I’ve recently realized how difficult it is to teach. Some of the big tasks a teacher has to accomplish are planning, creating a curriculum, keeping students’ attention, inspiring, and providing new knowledge and skills. Additionally, something I never thought much about, is that during a lesson the teacher is always on “center stage.” Even when not standing in the front of the room, they are permanently the main focus. No matter whether the lesson is at the beginning, middle, or end point, whether they are lecturing, setting something up, or observing an activity, eyes are always on them. This is true whether the teacher is a daily classroom teacher, a lecturer at a seminar, or a facilitator in a workshop.
Although this idea of always being watched may make me sound paranoid, I believe it is very important to think about in order to fully recognize the position of power and influence that teachers possess during a lesson. This awareness I have of always being on-stage when teaching is significant to me because it has helped me to think about the fact that throughout a lesson all of my emotions, reactions, intonations, body language, and expressions are being observed. How the teacher acts can impact the tone and feeling in the room as well as influence what a student learns from a teacher.
Silberman (1990) discusses body language by citing the old adage, “It’s not what you say but how you say it (p. 226).” He goes on to say that research indicates participants remember and respond to only 7% of what is said. The remaining 93% comes from how the teacher responds non-verbally, what Silberman defines as vocally, facially, and posturally. He recognizes that for teachers changing habits that hinder learning is difficult because often they were developed over a long period of time, however, maintaining a constant awareness of body language in front of a group is a helpful first step to change. I would take his suggestion further and say for sexuality educators, not only is it important to be aware of habits, but it is critical to also develop an awareness of personal opinions, beliefs, and emotional reactions associated with various topics. Teaching sex and sexuality often bring up a wide array of personal feelings and responses, and it is critical for sexuality educators to be aware of themselves in order to expect their reactions and to think in advance how to manage them.
For example, let’s imagine a teacher is discussing different physical expressions of love. She details self-love, kissing, intercourse, and sensual massage. A student raises their hand and asks, “What about BDSM? Does that count as love?” The teacher may have a personal reaction in which she says to herself, “Yikes! I am super uncomfortable/opposed/uninformed about BDSM!” The issue may be actual discomfort with the topic, not knowing what is appropriate to discuss in this setting, or not remembering what BDSM means. Because she is front and center at that moment, her facial expressions (panic, fear, or confusion) may be conveying cues to the students that are helping to influence opinions about the topic. There may be someone in the room who engages in BDSM activities or knows someone close to them who does, and the reaction of the teacher has the potential to impact and shape their feeling that they are in a safe space. There may also be people in the room who have never heard of BDSM, but immediately learn from the teacher’s reaction that this behavior is not accepted. This same scenario could occur with any number of topics – masturbation, sexual violence, polyamory, etc.
Hedgepeth and Helmich (1996) say teacher comfort with sexuality education establishes the learning atmosphere and influences the students’ level of comfort. Educators often communicate their feelings about a subject non-verbally, and that plays a part in how receptive students are to the message a teacher is trying to convey and how comfortable the students feel asking questions. If a student picks up on an instructors feeling of embarrassment on the subject, regardless of what the teacher is verbalizing, the student will sense the feeling and the embarrassment or taboo-nature of the subject will be reinforced. Sexuality is a sensitive issue, and if the teacher is uncomfortable discussing the topic, the participants will likely reflect the same discomfort, which will interfere with the learning experience (Hedgepeth & Helmich, 1996). In this way, demonstrating comfort and knowledge through the lesson, regardless of the topic, helps to convey that the teacher is skilled, open-minded, and respectful.
I believe as sex educators we want to be especially careful of our reactions because we are being judged intensely by people inside and out of the classroom. The topics covered in sexuality education have the potential to be more explosive, sensitive, personal, and complex than in other subject areas. In the short amount of time I have with students I want to do my very best not to ostracize any person or activity, to help normalize less common ideas or behaviors, and to create a safe space for all students. To do this I need to provide positive (or at the very least non-judgmental) information AND non-verbal responses.
