Atomic essay #7: he's using his teacher voice!

I was a quiet child. No-one believes this, but it's true.

Atomic essay #7: he's using his teacher voice!
Photo by Ivan Aleksic / Unsplash

N.B. Naturally, anybody can read this post, and I'm not at liberty to say who'd gain anything by reading it, but it might be most useful to new, trainee, Teach First and newly-qualified teachers. It's about how to use one's voice in the classroom. I've noticed that new teachers can find this, and other aspects relating to classroom management, challenging, so this piece is pitched with new teachers in mind.
If you know a new teacher who might find this useful, please send this post their way.
Oh, and finally: because I'm an English teacher, this post might seem geared towards English teachers, though I believe the approaches to be useful for any teacher. Sorry about that.

I was a quiet child. No-one believes this, but it's true. This lasted until I started Year 10, at which point I decided to start being loud. The world seemed, as seems, built for loud people, and being quiet didn't seem to be getting me anywhere. I had prepared over the summer, hunkered over a cassette recorder, putting my voice on tape. I'd listen back to it, wince, try again. I'd watch TV and films, listen to audiobooks, listen to the voices of those who seemed to be able to stop time itself with their vocal vivacity, and tried to get my glottis around what made them special. Pitch, tone, pace, pauses. Press record. Again. Again. From the top.

In the end, I learned how to speak publically from watching a lot of stand-up comedy. Here, I learned it wasn't just about one's voice, but about paralinguistics. There were decisions made by the performers that seemed tantamount to enagement. Dylan Moran shambled onstage and immediately had a fight with a microphone stand, loudly declaiming, 'Oh, God! Machines!' as he fought with mic, stand and cable, paying his audience no regard. Later, he stalked the stage, gog-eyed, as though trying to manifest a portal through time and space amidst the audience. But other times he'd stop, and pause, his delivery breathy, as though brought pianissimo and largo by a conductor's steady hand. In those moments of quiet and still, I couldn't take my eyes off him.

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Years later, I shambled into teaching (the verb is key here, but that's a story for another day). If you ever cared to ask my PGCE or NQT mentors (or, indeed, anyone who worked near me at the time), I was an utter state in matters of marking, organisation, writing anything down, but in the classroom I had immense fun and things went okay from the start. I put this down to two things:

  1. Decent subject knowledge
  2. Use of my voice (and, with that, decent classroom presence)

Please do not, reader, mistake any of the above or following for boastfulness, or anything of that ilk. This post is going to be about the power of a teacher's voice, and a few things I have done and do in the classroom to best amplify and harness its potential and power. I found early on that my obsession with what makes a voice worth listening to meant that I could use these performative aspects in the classroom. Below, I'm going to outline and explain some things I think are useful in regard to teacher voice.

Your voice is a teaching tool

Know that it is, arguably, your most important and most versatile tool. Knowing this will lead you to spending time when preparing for (and evaluating later) lessons. It's not just about the content; think about how you're going to deliver it.

Use the diaphragm

Don't be hacking and sputtering by Christmas. Don't use your throat – use your diaphragm. You should feel the air reverberating inside your ribcage. Mindfully push your voice from your core and use your throat to refine the pitch etc. But that pushing of the voice from the centre of yourself is key: it will make your voice louder, more resonant, steadier and less shrill. It isn't about being loud, but being heard. If your voice comes from the diaphragm, it will more likely sound like a voice worth listening to.

Be unpredictable

Anyone listening to you is going to have expectations of what you're going to say and how you're going to say it. Teachers are especially cursed by this; we pick up 'teacher phrases' and fall quickly into comfortable patterns and routines. Routines can be great for classroom management, but don't let your voice be predictable. Make students want to listen to you by playing with your vocal abilities. Think about sudden moments of unexpected quietness or loudness. When it's all going wrong on a wet Friday afternoon, don't shout. Rarely shout (I only do it if something genuinely dangerous is happening); if they expect you to, go to the sly sussurus of a whisper. If you're unpredictable then you're engaging, but more importantly you are in control. How you use your voice is not subject to the whims of the classroom, but to what you want it to be in that moment. Especially when you're a new teacher, students will naturally test the boundaries; use of your voice on your own terms sets the expectation that you'll be communicating on your own terms.

Silence is golden

It's not just about the notes; it's about the spaces between them. The next time you listen to a piece of music, listen to where there isn't any music. Those moments of empty space create as much feeling as the notes themselves. They make the notes make sense; they help the notes relate to each other. Silence can signal an abrupt shift in thinking, a moment of meditation, a sudden shiver of shock. If you've said something of particular significance, pause. And pause for longer than is comfortable, sometimes. Every second can build anticipation. Work on gradually lengthening your pauses; over time, students will hang on your every word. You achieve engagement by making people wait for what you're going to say as much as saying what you need to say.

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Dynamics

If the human voice is capable of it, it might be useful in your classroom. Odd noises. Voices for characters. Screeches, yelps. Grunts, growls. Mime and mimicry. Swing from extreme to extreme, with everything in-between. You'll find your own capabilities and preferences (and limitations), but know this: when it's just you, stuff to be learned, and some students, your voice can enhance that stuff and help students connect with it. Your voice is how you'll bring content and ideas to life. Experiment. The weirder the better.

Where are you?

If you're struggling to command attention, think about where you're standing and how you're standing when using your voice. I try not to be static; I like to cover all of the classroom's ground if I can during a lesson. But some teachers hold classes captive from a single spot. Choose your spots carefully; moreoever, make them deliberate choices. Students know what's consciously crafted and what's just a nervous fool pottering around. Staying shackled to the whiteboard, far away from the students tends not work; I quite like being level with the front row. Try teaching from the back, or the side, or from the middle, or from inside your classroom cupboard.

Use language that can be brought to life

Words are just collections of sounds. Sounds are evocative: think about the onomatopoeia of 'whisper'. Use quiet-sounding words, discordant words, thick words, ugly words, spiky words, whatever – but think about how the auditory qualities of these words might enhance what you're saying, or what you want the atmosphere in your classroom to be.

Your body is a voice

Think about your whole body as an extension of your voice. If you're going for BIG MOMENT OF REALISATION, then lower the pitch and volume and pause, but also stop moving. Lean in, conspiritorially. Bring your hands out, inviting students to listen closely. When a student gives a great answer, point at them and make them stand out – spotlight them and proclaim specifically what was good about the answer. Think about how your body can show bafflement, frustration, glee. I like to punctuate what I'm saying with my hands, like a metronome. I let my body mirror my vocal delivery. I think people who do this are more interesting to listen to.

Teaching is a performance. When you're up there, you're on stage. You are you, but you also aren't. You are a performed version of you. Whether you like this or not is, I believe, immaterial. The students are positioned as audience and will behave like one. This is not an exhortation to make your lessons mad and loud; neither is it suggesting that lessons should full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. I'm saying that lesson content can be – will be – enhanced or diminished by how we deliver it.

Speak.