Standing in front of class, I am always aware of eye contact. Am I reaching every student? Perhaps I am looking at only selective students and not others? Are students looking at me? If their eyes are on me, what is the expression I am reading - interest, confusion, understanding, blankness?
I use to "ping" off of eye contact when I first started teaching. If a student looked skeptical or confused - with a furrowed brow - I would stop mid-stream and try to clarify what I was saying. As an extrovert, I was extremely aware of my audience and adapted my actions based on immediate feedback.
Now that I'm somewhat more experienced as a teacher, I recognize that each person has their own unique facial expression when they are looking up at a speaker. Instead of drawing immediate conclusions - that I need to change my presentation in real-time - I now know that the person sitting there is coming to the "moment" with their own experiences and set of lenses.
There were a couple of occasions this week when the nuances of eye contact became very clear to me. The first was when I was watching Dancing with the Stars. Professional dancer Karina Smirnoff fell during in a Hip Hop dance with Olympian Apolo Anton Ohno. Following the performance she was completely distraught that she had "ruined the dance" and could not make eye contact with either Apolo or the judges. I realized that she was ashamed and could not look anyone in the eyes. You rarely see someone vulnerable and real on television.
On Saturday night I went to see one of my favorite performers Don Reed at The Marsh in Berkeley. Her performs a one person show called The Kipling Hotel. I've seen Don perform three times and the second time I went, a few months ago, I talked to him after the show to say that I loved his work. He said, "you look familiar, I know you." This Saturday, feeling like I was seeing a friend on stage I sat in the front row. During Don's performance we made eye contact a few times. I was so engaged in his performance and felt like I was giving him feedback by being an active and attentive audience member. This was especially important because the audience member to my left kept yawning loudly and checking his phone for the time. I found this so disrespectful and if you ask my students, they will tell you that distracted students are my biggest irritation. Don, however, is a true professional and even if he noticed the distracted man, he did not let it show in his performance.
After the show Don, as always, came down into the audience. Again, he came up to me and said, "do I know you?" I told him my name and that I had attended before. He gave me a hug, as he does to many audience members and thanked me for coming. The interaction made me feel welcome and included in the intimate world he creates in the small theater environment. I felt recognized and respected.
That famous saying, "the eyes are the window to the soul" seems so true to me. I have met plenty of people who are absent in their expression. They can not look at you, or do not see you, or hide away from you. Have these people learned to put away their emotions? Perhaps they have been vulnerable and did not find it to be a good experience, or were reprimanded. I admire bravery - even if you have to look away because you are vulnerable, at least emotions are real, normal and natural. Hiding them is a loss.