Learning to accept being the focus of attention

The posts in this section of the blog are about The Subjective Classroom.

Students and observers have often said that they find me calm as a teacher. If this is true, then it was by no means a given. I recently ran a short public speaking workshop for fellow volunteers who had to make stage announcements at a Tango festival. In preparing the session, I found myself remembering my own journey with public speaking.

This is is my second post on the question of how we learn to accept and adapt our public-speaking voice as teachers, and it took shape as I was writing the first one – Your voice – friend or foe? It is a challenge which I believe many teachers have to face, but which we rarely discuss.

Feeling uncomfortable in class

When I started working in English as a foreign language in France in the autumn of 1981, I felt I was in the right place. Having always had an outsider’s take on English – more about that another time – I enjoyed being able to accompany people learning the language. The job was creative, there were lots of surprises and, thanks to my initial teacher training, I was part of a network of teachers connected with Pilgrims Language Courses and committed to humanistic teaching.

But there was something about those early years in the profession that bothered me : I regularly had uncomfortable moments in class when I suddenly realised that everyone was listening to me. I could command people’s attention in such moments, but was slightly overwhelmed by being the focus. I didn’t exactly panic. However, I did feel myself reel a little as a rush of energy caused a slight dizziness to the head, coupled with a sense of a sudden stuffiness in the room. It was like being caught in a traffic jam of my own making. The flow was gone. All I could do was pull over to the side of the road for a moment and let the flow pick up again.

Developing tactics for a tight spot

Typically, I would take a deep breath and perhaps initiate a group activity earlier than planned. When there was no group task readily available for some reason, I still had to get myself out of a tight spot, and became a dab hand at creating-mini interactions in class with things like :

Er … turn to your neighbour and try to find the title of a film which could be connected to our theme

Er … before we go into more detail, let’s just make sure the new vocabulary is clear – you have two minutes to work with your partner and write a one-sentence definition of two of the expressions on the board – don’t let the people around you know which word you’re defining, they’ll have to guess in a moment.

Anything to get the attention away from me. I was generally keen on having students talk to each other in class, so I hope it felt like part of the lesson for them.

This sense of discomfort didn’t stop me from doing my job, and it didn’t happen every day, but the stress it caused stopped me from enjoying what I was doing. Inside, it felt like Harold Lloyd in that final sequence from his classic movie Never Weaken who is in constant danger of falling but, by some miracle, never actually does.

At the time, this just seemed to be something that went with being a teacher. Unlike people who are nervous about having to make brief public announcements, teachers are constantly in the public eye. And I have accompanied sufficient trainee teachers taking their first steps in the classroom in the years since then to be able to say that finding yourself in the spotlight is never easy.

Nowadays, this uneasiness is called teacher classroom anxiety. I’d like to share the story of how listening to students helped me step back and understand what was happening to me.

Discovering a new perspective on the problem

Harold Lloyd high above the busy traffic

I had a lot of pedagogical freedom in 1986-94 when I was working in higher education at an engineering school in Tarbes. Having identified a way to bring third-year students up to par on making oral presentations using audio visual support, I was able set about designing and delivering a course to do just that. What I wasn’t expecting, was that the course would help me get a new perspective on my own situation as a public speaker.

In this project, I worked with 3 classes of 24 students all year. We had 2 contact hours per week: one hour was a thematic language class using listening and reading input to develop oral expression; the second hour was for 15-minute oral presentations by students followed by questions. A posted schedule told students ahead of time when they were to present. And as we were working in a collaborative classroom, there was also a schedule for the presentation hour assigning other roles to ensure a broad engagement from the students.

Speakers give a 15-minute talk on the subject of their choice using appropriate audio visual support followed by 5 minutes of questions (3 designated speakers per class hour).

MC introduces and ensures the smooth running of the session (introduction, transitions, question-time) and monitors timing using pre-arranged signals with presenters (one MC per class hour).

Questioners prepare questions to ask at the end of a talk which can be for the purposes of clarification, development or simply to help the presenter shine (2 designated questioners per hour).

Camera operators are 2 students designated per class hour to film each presentation entirely using a variety of close shots (face, gestures, support) and long shots (movements, position).

Observers are 2 students designated to give immediate written feedback to presenters (positive comments, points for improvement) by focusing on specific aspects of the talk (interest, clarity, intelligibility, use of support).

Roles for Collaborative Classroom model for student talks

Learning to look at the whole picture

The special feature of this class was an extra hour when I met up with the 3 presenters each week for a special feedback session to look at the film of their talks. The rule for this session was to be mutually supportive during the viewing, learning from each other.

