Stephen Louw

Writing on the board

Where do you stand as a teacher?

In the comments following my blog on withitness, in which I mentioned how important it is for a teacher to avoid turning their back to the class, Richard Constable asked how to achieve that while writing on the board. It’s a good question, and I wasn’t too sure how to respond to him without writing a blog about it. So.

In that blog I argued that management problems are more likely when a teacher is not keeping an eye on the class, so turning your back to the students is not a good idea. Teachers do that when they write on the board.

In addition to the possibility of management problems there is another reason why turning your back to the class is problematic in a language class. If we take the view that language classrooms work best when there is interaction and communication, then eye contact is important, and a teacher who spends a lot of time with their eye on the board is breaking the potential for building relationships and communication with the individuals in the classroom.

So let’s start with how not to use the board. 

Here is a short clip from the movie About a Boy. Notice how, at 0.06, the teacher has her attention squarely on the board. Now, in this teacher’s defense, the lesson is maths, so perhaps the board needs more attention than the kids, but notice also that this is the point in the lesson where our target student loses focus. You can see the same happening with Walter White at his whiteboard in this scene from Breaking Bad.

What we want is to be able to use the board without turning away from the students. The idea is something like this excellent photo taken from a blog about whiteboards and teachers’ itchy eyes (yes, itchy eyes).

Notice how the teacher is looking at the board, but has managed to maintain an orientation to the class. I know it looks awkward, but it’s actually pretty easy to do and allows you to maintain some connection with the class even when your attention is on the board. 

Now if I had you here with me I could show you the position, but since you aren’t, I’ll need an analogy to help you see what I mean – and for that, let’s turn to sports.

If you had tennis lessons, you’ll be familiar with the coach saying something like ‘turn your shoulder to the place you want the ball to go’. As the ball approaches, you turn your shoulder to that spot, shuffle your feet, swing through the ball, and win the point. Tadaa. Here’s a visual to remind you of those halcyon childhood tennis days:

This ‘shoulder to the opponent’ stance is common is sports: snowboarding, judo, golf, shotput, baseball, archery, even James Bond marksmanship. They all have some variation on this ‘shoulder to the target’.

So too with the classroom whiteboard. Your one shoulder faces the students, the other the board, so you are actually facing squarely onto the classroom window or door. That means a small head twist in one direction gives you the board, and a small head twist in the other direction gives you the students. 

You can write with your pen hand closer to the board, like the lady in the picture above, or you can write with your pen hand closer to the class, so you’re writing across your body (like a backhand in tennis), but still have quick access to seeing the classroom, which will look something along the lines of this awesome stock teacher: 

Now, I admit there are a few problems – you can’t really write like this with absolute perfection, and whichever way you stand someone lands up behind your back. 

The trick, ultimately, is to keep your board-work time short, your student activity time long, and to try to keep your eyes on the class as much as possible. Unless you have eyes in the back of your head like Stephen King’s Miss. Emily Sidley, and even then the specter of monstrous behavior remains real.

Steve has been a teacher and teacher trainer for over 30 years, and is currently a lecturer on the Master’s in TESOL program at King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi in Bangkok.


The trick is to just use PowerPoint. Benefit+ you don't need to write the same thing 10-20x a week. Benefit++ as each lesson goes by you will tighten up the presentation verbiage as well as the clarity.

Writing on boards yeah, not so much.

By Jim Beam, The Big Smoke (26th November 2020)

Hello Stephen,

Hope you are in good health.

Thanks for your very extensive and detailed response, although I am not altogether convinced, you certainly put up some fine reasoning.

By Richard Constable, Bang Na (13th February 2020)

Nice blog post, Stephen. It’s interesting how we often take issues around boardwork for granted, even little things like how best to stand and write. Of course, so many seemingly ‘little’ things can end up being consequential.

I’m also reminded of a post by Anthony Ash called “Whiteboarding: the input session the CELTA forgot” which points out how this area can be neglected on TEFL courses and presents some really excellent whiteboard techniques.

Finally, there’s an interesting resource on Twitter: the #ELTwhiteboard hashtag. It’s got about 600 posts tagged that way, most of which consist of EFL teachers the globe over sharing snapshots of their own whiteboard work from a lesson.

That hashtag shows how much of a class often goes ‘through’ a whiteboard, and how many different things it can end up as a canvas for. For example, in some of these pics you notice what is clearly students’ writing, perhaps from a board-race or class presentation. So there another suggestion about how to approach your whiteboard: be careful not to guard it too closely; perhaps set a target of getting students using it at least once per class.

Thanks again for another nice post.

By Matthew Noble, Thailand (9th February 2020)

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