Silberman emphasizes the need to for teachers to be comfortable and familiar with their own course content. He described the excitement and challenge of delivering a lesson for the first time as a combination of excitement of preparing and learning new material coupled with the nervous lack of experience in delivering that information. In this situation, the teacher does not have any experience with students’ reactions to this information. Silberman advised that if you feel concerned about the questions student might pose (such as with the above BDSM example) consider opening questions up to the group for discussion or writing down questions and promising to get back to the group with the answer as soon as possible.
On the other hand, body language can convey messages and hinder learning when the teacher appears disinterested or has taught a lesson many times. For example, teaching about STDs is not my favorite activity. I can become very passionate and I have a high amount of energy in teaching about other sexual health topics, but STDs don’t excite me that much. I spend all day talking about Syphilis at work, and I develop Syphilis-fatigue. I try to keep in mind the purpose of my job is to educate about Syphilis and encourage risk-reduction. Often, for the people with whom I speak, their time with me is their only opportunity for sexuality education. If I speak to everyone in a monotone voice and convey my tired old speech about Syphilis, I won’t be conveying how serious an infection it can be, my desire to help people reduce their risk, or convey that I am interested and invested in them personally. If I don’t act excited and convey thoughtful and non-judgmental responses, they may not open up to me and feel comfortable having a conversation, and an opportunity for education will be missed.
Silberman addresses what to do if the content is boring because a teacher has taught the same thing repeatedly. In this case he recommends that if you experience this, keep in mind that although the information is second nature to you, it is brand new information for your students. Try to watch the ways people respond to what you say, provide plenty of opportunity for discussion, and incorporate what you learn from students into each new session. He also provides three tips to avoiding burnout: be open and flexible with the lesson plan and try different ways to deliver information or new activities, vary the location and environment you teach in, and watch others teach the same material to get new ideas.
To be effective teachers, we need to have a lot of practice. Some ideas to help us become more aware of body language, reactions, and how we are subtly conveying messages to students include video taping yourself teaching a lesson so you can see first-hand how you act. You could also ask a friend to watch you and critique your performance. As Silberman suggested, you could observe someone else teaching a similar topic to get new ideas about how to act, react, or respond to difficult situations. I also feel strongly that we should educate ourselves as much as possible on as many topics as possible. This is part of the point of the Sexual Attitude Restructuring (SARs) we experience in this program. By exposing ourselves to a wide array of topics and experiences we are desensitizing our reactions and thus developing a level of comfort and familiarity. This is fortunate so that we will not have our first exposure and reactions in front of a classroom.
Ultimately, a teacher is in the challenging position of role model. The quality and effectiveness of their involvement in the material and ability to present can impact what the participants get out of the experience (Wong et al., 2010). For this reason, I believe that it is critical for teachers to be intentional and thoughtful in their self-presentation and mindful of the messages, verbal and non-verbal, they may be sending to participants. Awareness that we will have personal reactions is a first step to managing how we will deal with our reactions. I believe that this is a critical piece of teaching that significantly impacts how successful teachers are in conveying their messages and how receptive student are to those messages.
I’m interested to hear other people’s thoughts about being the center of attention in a classroom. How do you manage your attitude, energy, and non-verbal reactions? In what way do you manage both topic fatigue and disinterest?
Bandura, A. (1977). Social learning theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Hedgepeth, E., & Helmich, J. (1996). Teaching about sexuality and HIV: Principles and methods for effective education. New York, NY: New York University Press.
Silberman, M.L. (1990). Active training: A handbook of techniques, designs, case examples and tips. New York, NY: Lexington Books.
Stayton, W.R. (1998). A curriculum for training professionals in human sexuality using the sexual attitude restructuring (SAR) model. Journal of Sex Education and Therapy, 23 (1), 26-32.
Wong, N. T., Zimmerman, M.A., & Parker, E.A. (2010). A typology of youth participation and empowerment for child and adolescent health promotion. American Journal of Community Psychology, 46, 100–114.