Friday, November 26, 2010

EFL Teaching Advice: Emotions are Contagious

emotions are contagious

Emotions are contagious. Anyone who has worked as a teacher knows this. Stand in front of a class and present in a disinterested and lifeless manner and the same blasé mood will infect the entire class. Walk into the class with a spring in your step and smile on your face and your students will probably come to life and take notice of what you have to say.

Now, if what you have to say is not presented in a structured and engaging way, then this lack of preparation will probably counteract your attempts to improve the atmosphere in the classroom. But positive emotions can be the difference between a dull, uninteresting class and one that your students will remember.

Assuming that what you present to your class is worthy of their attention, how can you improve your emotional state of mind so that your class picks up on this and becomes more interested in what you are saying?

Faking It Can Work

You can’t fake it, can you? Well, yes, in fact, you can. Just as feigning interest in something can lead to real interest, and outward demonstrations of love can increase your feelings for someone, so too acting enthusiastic and eager can eventually become a genuine habit. Add some modulation and emotion to your voice, engage in some slightly over-the-top body language on occasion, use some humour in the classroom, and even smile once in a while and your students will respond favourably. The positive feedback that you receive will only encourage you to continue in this manner until hopefully it is no longer only a schtick.

At the same time, being able to filter out and deflect certain emotions can be a valuable skill as well. Any kind of presenter or teacher with an acute sense of self-awareness can wither in front of their audience after a particularly cringe-worthy misstep. Subsequently, the sense of embarrassment that an audience has for the person standing in front of them can make for a very unpleasant situation.
When you visibly react to your own mistakes, and worse, let those mistakes then affect your performance for the remainder of the class, your students sense this. Too many situations like that and a certain reputation starts to take hold.

Observing Teachers in the Classroom

During the years that I worked as an English teacher I had the opportunity to observe some teachers in action. Some were very skilled at reading and influencing the emotions of their students. The best teacher I ever witnessed recognized the body language of his students and was able to change the direction of a pre-planned lesson when necessary to account for a collective lackluster response.

Of course, to be able to do this you have to know the material cold and have numerous approaches for teaching the same topic. When one approach doesn’t work in a certain situation, or, for whatever reason, with a particular group of students, you have to be willing to try another. His eclectic teaching methods also helped to keep the emotions of his students riding relatively high. Above all that though, he simply exuded constant confidence and energy. If you watched his students as he was teaching, they were always interested in what he had to say.

On the other hand, I also witnessed some abysmal displays. Actually, it is quite amazing that some of those individuals agreed to let me observe them while they were teaching. Surely they knew that they didn’t quite have what it takes to be good teachers. Or, they had stopped caring to such a degree that the result was the same: uninspired and boring classes that quickly caused students to lose interest.

In the worst case I remember, I knew that the teacher was going through some difficult times outside the classroom. It was like watching someone come unraveled. He would be standing in front of the classroom, and then he would zone out. He would start mumbling and it was almost as if he were no longer there. At the close of the semester, he received some of the worst student evaluations (this was in a university setting) ever, and was not offered another contract.

The underlying requirement for displaying the kind of positive emotions in the classroom that will contribute to a good experience for your students, is interest. Yes, plain old interest in what you are doing. I am amazed at the number of English language instructors who show no interest in what they are doing. It was either never there to begin with, or it wilted away over the years.

So, if this is the case with you, start faking interest in whichever subject you are teaching, and the real thing may just show up in time.