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The gaze.  eager sparkle – happy batting of lashes – signaling “…go!”; cautious, diverted looks – at the floor or just “away”— ….no!-- down caste/mostly shut eyes, maybe even the downright defiant stare – fixed & cocked….Occasionally the gawk – sheer incredulity & clench. When I think of being a transformative teacher, when I think of ways to use my intuition as a tool in the classroom, I think of learning to watch, notice, and read the eyes of my students - better.  Suppose learning to teach deeper requires reading students’ bodies as text and the exegetical entry point is to learn the ways of their eyes?

My mind turns to the student who comes to class clad in sunglasses – either actual or metaphorical.  I confess that I am glad, sometimes, for the shades because I hesitate to see into the one whose preference is to hide or deceive.  I often wonder if these folks are high, drunk or just plain worn out.

The eyes are the windows to the soul … so they say.  Yet, it feels as if we have been desensitized to their ever present beauty.  It is difficult enough to teach the mind – if I am to teach the soul, to deeply see a student and risk being seen – then what?  Does my disciplinary expertise prepare for the possible formation or likely disturbance which arises with the power of gazing into the eyes of my students?  Does my tenure afford me license to nurture and foster the intimate joining which comes with meaningful regard?  When I look at my students and they look back, in what ways are we mutually responsible, conjoined in the sacredness of teaching, co-creators of new universes?

Eyes blogA challenge of looking into the eyes of students is that when our eyes meet, I risk knowing them as human beings with diverse dimensions – so many stories.  Their stories tell of triumph, conquest, defeat, joys and woundednesses.  The plots of the women morph them before my very eyes into wife, corporate exec, and nana/mee-maw/goo-goo.  Men transmute - turn-into Poppa, warrior, husband, and Brotherman.  If I am close enough to see their eyes, it is likely I am close enough to smell their fragrance, notice their shoes and be touched in return – no doubt changed.

I am learning to risk looking at them, not with hard eyes of authority, but with soft eyes of expectation and anticipation.  I routinely ask students to read aloud an entire essay submitted for grading. I coach the students selected to read.  In preparation, I shower them with words of confidence and assurance.  Equally important for this learning activity, I prepare the students who are the audience for the reading by chiding them to be open and welcoming as their colleagues disclose their thoughtful work.  The first time I gave these instructions I said the following statement as a light-hearted zinger to those who would be listening to the essays.  Now, these directions have become part of my script for this perennial learning activity.  With a Black-momma eye-roll which communicates (universally) my expectation of behavioral compliance in public spaces, I said, “When your colleague is reading her essay, do not look upon her as you look upon me – instead (dramatic pause for effect) look upon her with soft eyes.  Signal her with your soft eyes your interest in her work.  Tell her with your eyes that you recognize she is attempting something very difficult.”  These instructions found great resonance with the students and have been respected each time a student reads aloud his essay.

While soft eyes are not needed for every learning experience or for every teaching moment, consistent awareness of eyes is the working challenge.  Eyes who dare look into another’s inform the seer as well as the seen of the level of dignity and humanity afforded by each.  Soft eyes disrupt the fear.  We can be, if we allow, made into someone new in the classroom if we risk more than a cursory glance.

I have learned that classrooms are places where you can come to understand yourself in ways that few other spaces can evoke.  I am learning that classrooms are also places where you can come to understand another person in ways that few other spaces can provoke.  My hunch is that a key to the evocation and the provocation is the willingness to take a long look-see.  

This is the 4th post in this series by Nancy Lynne Westfield this semester (Fall 2015).

Nancy Lynne Westfield, Ph.D.

About Nancy Lynne Westfield, Ph.D.

Nancy Lynne Westfield, Ph.D., is the fourth director of the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion. She grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, sharing a home with family and extended family dedicated to public education. Her father was a school psychologist and her mother was a stay-at-home mom who, as a volunteer organizer, greatly influenced the school board of the city of Philadelphia. Lynne holds a BS in Agriculture from Murray State University, a MA in Christian Education from Scarritt Graduate School, and a PhD in Religious Education and Womanist Studies from Union Institute. Lynne, as a United Methodist clergy person, served on the staff of the Riverside Church (NYC) where she redesigned the family education program. From 1999 to 2019, she was on the faculty of Drew University Theological School (Madison, New Jersey) as Professor of Religious Education.
Lynne’s first book was a children’s book entitled All Quite Beautiful: Living in a Multicultural Society. Her second book was a publishing of her doctoral dissertation entitled Dear Sisters: A Womanist Practice of Hospitality. Her books written in collaboration include: Being Black/Teaching Black: Politics and Pedagogy in Religious Studies and Black Church Studies: An Introduction. She also, for a brief time, wrote for the Huffington Post.

