which researchers showed video tapes of pedestrians to inmates who had committed violent crimes.

“Who would you mug?” researchers asked.

Their answers were overwhelmingly the same. So researchers analyzed results to find what made the difference.

“Victims,” they found, gave signals of uncertainty through posture, body language, pace of walking, and awareness of the environment. Their walk lacked organized movement and flowing motion.

“How you move,” my instructor said, “gives a lot away.”

And so that morning, I learned how to cross a prison yard with hundreds of eyes on me, how to enter a classroom of middle school students who had me measured in five seconds, how to stand in front of bleachers filled with hundreds of kids on before-school duty—just me and them, how to move across a stage, and, yes, how to walk down a city street.

Here’s the advice I took with me into all these places:

  • Look alert. Keep your eyes moving, scan the surroundings, take it all in.
  • Walk tall—shoulders back, spine straight.
  • Keep your chin parallel to the floor, not tipped arrogantly up; not tilted submissively down.
  • Move with purpose. Know where you are going and how to get there. With places to go and things to do, you have no time to be self-conscious.

On the days I felt most like a coward—when a class had gone wrong the day before, when a bully was flexing his muscles, when I was assigned a new class of mandatory inmate students, who wanted to be anywhere but in my classroom—these were the days I needed to use these strategies, consciously and on-purpose.

And what amazed me was that imitating confidence helped. Walking brave helped me teach.

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