Damien is a strong beginning teacher. He is diligent and organised and has developed effective approaches to planning. He can effectively ‘run a room’ and his classroom environment is calm. Transitions between tasks are smooth, he forms positive relationships with pupils, and behaviour management is usually effective. He fits well into the department and has shown commitment to the wider life of the school. In so many respects, Damien is going to be a fantastic beginning teacher and a brilliant colleague. There is just one small problem. Damien knows he is struggling to find his classroom persona and he knows that the tone and pitch of his delivery just isn’t cutting it. No matter how much he tries he just can’t convey, through his voice, the enthusiasm he genuinely feels inside about the subjects his classes are studying. He can’t quite connect the dots between how he wants to appear in the classroom and the reality of delivering that as he enacts his lesson plan.
What can Damien and his mentor do to help him target his voice as an area of practice and allow this final piece of the jigsaw to slot into place?
Identifying the ways teachers communicate vocally in the classroom
Teachers’ voices are powerful things. Whether projecting to the back of a large room, speaking in the hushed tones of one-to-one support, or adopting the mock-whisper of a conversation they actually want the whole class to hear, effective classroom-practitioners learn to understand and harness the power of their voice.
Teachers use their voice in variety of ways in the classroom. Through a change in the volume, tone or pace at which they are speaking, a teacher can communicate all sorts of things to their pupils. Projecting your voice to get pupils’ attention, before dropping down to a much quieter, softer voice which sets the expectation of focused listening, is an invaluable behaviour management tool. Speeding up the rate of your speech can convey a sense of urgency, whilst slowing down can make the content of your speech have more emphasis and convey a greater sense of significance to what is being said. Varying your tone can also help pupils to navigate your lesson. Instructions that are communicated in a simpler, perhaps more monotone fashion, with lots of pauses built in, to allow processing time, are more easily distinguishable from story-telling which might be told in a more excitable voice with varied pitch and range.
For some teachers this comes naturally, but most teachers need to learn at least some of these skills. Learning how to use the voice with this degree of flexibility starts in noticing how other practitioners us their voices.
Mentors can support their mentee to undertake some targeted observations around the ways the teacher voice varies depending on whether they are:
- Giving an instruction.
- Explaining a concept/ key subject knowledge.
- Managing behaviour.
At first, these observations might best be achieved through a joint ‘whispered’ observation or by filming and then observing together the mentor/ another colleague teaching. The focus should be supporting the mentee in identifying these shifts in tone/ pace and the impact they have upon pupil understanding and learning.
Ali Messer has a brilliant analogy to explain how these different tones and registers can be understood by beginning teachers, and this is very worth sharing with your mentee as you begin this work:
Body Language and Posture
The body language and posture that teachers adopt also impacts upon their voice in the classroom. Singers know how important it is to stand with good posture, relaxed shoulders, not hunched, and neck, jaw and throat muscles, not stiff and clenched. A relaxed, open stance allows the diaphragm to contract, enables the lungs to fill with air and the larynx to move freely, and reduces the vocal effort. Slouching in a chair, standing hunched over the visualiser stand, or cowering in the corner behind the desk and computer monitor, all have an effect on the resonance of the voice. Body language and posture also sends important non-verbal messages to the class about the teachers’ level of engagement with them, the topic, and the classroom culture.
Mentors can help their mentee to reflect on the impact of their own body language on the voice, and on the classroom environment, by filming them in action and supporting them to analyse their approach, modelling for them the impact of their body language choices, and giving them opportunities to rehearse how they will stand to give an explanation etc.
Isolating the skill and practising
This is an aspect of practice that beginning teachers really benefit from isolating and practising by themselves, with the guidance of a mentor, and live in the classroom. A good way to begin this is to record themselves reading aloud to try and develop this range in tone, pitch and rhythm.
Recording themselves reading a passage from a novel, before listening to an audiobook version of the same section read by an actor or a very expressive reader (children’s books are brilliant for this and you can usually find versions being read aloud on YouTube), is a revealing experience for teachers seeking to develop the use of their voice. Mentors can support their mentee to notice the differences between the recordings and mark up a copy of the text with ‘stage directions’ gleaned through observation of the expert reader – e.g. underlining words that need to be emphasised, making when a pause should be inserted, arrows to indicate a change in the inflection needed from the voice. They can then run it again, re-record and compare their first and second versions, reflecting on whether they’ve managed to change it and, if not, whether they can identify what is holding them back. They will probably need to do this a few times before they get a version they think does the passage justice, and it might be a good idea to incorporate a check on their latest recording into mentor meetings. This will need to be done over a series of weeks because it is likely to be a slow burning target that won’t get solved overnight.
It is also a good idea to get them to practise different registers of ‘voice’ for different types of speech in the in their classroom. Rehearsing and recording their instruction voice, behaviour management voice, gaining attention voice, enthusing subject knowledge voice etc. will allow them to reflect on whether there is any difference in the tone/ pitch/ pace of their voice and consider how they may want to mix this up.
Additionally, if they aren’t quite as reflective and self-aware as Damien, they may benefit from being ‘caught in the act’ of using their voice (and body language/ posture) in both effective and less effective ways. If you undertake to record/ film them teaching, it is important your mentee knows that you intend to do this to enable a joint observation style discussion in a mentor meeting. Please also make sure you catch them when they get it right as well as when they get it wrong – this might mean you need to do some editing!
Getting expert help
Usually, one of the best ways to address a beginning teacher’s use of voice in the classroom is to ask a kind member of the Drama department (PE or Languages colleagues are typically great at this too) to do some exercises with the student in using their voice in different ways. It really is an issue of practising. For some it’s about breathing techniques or posture etc. For others it’s about freeing themselves of inhibitions. The critical thing here is to ask whoever might be able to help to focus on tone of voice, not volume or changing their persona.
There are also a large number of YouTube voice coaching style tutorials available which help provide some pointers, strategies and exercises for your mentee to practise in front of the mirror at home.
Here are some of the tutorials which have helped my tutees in the past:
- How to sound interesting in English | varied pitch vs. monotone | intonation – YouTube and Four Tips To Do Voice Modulation While Speaking | Public Speaking Tips – YouTube help to define what is meant by pitch and intonation variation before giving some exercises to practice.
- Teacher Voice Training – Tone Colour – YouTube talks about voice colour and focuses on classroom voices.
- Think Fast, Talk Smart: Communication Techniques – YouTube explores some of the other issues (e.g. posture) that might hold us back from developing more varied and engaging speech.
Slowly talking the talk
Damien is unlikely to be ready to tread the boards of the RSC by the end of his ITE year, but he can get better at using his voice in the classroom. Like most aspects of becoming a teacher, this is a skill which can be learnt. With a bit of practise, he should improve in talking the talk.