Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Teacher is Center Stage

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.


  1. What a fabulous post! I truly believe the most critical success factor for an educator is one’s attitude and outlook. Not only can you read an educator’s attitude through WHAT they say but also HOW they speak or the tone of his or her voice. Gestures and body language are vital as well. Like you mentioned, being aware of how you appear to the learners can make all the difference. Many times we are not conscious of our reactions or faces we make when a topic we may be uncomfortable with or not too familiar with comes up during a conversation or learning experience. By trying to be aware of our reactions, we can stop and think before portraying potentially harmful or counterproductive viewpoints.

    I can recall teachers throughout my educational career who made the most boring subjects super interesting. There is nothing as ineffective as a teacher at the front of the classroom lecturing in that “Bueller? Bueller?” monotone voice that is only good for putting someone to sleep. One important part of your post that stuck out to me was the emphasis on switching up your lesson plans so you don’t get bored with the material and convey this boredom to your learners. As an educator, I feel it is our job to show learners how much fun there is to be had learning. If a teacher seems to be enjoying the lesson, students will most likely follow suit. Besides, shouldn’t we be switching up lesson plans to adjust to each different group of learners anyways? This is like killing two birds with one stone!

  2. Jina,
    Well done! This topic is often something I try to keep in mind when I'm doing intakes at work. I loathe these phone calls and often find myself trying to hurry up the calls to get them over with but I try to remember how the person on the other end of the line feels. Most people don't make appointments for counselling and therapy unless they're in a scary or nerve-wracking place and having to deal with jaded administrators is the last thing they need.
    I think this scenario is totally applicable for educators and it is such a critical thing to keep in mind when teaching.
    Most of the time when I meet people, their name is the last thing I remember. Most of the time I'm too busy noticing how they shook my hand or what their wearing or their facial expressions or the words they choose to use or their comfortability with discussing certain things. Educators should be reminded that their students are doing this to them too and if you add distractions like their smartphones, mp3 players, handheld video games, and just general life scenarios, it can be a tough scenario to teach in! Thankfully, we are able to be in a program where we are taught TONS of activities to combat this and we are exposed to SARs so we can have our immediate reactions in a safe space. However, I think this controlled behavior is something that is difficult to teach and is probably learned best through examined experience or trial and error. I'm cognoscente of most of my negative attributes but its difficult to control them at all times. So making STDs and contraception fun is definitely something I'll keep in mind, right next to sitting straight and not rolling my eyes. :)

  3. what a very educational blog. teenagers must be geared with health educators who care a lot for them.

  4. Jina,
    As a budding educator, I am amazed at the statistic you quoted from Silberman, that participants only remember and respond to only 7% of what is said. On the other hand, as a student/audience member, I can remember many times when I was more focused on a verbal tic (uh...uh...uh...) or voice (drone.....) of a presenter than the content of his or her presentation. This is in some ways discouraging - not only do we need to worry about how best to present our medically-accurate, age-appropriate, experiential learning lessons, but we also have to keep our clothes sharp, our voices active and engaged, our body language neutral - it can feel overwhelming!

    I also have found the SARs to be good practice for showing a neutral/tolerant professional reaction when inside I am having stronger reactions. Unfortunately, many (most?) educators do not get the chance to participate in SARs or anything similar. It would be useful for other educators - not just sexuality educators - to participate in that kind of learning experience.

  5. Jiná:

    It is so true, no matter what you are teaching you are always center stage. I was videotaped once when I was student teaching. I did not look or teach like I thought I looked and taught! But it was informative and after 7 years of daily classroom teaching it would be interesting to be taped again to compare the two scenarios. While it would probably be somewhat frightening to see how I have changed visually having aged 7 years, I am sure it would be enlightening as a self-critique. What would interest me most this time around would be my body language. What do I say when I am saying nothing? Or when I am talking? As Silberman pointed out, if 90% of what participants remember and respond to is nonverbal learning, I think I should see what I am saying.

    As a new teacher, even with the best curriculum laid at your feet, the first time you deliver any lesson it is always an eye opener and there are always ‘things to do differently and better next time.’ Even if you practice until you know the lesson inside and out, the dilemma is - there is no responding audience. It is only when you get up in front of your group for the first time to deliver the lesson that you will make the discoveries that will improve your lesson next time around. Amazingly enough, no matter how many times you teach the lesson, your audience always teaches you something as well. Witness Don and the nerd ball exercise where for the first time, he had not one, but two students who were extremely uncomfortable with this activity. He brought to our attention that this was a new glitch and he spoke about some ideas he had already formulated for ‘unglitching.‘

    And that is the good thing: there will be another time around for you to test your new ideas. One suggestion I have is to note any changes you want to make to a lesson immediately or as soon as you can after delivery. Trust me, the next time you look at the lesson, it is quite possible that you will have forgotten the brilliant ideas that you imagined would make this lesson ‘perfect’ the next time around.

    I know I am a better teacher ‘on stage’ now than when I began. How do I know this? Through assessments of course!
    Thanks Jiná!

  6. Jiná

    What a fabulous point you’ve made. There are no intermissions for educators; even when the presentation is over, eyes are still watching. Every nuance is up for scrutiny’s sake.