Reader Interactions


  1. Professor Westfield, I thank you for your article on the eye being the windows to the soul. I wear glasses all the time now and depend on them to read and see. I was devastated to find out this summer that the the sun is causing increasing damage to my eyes and living with cataracts has been an additional burden. This happens despite wearing a hat and glasses to protect my eyes. Where I work the office has no shades and the sun is blaring into my space. I have become accustomed to wearing sunglasses in order to keep the glare from harming my eyes further. As a photographer the eyes are essential in order to capture that moment on film yes I use the old Black and White film for particular works of nature. Years ago I learned to work in the dark room at Columbia University in order to develop photographs and still have preserved the photographs of people during the 1980’s. You have brought to my awareness how improper it is to wear dark glasses in a classroom that causes many concerns for all. Please forgive me for appearing disrespectful in wearing sunglasses in your classroom. As someone who teaches I know how it can impact another individual in the classroom. My students understand my dilemma and as the evening skies darken I remove the dark glasses when teaching.
    I want to make contact with everyone and especially in a classroom in order to demonstrate that I am focused on the message of the messenger. I have attended your classes before and always leave with wisdom and knowledge.
    You mentioned concerns for what could be going on with the individual behind the glasses; in my case sometimes sadness in wondering how the Lord wants to use me.
    Since attending your classes is always more than a learning experience; it is always a journey. You are wise to reveal your feelings and thoughts to discuss the issue. Please know just how much I appreciate your sharing will all of us. I know that judgement is not being pursued; rather a loving “pull of the coat”. The woundedness I live with comes from a missing child in my life. It has been through the experiences at Drew theological Seminary that I have slowly been healing. I appreciate your gift in facilitating your students to become their authentic self in such an exchange of knowledge and wisdom. Thanking you for the evocation and proocation to work with the “eyes”.
    Dios siempre ve todo. God always sees everything.

  2. Got to say, I really appreciate soft eyes. As an introvert in a class setting, soft eyes offer an opening for engagement that is not necessarily safe (in the sense that they do not intend to neutralize risk from the moment) but instead open for investment. It’s in that moment where I become more engaged and ready to take part in some creative risk alongside those around me.
    All of this to say, it’s incredibly hard work to navigate that distance between another’s eyes and your own (work that I have certainly failed in before). What, at first, seems like a distance that extends no longer than the classroom expands into a vast space filled with differing experiences, stories, perspectives, and beliefs that must also be open to engagement. In this way, I begin to imagine, it is not the work of navigating the external landscape of the classroom experience that truly matters. Instead, it is the internal landscapes of the speaker and listener that must each be open to the explorations of one another if transformation is to become a possibility.

  3. I was in fourth grade, in North Carolina and it was the first time that I became aware that I did not like the way some eyes looked back at me. They were cold, unfamiliar and unfriendly. That was more than 40 years ago and I still remember those disapproving eyes, telling me that I was less than, different, not as smart. I vowed then to be the best that I can be, “I will show you.” From that time on I knew that I could survey the eyes to determine if I was in enemy territory. The eyes truly are the windows to the soul. It is difficult for the eyes to hide the heart’s truth.

    So I have to thank the 4th grader those eyes belonged to, because they made me determined and driven and powerful and a bitch! But with soft eyes. Laugh out loud!

  4. I struggle to make eye contact. It has always been a difficult thing for me to do and as an adult, I force myself to do it for the sake of “professionalism”. It feels like a powerful action to take and gazing into someone’s eyes can reveal so much about them. I hate the idea that it is proper to look into a person’s eyes when speaking to them; that somehow I am failing at the interaction through refusing eye contact. There is so much to experience and communicate through the eyes and it has been a growing process for me to learn to be able to handle that. At times I’m still uncertain if I can.

    I do agree with Phil in appreciation for soft eyes. When you work with that kind of gaze you feel less demanded of and perhaps genuinely seen. At least there is an attempt to see.