Beginning with student A, we watched about 2 minutes from the beginning of the talk with the instructions : Say what you see, and say what you think about it. French engineering students have a tendancy to be self-critical when considering performance. This is where the presence of students B and C, who presented on the same day, was important. Their peer support and insightful remarks meant there was always an upside to our exchanges.

We then watched a second extract from the same talk chosen from a later passage. Once we had exchanged on points for improvement, we watched a final extract. Here I suggested going beyond the identification of mistakes by learning to identify things that had worked well. Again peer comments were essential, and I was able to use these to develop positive points which I had observed.

The idea was to look at the whole picture. It’s easy for an English teacher to base feedback on language points for correction, but what about things well said or words well chosen? And speaking in public is more than just language. We also focused on aspects such as the clarity and management of information, plus non-verbals such as movement, gestures and eye-contact. How you move, where you stand, when you gesture, how you make eye-contact, all change the way your audience perceive your message and how you deliver it.

“If you do something which works and you don’t think about why it worked, you may have done it by chance and not be able to do it again; if you can understand what it was and why it worked so you can use it again, then it becomes part of your technique.”

Harold Lloyd taking time to learn from his successes

Focusing on what works

Why try to focus on what works? In 2023 of course, Google is teeming with references to the importance of learning from successes and personal development is big business. Back in the dark ages of the 80s and 90s, students were often puzzled as to why we needed to identify the good points in a talk. I initially introduced this idea in order to counter balance all the self-criticism, but I soon came to understand that it was much more important than I had imagined. As the months passed, I began to see that there was something essential and possibly unique to be learned from and by each speaker each time s/he gave a talk : if you do something which works and you don’t think about why it worked, you may have done it by chance and not be able to do it again; if you can understand what it was, and why it worked, you can use it again, and then it becomes part of your technique.

Here was an inexhaustible source for autonomous learning. Students gave two talks in the course of the academic year, and the first feedback session enabled us work together to set attainable objectives for the second one. There were points for progress (do this better) and others to be maintained and even improved (keep doing this well).

Becoming a more mindful public speaker

Years of working intensively with students on public speaking gave them a start in finding a style that worked for them. This experience also gradually changed the way I felt in the classroom, simply because it made me more mindful of what was happening to me as a public speaker when I suddenly felt anxiety at the weight of all the attention.

What had previously been my tactics to handle sudden moments of difficulty grew into conscious strategies. And I have my students to thank for the following techniques I learnt by watching them.

When an audience intimidates, move in closer – I had seen students so afraid of their audience that they stepped back when speaking. I asked them why they hadn’t stepped forward instead. After all, up close you realise who the audience are, while they in turn feel more involved as you are more audible and make better eye-contact. Instead of feeling intimidated, I let myself be playful : You don’t seem to be getting what I’m saying, let me step forward a little and see if I can be more convincing…

Feel free to move when speaking, it will change your perspective – I had shared insights as to how important it was to change position at specific moments when speaking, especially when using a screen or board as support. Deliberate changes of position open new perspectives for speaker and audience while allowing all important movement which can relieve tension. So, rather than letting myself feel suffocated after too long at one side of the whiteboard while trying to finalize a difficult point from a video document, I’d say : Maybe it’s time for me to move to the other side of the board so I can see some fresh new faces

Find your own rhythm, don’t rush, and remember to breathe – In the feedback sessions, we had also talked a lot about speed of delivery when speaking, about the need to pause for emphasis and in order to catch our breath. All attention to such details increases intelligibility and comfort for both speakers and listeners. So, when teaching students who were aware of this aspect to communication with a group, I would say simply : Let me try and say that one more time with pauses, so you will know this is important and you need to remember it…

I became more aware of where I was in my teaching. I also saw how I could move between different roles which the students themselves played on the course : sometimes Speaker, at others Master of Ceremonies, occasionally Questioner or Observer, and even a watchful Cameraman who registered and recalled things for later use. I shared a common code of communication with the students which I was able to verbalize in playful or serious ways, showing them that I was putting our public-speaking principles into practice. Ultimately, I began to see that there was so much going on in the Subjective Classroom that I no longer needed to feel uncomfortable. And that sensation slipped away.

More than anything, I learnt to slow down and enjoy the journey. As a teacher I learnt to speak more deliberately, taking time when I felt rushed. I discovered that all this helps us humans to keep our flow and to keep our personal traffic moving.

Your feedback

Public speaking can unsettle people who have to do it. As teachers, we all have days when we would rather not. In my case, learning more about the ins and outs of student difficulties and successes helped me feel more comfortable in class by developing a broader understanding of all that goes on in public speaking. I am grateful for the opportunity I had to explore this.

I hope you found this rather personal post worth reading. As it’s all about learning from feedback to feel more comfortable with your own teaching voice, I would be interested to read and respond any comments, experiences or questions you may wish to share below.

More soon.

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