Your principal working medium is yourself. That includes your voice, your presentation, your positioning, your mannerisms, and your personal qualities and values... Like many features of teaching, excellence in any few of these areas is unlikely to enhance the process, but problems can severely inhibit it.
There is no substitute for seeing and hearing yourself in action. With readily available video equipment, there is also no excuse. Video a few sessions, and then put it away and look at it a few weeks later (when you have forgotten all the considerations which influenced your self-presentation on the day).
- Watch it on your own, and make a note of what strikes you about your performance.
- If you can bear it, watch it with someone else who has never seen you teach, but who will be prepared to give you realistic feedback.
- Watch it with the aid of a classroom observation schedule, such as those used on teacher education courses, and rate yourself on the factors which the form draws attention to.
- Watch it on fast-forward, and see how your movements and mannerisms come to the fore.
- If you identify things which need to be changed, do not try to change everything at once: select one or two specific items and work on them. If you try to do too much you will become distracted by the "performance" aspects of teaching and forget about helping students to learn.
Where do you put yourself? There are obvious points such as not obscuring students' views of screens or boards, but there are others which are often forgotten.
- In my view, for what it is worth, you should only sit down if you want to communicate that you are refusing to take the conventional teaching role (which may be quite often, depending on your classes). Otherwise, students need to be able to see you. Seeing you speak is important additional information, which may help them to make sense of the occasional mis-heard word. If anyone in the class has a hearing impairment, whether aware of it or not, they need to see you.
- So do not silhouette yourself against a window. Do not move so far away from the screen or the board that students cannot see both you and it in the same glance.
- If you do move about, make a point with your movements: if you are presenting a debatable point, make the "pro" points from one side of the room and the "con" points from the other. Do not pace like a neurotic caged animal in a zoo!
The British are not known for their demonstrativeness, but relevant gestures are an additional channel of communication which you can utilise. Some, such as making quotation signs in the air, are clichés, but that does not matter: if they make the presentation more comprehensible, so much the better.
However, there is no common vocabulary of gestures in the UK. Very few of them can stand alone—and most of those which can are rude, to say the least.
- Your voice is an important tool of your trade, and it is worth looking after it. Do not strain it: no-one can sustain shouting for an hour (or listening to a shout, either).
- Breathe from the diaphragm: if you don't (or you don't know what I mean), find an acting or singing coach to help you.
- Keep your throat open and relaxed.
- Lubricate your voice with frequent drinks (At last! justification for all the coffee I drink at work—not really, sips of water are probably better for you.) Centrally heated institutions are not a good environment for the voice, anyway.
- If you do end up straining your voice, it could be because you are talking too much!
- Listen to your own voice on audio-tape, recorded from the back of the class.
- Is there sufficient and appropriate variation in pitch? Monotonous voices are the stock in trade of hypnotists, remember. A predictable sing-song can be almost as bad. Does the variation of pitch support the sense of what you are saying? In the UK (before the advent of "Neighbours") it was standard "received pronunciation" practice to drop the voice at the end of a sentence. A rising inflexion conveyed a question. That is no longer the case, but at least a change of inflexion may indicate punctuation.
- Can you catch every word? It seems to be natural to change the register of the voice according to the speaker's distance from the hearer, so this is often a self-adjusting process. As we get further away, we articulate more clearly—but it is worth checking.
- How about pace? Do you gabble or drawl? Pacing is intimately linked to the extent to which you want students to dwell on every word, and your practice of saying things once or more frequently. Assuming you can be understood (remember that not everyone in your class may be listening in their first language), the important thing is the pacing of the ideas, rather than the words.
- How formal is your expression? This is a question of appropriateness, but beware of using expressions which any of your listeners may not understand, such as idiomatic constructions or slang, particularly if you have students for whom English is not their first language, or who may not be familiar with cultural references.
- Do you have irritating mannerisms? "Um...er...well..." I am continually impressed by the ability of radio and TV presenters to speak without such mannerisms. Unfortunately, the evidence of my tapes of myself is that if I try not to use them, my delivery becomes even more stilted and self-conscious than usual: but when I am "in full flood", they disappear anyway. You can practise some of them away, but not all of them.
- Be more careful of habitual "padding" phrases, such as "OK?", "You know...", "Kind of..." They can be intensely irritating.
Values. They show.
"Values" may be a loaded word, but there are two personal qualities which will more than make up for deficiencies in practically everything on this site—although they are consistent with everything.
- Genuine, not fake. Not chat-show-host enthusiasm (which works with no-one), or geeky self-absorbed obsessional enthusiasm (which works only very occasionally but is incompatible with the second quality), but genuine interest in and even love for your subject. It's infectious, and motivation is one of the principal determinants of effective learning.
- It's difficult to be enthusiastic about some things: company law isn't riveting, and COSHH lights up few people's lives (although one of the most impressive current university teachers, Phil Race, keeps his hand in by teaching it, I gather) but there are stories to be told in either area which can show how much they matter.
- At the very least, never show that the subject is boring. Your students may think you a little strange, at worst, but if you are bored, what are they going to be?
- Not everyone can be a charismatic teacher—I know, I've tried, and it doesn't come from trying—but excite yourself about the ideas, and you may not only excite the students, but you will also want to find exciting and effective ways to help them to learn, and what good practice there is on this site will follow almost automatically.
Sorry it sounds so pompous, but you do have to respect your students (however unworthy they may at first appear). If you don't have respect for the difficulties they have in learning—if you see them as merely "stupid" or "lazy", or other dead-end labels—there is no chance of finding a way to relate to them which will help them to learn.
Moreover, it is when you respect your students that you appreciate how much they are capable of, and so how much you can push (or even pull) them. Making demands of someone you don't think capable of meeting them is a futile and inevitably frustrating exercise. But to do so in a way which shows that you do think they are capable of rising to the challenge is quite different.
I feel a two-dimensional model coming on...