In spite of their importance, words are not the only way that teachers and students communicate.
Gestures and behaviors convey information as well, often supporting a teacher’s words, but sometimes also contradicting them.
Students and teachers express themselves non-verbally in all conversations, so freely and automatically in fact, that this form of communication can easily be overlooked.
One important non-verbal behavior is eye contact, which is the extent and timing of when a speaker looks directly at the eyes of the listener. For example, in conversations between friends of equal status most native speakers of English tend to look directly at the speaker when listening, but to avert their gaze when speaking (Kleinke, 1986). In fact, re-engaging eye contact often signals that a speaker is about to finish a turn and is inviting a response from the listener.
Conversations follow different rules if they involve someone of greater authority talking with someone of lesser authority, such as between a teacher and a student. In that case, the person in authority signals greater status by gazing directly at the listener almost continuously, whether listening or speaking. This alternate pattern can sometimes prove awkward if either party is not expecting it.
For students unused to continuous eye contact, it can feel like the teacher is staring excessively, intrusively, or inappropriately; an ironic effect can be for the student to feel more self-conscious rather than more engaged, which was intended. For similar reasons, inexperienced or first-time teachers can also feel uncomfortable with gazing at students continuously. Nevertheless research about the effects of eye contact suggests that it may help anyone, whether a student or teacher, to remember what they are seeing and hearing (Mason, Hood, & Macrae, 2004).
Communication problems result less from eye contact as such than from differences in expectations about eye contact.
If students’ expectations differ very much from the teacher’s, one party may misinterpret the other party’s motivations. Among some non-white ethnic groups, for example, eye contact follows a pattern that reverses the conventional white, English-language pattern: they tend to look more intently at a partner when talking, and avert gaze when listening (Razack, 1998).
The alternative pattern works perfectly well as long as both parties expect it and use it. As you might imagine, though, there are problems if the two partners use opposite patterns of eye contact.
In that case one person may interpret a direct gaze as an invitation to start talking, when really it is an invitation to stop talking.
Eventually the conversational partner may find himself interrupting too much, or simply talking too long at a turn. The converse can also happen: if the first person looks away, the partner may take the gesture as inviting the partner to keep listening, when really the first person is inviting the partner to start talking. Awkward gaps between comments may result.
In either case, if the conversational partners are a teacher and student, rapport may deteriorate gradually. In the first case, the teacher may conclude wrongly that the student is socially inept because the student interrupts so much. In the second case, the teacher may conclude—also wrongly—that the student is very shy or even lacking in language skill.
To avoid such misunderstandings, a teacher needs to note and remember students’ preferred gaze patterns at times when students are free to look wherever and at whomever they please. Traditional seats-in-a-row desk arrangements do not work well for this purpose; as you might suppose, and as research confirms, sitting in rows makes students more likely to look either at the teacher or to look at nothing in particular (Rosenfeld, Lambert, & Black, 1985; Razack, 1998).
Almost any other seating arrangement, such as sitting in clusters or in a circle, encourages freer patterns of eye contact. More comfortable eye contact, in turn, makes for verbal communication that is more comfortable and productive.
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