Quiet is the new loud.
The summer after I became a teacher, my extended family got together for a large reunion. We were all having a fantastic time catching up with one another, sharing stories and reconnecting. At one point in the evening, my uncle decided he needed to lead us all in a few toasts. He tried to get everyone’s attention, but the party had grown loud and a bit raucous. No one seemed willing to stop talking long enough to focus on the front of the room where my uncle was standing. Trying to help him out, my aunt poked me and said, “Get their attention, will you? Just use your teacher voice.”
My teacher voice. Yup. I had one of those, and I was very proud of it.
I obliged proudly. I raised my voice and hollered, sharp and demanding: “Hey! Listen up, everyone! Stop talking and focus your attention on Uncle Terry. It is time for toasts.” It worked; everyone shifted their eyes to the front of the room and prepared to raise their glasses. But I couldn’t help notice some low chuckling and sideways looks. “That’s a teacher voice, all right,” someone said. Someone else remarked, with a bit too much snark, “Boy . . . you sure can tell she’s a teacher.”
I felt a little stung, but I didn’t know why. Wasn’t it a good thing for a teacher to have a teacher voice? I’d gotten their attention, hadn’t I? After all, I’d stopped their chitchat and made them pay attention to the guy in the front of the room. Wasn’t that the whole point of a teacher voice?
There’s been some time and experience since that evening, and now I know why I felt a little uncomfortable hearing what was said that evening when I’d used my “teacher voice.” Instead of coming off as a kind and helpful leader, I’d been demanding and bossy. People didn’t stop talking because I told them to; they stopped because my pushy, obnoxious hollering left them with no other choice.
I thought about this recently when I considered the “teacher voice” of my close friend Sara, who happens to also be a teacher. I’ve known Sara for a while now; we exercise together, we live close to each other, and our kids love hanging out with one another. I’ve always thought of Sara with admiration and respect because she is such a calm, collected, even-tempered woman. And then, after years of friendship, we found ourselves working in the same building this past year. Because of that, I had the opportunity to observe her teaching expertise on a near-daily basis. I was not surprised to find that the same even, soft tone she uses when we take walks together is the exact same tone she uses when conferring with students, talking with parents, or managing student behaviors. She never raises her voice–not to get the attention of her class, not to reprimand a student, not to reinforce or reiterate something she’s already said.
She doesn’t need to.
When she does speak, even in a situation where she is undoubtedly feeling frustrated or irritated, her voice is gentle and kind. She is never rude, never loud, and never dictatorial. Her classroom is peaceful and productive, and most of the time, her voice barely rises above the rest of the natural classroom noises—the shuffling of papers, scratch of pencils, pecks on keyboards.
The irony is not lost on me that she has one of the most powerful “teacher voices” I’ve ever heard—when, in fact, oftentimes she can barely be heard.
I’ve learned a lot about how to speak to students over the years. I haven’t used my “teacher voice” in decades. In time, I’ve learned that there really isn’t any reason to. People—adults and kids alike—don’t need to be hollered at. So unless a kid is poised to take a ten-foot leap over the fence at recess, or putting himself in some other grave danger, I just use my regular voice. And—surprise!—it works every time.
This week we look at ways to foster better classroom conversations. Plus more as always — enjoy!
Contributor, Choice Literacy
Long an avid reader, Jennifer Schwanke has worked as an educator for 15 years. She taught middle school language arts for six years before moving into administration at both the middle school and elementary level. Jen enjoys thinking of more effective ways to present literacy to students at these vulnerable ages. You can find her latest thinking at her Leading and Learning blog.
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Melanie Swider discovers that conversations after read-alouds are a wonderful way for students to remember and retain the learning from shared texts:
Are too many guided reading groups in the primary grades focused on print processing? Shari Frost discovers that teachers may not focus much on helping children make meaning from emergent texts because there isn’t much to talk about in them. In this booklist, she suggest texts that can spark lively discussions among even the youngest readers.
This week we conclude our April poetry series. Shirl McPhillips captures perfectly the “shaking off the old classroom skin” feel at the end of the school year and the start of the summer in “If We Could Meet Again”:
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Katrina Simkins-Moore explains why becoming more intentional in questioning during reading conferences can help build student independence, as well as consistency among the teaching community:
Gretchen Schroeder shares some conversation fixes for when talk goes awry in her high school classroom:
In this week’s video, Katrina Edwards preps her students for lunchtime chats with classmates to foster more social and conversation skills:
Cathy Mere finds that a Reading Ambassadors program pays big dividends in building confident and conversant young readers:
In an encore video, Lauren Scott’s second-grade students chat with their teacher and Principal Karen Szymusiak about metaphors for synthesis:
That’s all for this week!