Eye Contact

I’ve never experienced a teacher training course which mentioned eye contact. But I’m starting to think that the way we use it as teachers of young learners is actually a key thing to be aware of, and something that should be focussed on more. If good teaching is about building relationships (and I strongly believe that it is) then the simple act of looking at each other in the eyes is one of the most powerful ways we can do this.

 

zaheya-eye-contact.png

In April this year a group of girls from an UNRWA school in Khan Younis, Gaza, the winners of last year’s playwriting competition, were invited to perform their play at the beginning of Mark Thomas’s comedy show at a theatre in London. There were going to be over 300 people in the audience and the girls had never even been in a theatre of that size before, let alone performed in one, so they were understandably nervous. To make them feel relaxed Mark advised them to avoid making eye contact with the audience when they were acting as this could put them off.  Zaheya, the main actress in the play, (pictured above in a different play, ‘The Screen’ ) thanked Mark for his advice but said that she would look the audience in the eyes anyway, because she wanted them to know who she was.

jumping through the screen

I like that simple idea. People in Palestine want and need us to know who they are and we want the same from them too of course. We need to use eye contact effectively as teachers and as students, to help people to feel that they are being listened to and understood. But when we stand on a stage and act or tell a story, making eye contact with the audience is equally important. It establishes an immediate connection and, as Zaheya says,  tells the audience who we are.

Eye contact is especially necessary, but also more complicated, when connecting remotely. There was a lovely moment during a remote performance of the Palestinian story, Jbene at the IATEFL conference in Glasgow last year when the main character, Zeinab went right up to the webcam to ask the audience a question. Although Zeinab’s looking straight at the video of the audience on the computer screen (so in her eyes is making eye contact) to the audience she isn’t, because she’s not looking directly into the little green light of the webcam.

Glasgow - eye contact

Compare this to the remote performance at this years IATEFL conference by a group from another UNRWA school in Nuseirat camp, Gaza, where it does feel that eye contact is being made. I think this is because most of the girls are looking into the webcam light rather than at the video of the audience. This strange phenomenon of making eye contact by not making eye contact ( if you know what I mean 🙂 ) needs a bit of training and practice for teachers and students because it somehow goes against our natural instincts.

Unity eye contact

In the screenshots below (from a session in Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan and another in Beit Hanoun, Gaza)  you can see where I’m getting it wrong, and where Rosalia and Alex, HUP volunteers based in Italy and Russia are getting it completely right.

 

zaatari boys cropped

eye contact alex

So what about you and your classes? Have you ever thought about the impact of making or not making eye contact in the classes you teach? Are there any cultural issues which may come into play here? Is eye contact always a good thing and can you ever have too much of a good thing? It would be great to see some comments below.

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7 thoughts on “Eye Contact

  1. Hello Nick, I often think about eye contact in class. When I’m calling on students to answer questions in feedback, for example, I’m aware that students who meet my eyes are telling me ‘I know the answer to this one and I’m happy to answer’. Students with their heads down may be unsure of the answer or simply unwilling to contribute. I’ve pointed out this trick to new teachers on training courses.
    So you can tell a lot from where people’s eyes are. I think they can tell a lot about me, too: when I’m confident in what I’m saying to them, when I’m slightly lost in the language, etc.

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    1. Thanks for your interesting comment Dan. Yes, I think being able to make eye contact is a lot to do with feeling confident. In the same way that smiling can bring about happiness, training people to make eye contact when they don’t naturally do it, can make people feel more confident about themselves. As you know, there are lots of drama games which work around this idea and they can be useful for both teachers and students. And increased confidence through eye contact can even make the teacher believe that the students ‘wrong’ answer might not be so wrong after all 🙂

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  2. Great article, Nick and it jogged my mind about eye contact. I always mention using eye contact on Day 1 of every CELTA course I run; it’s part of Classroom Management & if used well can really contribute to the success of inviting learners to participate.
    It can be used in so many different ways to invite learners to comment, stop the bossy/know-it-all learns from dominating, with eye rolls to give signals etc. I also avert my gaze when I want my learners to ‘have another go’ or try to solve a task without my help.
    Thinking along the lines of lexis, we have so many ways of expressing looking, gaze, stare, glare etc.
    BTW, the advice about avoiding eye contact in the theatre is excellent advice to help the actors keep in character.

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    1. Yes Judie, I think that’s it. When doing theatre, you are in character, you are not yourself, so you don’t necessarily need the eye contact. When you are storytelling or teaching, you are you, exchanging directly with your students or audience. Soul to soul 🙂

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      1. Thanks for comments Judie and Rebecca. I remember on the first storytelling course I ever took part in as a teacher that someone explained that distinction to me. I think I’m starting to get interested in forms of theatre or storytelling where that distinction is blurred and that’s why Zaheya’s comment struck a chord with me. Of course when doing remote theatre or remote storytelling it’s even more complicated because we can actually achieve a kind of eye contact without looking at people. I can’t quite decide whether this is an advantage or a disadvantage!

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  3. Thanks for these thoughts Nick. It’s actually something that has been on my mind since I started volunteering on the HUP. When I do teacher training courses which often revolve around using storytelling in teaching, I always talk about eye contact and we do some exercises that help feel comfortable with making eye contact, and that show the importance of eye contact in storytelling and teaching. I agree with Dan’s comment: it really does have a lot to do with confidence and some people are uncomfortable with making eye contact at first. Sometimes, it is also cultural.
    When I started storytelling with Isra’s students in Gaza, I thought it was so interesting and quite challenging how whilst storytelling, I had to choose whether to look at the girls’ reactions and expressions, or look into the camera and give them that experience of my direct eye contact! When I do storytelling face to face, both happen at the same time and the exchange is direct. Online, we have to flick between both and/or to use our peripheral vision ( looking straight into the camera but opening up our gaze to see/feel the reactions at the same time).

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    1. Yes, thanks for bringing up peripheral vision – another very useful skill for teachers (and storytellers) to develop whether working remotely, or face to face.

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