    Your post brings up something for me that I feel gets skimmed over in education: dress code. As Jiná stated, sexuality educators spend a great deal of time talking about the need for passion to do this sort of work. As educators we also talk about the amount of time spent tailoring curricula, activities, delivery styles, and body language so that we reach a broader audience; but no one ever talks about the passion and time needed to be presentable in front of a group! Our passion to teach sexuality is always so accessible, but our desire to look like we put in some effort before we leave our homes, remains to be seen for some. Jiná, you mentioned only 7% of what is said is actually retained by students, I am sure that when our outward appearance looks unkempt (or barely professional), we lose even more percentage points.

    Now I’m not saying that we have to be dressed to the nines with church hats on but, there are so many elements that have to merge to make for effective education. And if we need to watch our body language, it would only make sense to me that we need to pay attention to what we cover our bodies in. I’m just saying…


  7. Jina,

    Great post. This is actually something that i was thinking about in the past week or so. I am not an experienced educator, and i am more or less really getting a lot of field experience during my practicum, which i am currently doing. I noticed that sometimes ill ask the students a question and they kind of answer it with an irrelevant answer. at that point i kind of loose focus and don't pay attention to what the student says. This is not good! When that happened i tried to revert my attention back to the student as i remembered Dyson telling us that the teacher is ALWAYS on even if im not the one talking! or if a student says something that shocks or surprises me, i try to control my facial reactions as much as i can. I am constantly attempting to be mindful of myself: my body language, facial expressions and my interest level. It is very hard!

  8. Jina this is a great point to remind educators! After reading your blog post about being the center of attention/on center stage, all I could think about was my most recent group experience. On Friday nights I co-facilitate a youth group. This past Friday I ran the group meeting by myself, but we had two graduate students join us to run an activity and discussion about self-esteem. During the first part of the meeting I did our weekly check-ins and introductions, my energy was high and I was fully aware that I was on center stage, but after completing the standard activities I let the presenters take over. I left the room to attend to more administrative tasks before rejoining to observe the group. During the activity I spent so much time analyzing the educational methods the presenters employed and making sure that youth stayed on task that I did not realize that I was still on center stage. At the end of the activity one of the youth asked me what I thought about myself and why I didn't participate in the activity too. I first clarified why I was fulfilling the role of a moderator as opposed to a participant and then told the youth how in love with myself I truly am. I went over after the meeting ended and spoke to the youth that was observing me as being in the backdrop, not center stage and thanked him for asking me to participate. We also talked about the activity together. I could tell he felt good about himself by encouraging me to participate and I was reminded that even when I am not up in the front of the room, all eyes are still on me!

    In thinking about body language and how I manage my stage presence it reminds me of being in drama class during high school. One of the first things I learned was to make good eye contact with the audience and not to cross my legs because they both show signs of nervousness. Every time I deliver a presentation I think about how my audience sees me more than anything else. Am I making strong eye contact with people? Are my legs crossed? Is my voice loud enough? and so on...Always doing my best to alter the minor details of my stage presence as I go along. I think just doing your best to be aware of your body language and to constantly smile, be upbeat, and have a positive attitude about the subject you presenting can go a long way.

  9. Jina!

    Great topic!

    I would like to echo many of the things said before me.

    I would also like to talk to talk about what happens when you do have that “poor reaction” moment.

    I have had them. I remember a time when I was in a 7th grade classroom and got an anonymous question that was about blood play. It was my 1st year on the job, I had heard (and seen videos) about blood play, but not from such a young audience. I’m not sure (even to this day) if it was a question meant to shock me and the class, but I did the classic “not reading your anonymous question before answering them” thing, and read it out loud. I’m pretty sure my face was priceless.

    At the time, I just answered the question. I talked about safe words and how to do blood play safely. I don’t think I ever said the letters BDSM, but I did say that if that was something that people were doing, “They should be using sterile implements and consult experts.” Perhaps not so developmentally appropriate … but that’s what I did in the moment.

    In retrospect, I wish I could/would have been able to address my reaction. I would have said something along the lines of “Even though I teach about sex, sometimes things still shock me. I didn’t get shocked because I think these things are gross or weird, but only because I hadn’t ever heard of them before. Now that I have, I promise I’ll never be shocked again … and I’ll be more prepared to answer those questions! Thank you!”

    I think that perhaps, part of being center stage, is being able to admit humanity. And being able to admit that even “The Sexuality Guru” can be taken aback for a moment is huge!

    SARS are fantastic, but even they can’t prepare a sex educator completely for what they might encounter. I think that being able to admit that you’ve been caught off-guard but that you’re SOOOO grateful for what you’ve learned is a fantastic way to regain your footing and earn your right to be center stage.

  10. Jina, great post.

    Something that came up in my practicum advising class was managing the "poor reaction" of getting defensive, particularly when a student is interjecting with contradicting information. One of the things that is sticking out from class is about "owning" your reaction. If you realized you may have lost some of the students by reacting in a negative way, there is the option to directly address what happened. I would imagine this may only work on a limited basis, like once in a class period, but it is another tool we have in our bags!

    ~Rachel Girard