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Can you remember your favourite teacher? I will make a confident bet and guess that you can, and that you can even still recall the unique traces of their ‘teacher voice’, be it a jovial lilt or gruff command. One such teacher for me was my charismatic Scottish Art teacher: Mr Fletch. I clung to his every word, transfixed by his explanations and his excited exclamations.
I can still hear the echoes of the deep and sonorous sounds of this brave Scotsman. I listened intently and studied hard. This may also have had something to do with the fact that Mr Fletch would launch a rubber at the head of any student negligent enough to neglect paying him full attention. Coupled with this frankly dubious behaviour management strategy, were his intriguing stories painted the power of art in unforgettable words, told with such energy and enthusiasm.
All these years later, as a teacher myself, I recognise the power of our teacher voice (though this instrument can be too often neglected). No doubt what we say as teachers matters most, but we mustn’t forget that how we say it is of crucial importance too.
The tartan tones of Mr Fletch not only proved memorable, but they inspired confidence from students like me. Yes – his wealth of knowledge about art mattered, but how he said it would persuasively seal the deal. We all know the hackneyed analogy: teachers are like actors treading the boards. Well, in a sense we are. We each enact a physical performance and a vocal performance to create our teacher ‘persona’. The clue is in the word persona: its two parts – ‘per -sona’, meaning ‘to sound’. How we sound in our classroom can affect how successfully we teach.
Our students recognise the subtle sounds of our voice and make instant judgments. They can judge our social class, our confidence, our competence, our sensitivity and warmth, all in the blink of an eye.
Studies have shown (Ambady and Rosenthal, 1993) that students can judge their teacher, with great accuracy, is less than 30 seconds. This ability is more widely known in psychological circles as ‘thin-slicing’, which conveys our human skill for quickly stereotyping and judging people, for good or ill, based on quick-fire experiences.
With a shrill, fast paced voice, we can be deemed weak and not worth listening to. And yet, if the pitch (those high and low notes) of our voice is slightly lower, we slow the tempo a little, and add a little variety to the emotional tone of voice, we are offered the prospect of gaining the ears of our students.
First, let’s consider our own voice for a moment. We know that a thin, high-pitched tone can lack authority and can betray a seeming lack of confidence. Finding your natural pitch range is a start, from high to low. Take deep breaths (so important for the sound quality of your voice) before then singing the sound ‘ah’ in your ‘normal’ voice. Then go as high as you can on the musical scale whilst remaining comfortable, before moving down the scale to see how low you can go.
Finding your range means that you can then begin practising your deployment of that all-important tactic: vocal variety.
Listen to the great public speakers, such as Winston Churchill. In Winston’s inimitable style, he varied his vocal tone, generating interest and authority in the bargain. This didn’t happen by chance. Churchill actually suffered from a stammer and a lisp that crushed his speaking confidence. It was a great deal of practice and hard labour training his voice: learning to slow down his speech, to enunciate and vary his vocal tones, to subtly alternate the pitch of his voice with such emotional force that it saw his voice echo throughout history.
We can help protect and nurture our voice with the usual suspects: rest, keeping hydrated, taking a little walk, and avoiding shouting and overusing our voice, but we still likely need to take the time for a little vocal training to maximise our powers of persuasion.
I will never possess the rich Scottish lilt of Mr Fletcher, but I can pay close attention to the subtle varieties in how I say what I say in my classroom. Even without the threat of a flying rubber, perhaps we can all create a little more of the anticipation and intrigue that characterised my Art lessons with little tweaks to our teacher voice.
This article was originally published in TES magazine.