  5. I also believe that the eyes are the true telling of a person. I hate when I need to email, text or phone someone because I cannot see how that person is interpreting what I am trying to say. I do understand that some people have a hard time with eye contact because of feeling threatened or challenged. I also know that in one of my diversity classes I leaned that there are some cultures that consider it disrespectful to look into another’s eyes. With this thought I no longer jump to the conclusion that the person is being rude or insubordinate if he/she does not look into my eyes while speaking.
    When I sit in a classroom I always, when able, try to sit so that I have a clear frontal view of the professor. I do this for my own benefit of trying to get the most out of what the professor is saying while avoiding other distractions within the classroom. Being able to look a professor in the eyes while he/she is lecturing allows me to get more out of the lecture while making a connection with that professor.
    I believe in this generation of technology there is less and less of the eye to eye contact. I received on Facebook a clip about this very thing. There is a sign in front of a person just sitting quietly in a busy town square. The sign merely says, “Where has the human connection gone? Spend one minute in human contact to find out.” This experiment is eye opening to many. It is on, “Viral Thread’s News/Media,” website on Sept. 14th. If anyone has not seen it I believe he/she should.
    I think that much of the anger and pain that is seen in the world is because of people not knowing how to have that human contact. The youth of today have technology that eliminates the consequences of human eye contact when something is said or done. The eyes are essential in getting to be closer and understand another, but they are only one part of the entire language that the body speaks to convey what is unsaid. The human race needs those connections and my fear is that one day they will be completely lost to technology.

  6. Thanks Professor. I never would have guessed the next reflection would be on “eyes.” Appreciate the diverse / unique topics! A few thoughts come to mind … part reflections – part questions I suppose. For starters, I recently have become friendly (through my professional work) with a man who teaches body language. Your reflection reminds me of what I’ve learned from him and how much we communicate non-verbally. I do think it is telling – for ourselves and when reflecting upon the other, how very “intimate” our gaze is and how discomfort in holding our gaze for any period of time reflects a discomfort with intimacy. I love the invitation brought by those “soft eyes” … it’s as if the communication being provided in those moments is … you are in a safe place! How very important that can be for so many people … for the nourishment of our selves … our souls … how important that can be to foster growth! I also couldn’t help but reflect the importance (to me) of seeing and really feeling those attentive and soft eyes when I preach. I have come to realize that I am much more of an extrovert (receiving energy from others) and thus, the energy I receive when in a teaching or preaching environment through the engaged eyes that meet mine during a sermon is HUGE! Finally, I can’t also help but wonder how our obsession (count me as guilty) with our electronic devices / phones has stood in the way of gazing into one another’s eyes!

    Grace & Peace,

  7. In this google-age, where it is easier to hide behind the computer screen, hide behind the screen of the tablet or cell phone and rarely look up, let alone, look into the eyes of someone else, I can really appreciate this entry. Soft eyes, engaging eyes, eyes that say teach me, reach me. Eyes that affirm and welcome, eyes that connect and cheer one. This is appreciated by me because I enjoy eye contact. The ability to say, “Hey! I am here…You have my attention” non-verabally is important in developing trust for me. So to see it in the classroom is important. I can speak lies with my mouth, but my eyes will always find me out (poker-faced and all).

  8. This is an interesting reflection, Dr. Westfield. I think I can be honest and suggest that I have come to learning experiences with Transitions lenses. These lenses in eyeglasses usually darken automatically in light and become clear when the light dims. For me, I think life, work, stress, and some of my own biases cause me to walk into my learning experiences with dark lenses, and through the learning, my lenses tend to lighten.

    Not that I don’t want my eyes to be seen, but I want to trust that the one who looks at me genuinely wants to see my soul and nurture my soul. So, it’s the changes in the room, the conversation, and the engagement that takes place in the learning experiences that clears my lens that my eyes may see clear and be seen clearly.

    Soft eyes is so apropos considering our present class on prayer. As you teach, and even as you challenged and deepened our understanding of reflection, you did it with “soft eyes.” You feel like you invite us into the experience and through the soft eyes, I feel expectation and anticipation. In retrospect, after reading this, you are modeling in that you are, in many ways, making your spiritual journal and prayer tradition public to us. That is a risk. And I appreciate it. I have left each class excited and anticipating the change in my prayer life and in leading the prospect of enriching the prayer life of the congregants I serve.

    As a practical matter, I am a principal so I am wondering what this exercise looks like in my building? Do my teachers have soft eyes? I can’t wait to look tomorrow.


  9. Eye contact comes with inherent risk – on both parts. I have always struggled with making eye contact with others, especially those I don’t know yet (or trust yet). Which is why I never know who my server at a restaurant is, because I don’t make eye contact. Once eye contact is made a connection is made and once made there should be an expressed interest in nurturing that connection. I find this is especially true in education settings and Dr. Westfield you make that point in your writing here. Both parties need to take the risk of joining together to be “mutually responsible, conjoined in the sacredness of teaching, co-creators of new universes”. Without the connection, teacher and student can not truly learn from each other. I will continually work on stepping out of my comfort zone and making that eye contact because the reward of taking that step far outweighs the fear, but it is nice to remember that others struggle with this too – including the teacher/professor. I am really enjoying this blog, and I thank you for being a transformative teacher, joined with her students in learning.

