Something that continues to frustrate me as a teacher is the reluctance students often reveal when called upon to respond to a question or offer an opinion. I know they have answers, and as soon as they’re out of the room, there’ll be no shortage of opinions! There are times when I’ve asked a very simple question—one I know they can all answer, yet they sit in silence and stillness. Are the social pressures really that great? Have I done something to make them afraid to respond? Regardless of the reason, I refuse to accept this complacency, especially among the student leaders whom I count on to set the example.

A culture of commitment

I want to instill in my students not just a culture of excellence, but a culture of commitment. This starts with something as simple as how they raise their hands. So, on that first day of summer band, we have hand-raising practice! With all the incoming freshman gathered with the upperclassmen, I say, “Upperclassmen, show our new members how we raise our hands around here.” Instantly, 200 hands shoot skyward, elbows extended as if reaching for some invisible prize. Then I say, “Now, everyone, show me how we raise our hands.” All the new members raise their hands just as enthusiastically along with the vets. Why? They’re just copying what the “big kids” do. Now, I’m working the social pressures in favor of that culture of commitment. “From now on, that’s how we raise our hands. All the way, or not at all.” Then I follow up with a few simply questions to which everyone can respond in the affirmative, and we’re practicing this simple skill. But how powerful it is in influencing that culture of commitment!

So what’s the big deal?

Much is communicated nonverbally when people interact. Near the end of a long marching band rehearsal—when everyone is hot, tired, maybe frustrated—I might say, “Raise your hand if you’re working hard tonight.” If those hands are raised high and with enthusiasm, not only have we acknowledged as a group that we’re working hard, but we’ve shown enthusiasm for hard work. The WAY they raise their hands sends a powerful message.

When we return to the previous set, an urgent “jog” or “hustle” back to the start communicates enthusiasm (whether they’re really enthusiastic or not!). When kids move slowly and lethargically, a much different message is sent, and these complacent behaviors can often contribute to a tedious rehearsal.

Why “beware the bystander?”

Bystanders can be very influential because their non-involvement strengthens the prevailing attitude. When they choose not to respond, or they respond reluctantly, others can interpret this as disagreement, apathy, or even contempt. But when there are strong behavioral procedures in place, it mitigates the effects of fatigue, frustration, and even apathy. The behavior itself influences the mind and we redefine “fun” in the context of commitment! So we must beware the bystander because of his subtle but powerful influence. His lack of commitment allows others to see what they want to see to feel better about their own complacency.

A couple of recommendations

There is a wonderful Ted Talk that illustrates the power of body language in influencing attitude. The speaker is Amy Cuddy, and the talk is entitled, “Your body language shapes who you are.” Click here to see the video.

If you’d like to delve more deeply into the subject of bystanders and their influence, I’d like to recommend a book entitled, “Followership,” by Dr. Barbara Kellerman. In her book she identifies five types of followers: Isolates, Bystanders, Participants, Activists, and Diehards, and she discusses how individuals move from one level to another. Fascinating reading for those of us leading so many!

These and other topics will be the subject of future weekly System Blue tips. As always, if you have questions or would like more information, contact Frank Troyka at

Video Link