The ‘teacher stare’ or ‘death look’ is rated highly for a reason – it works. Using this and other eye contact techniques are devastatingly simple and will elevate your pupils’ respect.
It’s all in the eyes – the power of suggestion
Charisma, power and potency are all associated with eye contact. Get it right and other people will judge you as having high self-esteem (Vandromme et al, 2011), higher social standing (Hall et al, 2015), more potency and higher levels of academic achievement (Brooks et al, 1986). Gaze avoidance, on the other hand, leads to conclusions about low social standing and impotence (Hall et al, 2015; Vandromme et al, 2011). As all teachers know, the death stare – prolonged eye contact with wide, malevolent eyes, raised brows and a murderous tilt of the head – can halt nonsense behaviour far beyond your classroom.
Why do the eyes hold so much power? The cliche that ‘eyes are windows to the soul’ is true – they send and receive information and ‘locking in’ with another person enables powerful communication (Hodge, 1971). Evidence also suggests that holding people’s gaze makes you more persuasive – Gueguen and Jacob (2002) found that direct eye contact increased compliance in a study by more than 20% and various other studies have associated increased eye contact with higher donations to charities (Bull and Gibson-Robinson, 1981) and more money given to solicitors (Linkskold et al, 1977).
In class, using more eye contact boosts pupil confidence and motivation and makes pupils feel cared for (Zeki, 2009), and allows you to quickly review who are engaged and on-task and who need support (choosing the best spot to do this from will help).
More is more – to a point
For eye contact to be effective, the quality of the gaze is vital – eyebrows, eyelids and overall facial features all send messages. The teacher stare is a perfect example of this; raised eyebrows, wide-open eyelids and a head tilt communicate disapproval at a moment’s glance. Depending on the effect you’re after, raised eyebrows signify exclamations or questions, lowered eyebrows indicate difficulty, and brows pulled together demonstrate fear (Ekman, 2009). More is definitely more – up until a point. We’ve all been creeped out by people who hold on to a gaze for too long, so using common sense is vital. You want to be seen as strong and engaging, not weird and scary.
Although simple, altering the nature of your eye contact takes some work. Longer gaze durations are associated with power and potency for a reason: powerful and potent people use them. If you’re not naturally confident, avoiding looking away will take a lot of getting used to – I personally struggled with this for a couple of months. It has been well worth the effort: improving my eye contact has made lessons quieter, interruptions less frequent, and respect has grown in both directions.
While making more eye-contact won’t change your class climate overnight, it will more than subtly change the relationship between you and your pupils. They’re more likely to feel cared for and listened to and will hold you in higher regard. It’s quick to do (although you’ll have to remind yourself to do it), noise and stress levels will plummet and your class will have a stronger, more united climate. Not only that, buy you’ll be able to stop a child at 100 yards in any supermarket.
Bailey, A. H., & Kelly, S. D. (2015). Picture power: Gender versus body language in perceived status. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 39(4), 317-337.
Brooks, C. I., Church, M. A., & Fraser, L. (1986). Effects of duration of eye contact on judgments of personality characteristics. The Journal of Social Psychology, 126(1), 71-78.
Bull, R., & Gibson-Robinson, E. (1981). The influences of eye-gaze, style of dress, and locality on the amounts of money donated to a charity. Human Relations, 34(10), 895-905.
Ekman, P. (2009). Telling lies: Clues to deceit in the marketplace, politics, and marriage (revised edition). WW Norton & Company.
Gueguen, N., & Jacob, C. (2002). Direct look versus evasive glance and compliance with a request. The Journal of social psychology, 142(3), 393-396.
Hall, J. A., Coats, E. J., & LeBeau, L. S. (2005). Nonverbal behavior and the vertical dimension of social relations: a meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 131(6), 898-924.
Hodge, R. L. (1971). Interpersonal classroom communication through eye contact. Theory into Practice, 10(4), 264-267.
Lindskold, S., Forte, R. A., Haake, C. S., & Schmidt, E. K. (1977). The effects of directness of face-to-face requests and sex of solicitor on street corner donations. The Journal of Social Psychology, 101(1), 45-51.
Vandromme, H., Hermans, D., & Spruyt, A. (2011). Indirectly measured self-esteem predicts gaze avoidance. Self and Identity, 10(1), 32-43.
Zeki, C. P. (2009). The importance of non-verbal communication in classroom management. Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences, 1(1), 1443-1449.