  10. As a parent, I learned early on that I must set boundaries for my children. In fact, a friend who is a family counselor taught my wife and I that children depend upon their parents for these boundaries as a subliminal sign of protection. So as I read of your hesitation to “see into the one whose preference is to hide or deceive”, the parent in me said that you should absolutely challenge this student’s preference to hide. Doing so would demonstrate to the student that (a) you care about them and (b) their self-imposed fence is not acceptable in a community.

    I do not believe that the richness that comes from the intimate communication which you describe however, is one that is necessarily limited to the classroom. As you say, “Eyes who dare to look into another’s inform the seer as well as the seen of the level of dignity and humanity afforded by each”. In light of the plethora of mass shootings around this country, it is clear to me that those who wish to “hide or deceive” are being granted their wish without even the slightest bit of resistance. We may never be able to get our powers-that-be to change the archaic policies that allow the wrong people to get their hands on so many deadly weapons, but within our own selves, we have the power to look into the eyes of those disenfranchised and hidden people who are intent upon spreading fear and even death. What better way to break a pattern of fear than with one of love.

  11. The need to make eye contact in the classroom is a must and the art of reading eyes is a gift developed. I think its very important to make eye contact with students so that we can be more effective in the teaching moment. I think eye contact makes it easier for the teacher to see into the student’s world as well. Thanks Dr. Westfield.

  12. Dr. Westfield,
    Well, said in that the eyes are “a” window to the soul. I truly have learned that in the absence of the eye viewing and revealing the soul, there are so many other aspects and parts of the physical body that also give a clear distinction of ones soul. In fact, by grace only, I have a new profound love for the natural eyes, that at times, in the past, I surely took for granted. Some few months ago, I was diagnosed with a mass/legion overshadowing my optical nerve and causing inflammation to my cerebral. The neurologist stated the finding of the legion “incidental.” The reason the tumor was called an incidental finding, was based on no prior issues with either of my eyes. I had other symptoms that warranted a doctors visit. It was a true eye opening experience for me and my family, when the results of a brain MRI disclosed the mass.. There was a huge possibility that I would no longer have natural sight or a least in my left eye.

    As an educator, in a public high school, 90 percent of my profession is counseling and advocating for my students, I thought seeing them was essential.

    Post surgery, the living Spirit of God showed me how to hear the very hearts of my two precious daughters, as they cared for me while I healed. I also am extremely thankful for the “hearing” of the soul. Graciously, I am known as a miracle to my neurologist and my opthamologist, in that 98 percent of the tumor was removed, the 2 percent was benign! I have sight, and no immediate double vision. In short, to bring this glorious and miraculous story to a close, I wear my bi-focal prescribed sunglasses to class (hopefully not for long)because its required and apart of the healing of my eyes, which will lead to better eye sight to SEE the souls of hearts that I will encounter! Again, thank you for addressing the topic”eye contact in the classroom.” with gratitude! Kendall

  13. Thanks Kendall for sharing your story with us. I pray that the Spirit will continue to bring wholeness to you as your body heals.

    Physical and spiritual sight: Unless a person is born physically blind, losing of one’s sight is a major life adjustment. My niece was unfortunately given a wrong medication and developed Steven-Johnson Syndrome. At thirty-eight years old she lost her sight which caused her to have a total life adjustment both physically and spiritually. This lost made her reach for something that she did not even know she embodied. It forced her to rebound with new eyes not physical ones but spiritual ones. As I observed her she became sharper in intellect, renewed in patience which was an added gift from God. She, family and friends who have been on this journey with her all now see with different eyes as well.

    The term “the eyes are the windows to the soul” is true and seeing into the soul through spiritual eyes awakens us to the beauty of life, the creativity of learning and the experience of communicating with people, nature and our very own existence.

  14. If I am to teach the soul, to deeply see a student and risk being seen – then what?” Then I would say that there is a trust that happens between the two whose eyes connect. Just as you see into the soul of a student through their eyes, they see back into the eyes of the teacher. The connected gaze offers a sense of communication and understanding between the two. There is also a sense of respect. Everyday, I stand at the door to greet my students and when they approach my doorway, I say, “Good Morning” as I look deeply into their eyes and I make sure they are looking into mine.

