A TEFL teacher, whether for young learners or adults, wears many hats throughout a typical lesson. They need to offer encouragement when students are insecure, they need to be the disciplinarian when students are getting off topic or not paying attention, they need to be a clown to keep things interesting, a friend in conversation, a manager when trying to organize activities. Not only does a TEFL teacher need to be all of these things, they need to do it with an enormous language barrier between them and their students.
One of the most important tools in a TEFL teacher’s bag of tricks is body language and eye contact. In a very real sense, a TEFL teacher is like a theatrical performer, much of which is improvisation. In fact, some of the best teachers I’ve observed through the years had a background in acting. Read on for my tips on how to make your body language and eye contact more effective in your classroom.
When you’ve finished reading, try taking my body language quiz. You can get it by clicking on the download button below.
Imagine that you’re a student and you’ve just joined an English class. It’s your first day, so you’re a little bit nervous. You come into the class and there is a teacher busily writing on the board. They don’t acknowledge your presence and throughout the lesson they barely even look at you. There’s a lot of explanation about language, but the teacher seems nervous and uncomfortable any time that they try to talk to you.
A lot of new teacher’s are uncomfortable in front of a room full of people. That’s fine, in fact I think that a little boost of adrenaline actually helps my performance. If you’re not confident with new groups of people, fake it. One easy way to do this is through eye contact.
No, don’t stare! Eye contact is delicate. If you have a small group of students, try not to look at any one student for more than a few seconds at time. If it’s a large group of students, keep moving your gaze around so that you are aware of how engaged students are. If it’s a one to one lesson, try to keep your eye contact casual as if you were talking to a friend.
The key is to be aware of the students in the class and change your facial expression and type of eye contact as the situation warrants. If there is a shy student I try to get down to their level and offer a bit of warmth. If I’m in a class of rambunctious seven-year-olds, I might occasionally need to give my “stern teacher look” to a student who is doing something naughty (or about to do something naughty).
When you’re teaching a class, are you generally standing or sitting? Do you keep your hands in your pockets? Do you often cross your arms? How about your posture, are you standing up straight or slouching? You can communicate a lot about your attitude through your unconscious body language. To master body language in your classroom, you may need to make some conscious changes.
To appear more welcoming and friendly, try to keep an open posture, not closed. This is something that is true whether you are sitting or standing. Try not to cross your arms too much. Try keep your shoulders and hands open. Look at the two pictures below, which person looks more approachable? Notice their body language.
Another thing to think about is that you are going to need to nominate students to give answers or to take part in activities. Direct pointing can be perceived as aggressive. Some alternatives to this are simply nodding your head and making eye contact with a student whose hand is raised. That, or, with an open palm, motion towards the student. I do point directly at students from time to time, but I think it’s important to think about the difference.
Now, should you sit or stand during a class? What message is being conveyed in each situation? When it comes to teaching adults in a small group, I feel like it’s important to spend a good deal of time sitting during certain phases of the lesson. I even arrange the classroom so it’s more of a circular conversation. I feel that this communicates that we are all equals, and that this promotes more natural speech. In these situations, I stand to present different structures on the board and occasionally to act out different scenarios. Other than that, I sit.
If it’s a larger class, this may not work. If, due to size or other limitations, you need to have the classroom set up in rows, then you’ll need to stand most of the time to keep yourself visible and making eye contact with all of the students. In this situation, the sitting should be limited to when the teacher is taking part in small group activities: sit down and join in for a minute, then move to the next group.
In a young learner’s classroom, the teacher needs to be as mobile as possible. The idea is to get your students out of their seats whenever possible, so how would it look if the teacher was sat down? With YL classes, I try to limit sitting to when reading a storybook or, with higher level classes, trying to make a point that we are going to “have a little chat”. These little chats can be about the class itself or just a more natural conversation about a topic.
A Constant Game of Charades
A TEFL class is a bit like a game of Pictionary and charades that never ends. This is especially true in lower level classes. You may come to class armed with flashcards and other images, but inevitably you’ll end up needing to mime quite a few things. For example, let’s say a student is confused about the difference between present simple “he goes to school” and present continuous “he is going to school”. One easy way to clear this up is to show how “going to school” implies that he is actively going [teacher makes walking motion] whereas “goes to school” is a routine action [teacher says “Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday etc. goes to school”].
The above is just one of about a million examples where acting out a language point is often much clearer than any longwinded explanation. It’s also important to make certain gesture habits to communicate with students. If you make a gesture routine it can save an enormous amount of time setting up group work, getting a student to self correct an error or communicate an idea. For example, if a student has the habit of giving one word answers, and I want them to say a full sentence, I can elicit this simple by making a rolling hand gesture and waiting for them to say more.
With young learner classes, the need for vibrant gestures and fun actions is even more important. If you’ve taken a TEFL course with any sort of YL component, you’ve likely heard of TPR (total physical response). TPR is a strategy for getting learners to remember words by adding a physical component. It is also a lot of fun.
What this means is that, if I’m confronted with the task of presenting six new toy vocabulary words to a group of students, I don’t simply say “bicycle” and ask them to repeat. Instead, I say “bicycle” and have an associated action with it (probably riding a bicycle). Students are expected to say the word and do the action. If you’re not doing this with your kids, I strongly suggest you give it a try.
It’s a lot to take in, isn’t it? If you’d like to think about some of the above issues in a different way, I encourage you to take my Body Language quiz. You can download it by clicking on the button below.