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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.