  15. I agree that “The eyes are the windows to the soul.” This is so true. Usually we can read peoples’ feelings through their eyes because it reflects how they feel. Eye’s expression is quite interesting because biologically we have similar eyes like eye lash, the black part, and the white part(pupil). However our eyes have so many different stories.

    Eyes cannot lie so that I believe they are always tell the truth. In this case, eye contact is the one of important source of communication. Eyes are conveying the truth, therefore when we eye contact, we can get the core meaning from others. In other words, we can understand another person.

    I’m taking “preaching” course in this semester. Each student need to give two sermons during the semester. In the sermon reflection form, there is answering about body movement including eye contact. I had learned about eye contact from Korean preacher about 6 years ago, and he emphasized that I need to look the left side, center, and right side equally. Preaching in the class was a great opportunity to practice eye contact because, in church, usually it is hard to hear feedback about sermon.

    Once again, I believe that eye contact is the core practice about teaching&learning. Eyes are telling my true heart.

  16. Kamellah Marsh
    The Art of The Teaching Life
    Dr. Lynn Westfield
    Blog Response
    Eye Contact in the Classroom

    It is interesting that you’ve introduced the matter of the eyes being the window to the soul. It is often times difficult for some people to look into the eyes of another for a variety of reasons. I’ll share a few:

    • Women are not allowed to look into the eyes of men who are of the Nation of Islam – it is a sign of submission.
    • Women who have been abused find it difficult to look into the eyes of men, much less others – it is a sign of fear for women and disrespect to the abuser.

    Sharing perspectives in the classroom can be an intimidating experience. It is difficult enough to dialogue in classrooms with peers, it is even more difficult to dialogue about materials, content areas, content relatable experiences when the teacher does not connect with the students whom they are teaching. Indeed there are many layers to each person we encounter and I think that seeing the depth of a person and not merely the surface of a person will allow for a more insightful learning experience.

    Learning, just as teaching should never become so mechanical that we don’t stop and smell the roses or see what or shall I say who is right in front of us. One way to accomplish this goal is to look into the eye and find the soul.

  17. I make it my purpose to look into someone’s eyes at least once in the conversation. I do believe you share something intelligible without the need for words. I consider those moments sacred. Most recently, I had to confess to a new friend that I could recall their beautiful hazel eyes, but not her name. There is a vulnerability that we must accept when we look at each other’s eyes, and especially with “soft eyes”. In the classroom, at school or at church, there are strict boundaries that have been established between teacher and student. The risk we take when we look into each other’s eyes is that some boundaries can blur bringing us to uncertain, unchartered territory. And the agreements made between teacher/student must be renegotiated. However, the benefits of challenging the defined structures of the classroom, with soft eyes gazing activity might disrupt the structures enough to bring about the true dyadic engaged learning that is needed in this time.

  18. Dr. Westfield states that, “I risk knowing them as human beings with diverse dimensions – so many stories.” This blog addresses a complex issue and it causes me to reflect on what it means to inhabit the classroom with my colleagues and my professors. As we interact with each other we are all exposed to the transformative forces of community. This excites me because I can only imagine how this diverse community at Drew Theological Seminary is being transformed by “so many stories.”

  19. The eyes are the windows to the soul…. This statement I believe is true especially when you allow your inner spirit to become your eyes. I have personally experienced revelations by looking into “soft eyes” as well as unpleasant moments of looking into eyes that appear to be dark and filled with death, each of these events were guided by my inner Spirit. It is this same inner Spirit that reveals to me when the daily demands of life have left me spiritually depleted and in need of renewal. It is at these times my eyes literally no longer see things in clarity, but cloudy. This temporal impairment of my vision is only reversed when my soul is refreshed and renewed by spending time in my prayer closet, yes my eyes are the window to my soul.

  20. In my ministry, I got the opportunity to go for Mission Trip to San Pedro Sula, Honduras. In my training, they said: “Please don’t do any eye contact with this particular City”…for this population eye contact mean a sensual or sexual connotation. As Dr. Westfield said I learned the eyes are the windows, was a challenge to bring workshops, preaching, or just talk with them. In this process, I see how important the eye contact is from our perspective as a minister, teacher, speaker or friend. This W-Blog making me think how observant we are in the Classroom about reactions, body language, or non-verbal acting more than the eyes are not seeing us. Each people have different personalities and other ways to learn. The Eye is important to perceive not to look at it or that, because always “someone is afraid to surrender and trust in another person” (Hooks, 10).

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