Substitute Teacher Voice (page 4)
When Jennifer Muffet was a little girl, her mother used to look at her with a loving smile and say, “Speak up, Jennifer, you’re such a smart girl. Nobody will be able to hear how smart you are!”
Jennifer would try, but the truth was she had a really soft voice.
The years passed, and Jennifer became a well-respected and very effective first-grade teacher. But her quiet voice remained.
“How do you get the kids to listen when they’re noisy?” asked a colleague. “Your voice is so soft. I can’t understand how they hear you.”
“So you want to know my secret?” asked Jennifer in a voice that was barely above a whisper. She knew that her “secret” worked. All of the parents at Palm Grove School spoke highly of her, and the students adored her. She ran an orderly and calm classroom that was very conducive to learning.
Her colleague nodded.
“It’s simple,” said Jennifer. “At first I tried to raise my voice, but that was hopeless.” She laughed. “So I tried an experiment.”
“You screamed!” joked the colleague.
“No, actually the louder the children became, the softer I spoke. I would pause and say absolutely nothing. When they began to notice that I was waiting, I’d speak in a very soft voice. The children had to strain to hear me. If a few students were noisy, the others would ‘shhhh’ them so that they could hear what I was saying.”
“But what if they didn’t settle down?” asked the colleague, somewhat taken back by Jennifer’s tactics.
“I’d stand in front of the class with my ‘I’m waiting’ look,” Jennifer demonstrated for her friend. “The class would quiet down. And once they were quiet, I would continue to wait, for effect. When I finally spoke, I would calmly say, ‘Thank you boys and girls.’ You could hear a pin drop!”
I try to emphasize how important it is to project confidence and control when you stand in front of a classroom. Some teachers erroneously assume that speaking in an overpoweringly loud voice will somehow indicate that they have confidence. As the story of Jennifer Muffet indicates, sometimes less is more.
Jennifer and I taught the same grade level together for years. Every time we combined classes for a special event, I was amazed at her classroom management skills. She never, and I mean never, raised her voice. When she needed to get her students’ attention, she would turn off the lights or give a hand signal. These routines were well-rehearsed during the first few weeks of school.
Years later, Jennifer went on to become the president of the local teachers’ organization where she spoke regularly in front of large groups of teachers and administrators. She always used the same technique—a long pause at the start of her presentation, followed by the use of a soft, but animated, voice. Everyone listened with great interest. Like her students, she had them in the palm of her hand!
Why is a Quiet Voice More Effective Than a Loud Voice?
When a teacher speaks in a soft voice, she imparts a subtle message that resides behind her words: I’m calm and confident and don’t need to raise my voice to be heard. I like my classroom to be quiet and tranquil. As a student, you’ll learn that a quiet voice and a calm and tranquil demeanor will allow you to be heard and respected.
Controlling the volume of your voice is the secret to controlling the noise level in your classroom. If you speak in a loud voice, you’re broadcasting to the students that speaking loudly is acceptable to you. In fact, you subconsciously encourage it. If the teacher speaks in a loud voice, why shouldn’t the students follow that lead?
When you speak softly, the children must stop their own talking or they’ll miss what you are saying. To be honest, some students may not care, but the ones that do care will often do your work for you by telling the noisy students to be quiet. They want to hear you, and they’ll police the classroom environment to be sure that they can.
Not everyone speaks softly. Your personality, your upbringing, and the culture that you live in all infl uence the way you speak. In fact, all of these factors play into the natural volume of your voice. But if you can master the art of speaking softly, you’ll have a wonderful tool for teaching.
How Can I Tell if I am Modulating My Voice Effectively?
Once you gain some experience, you’ll learn that there’s a “vibe” that you can feel when you stand in front of a group and teach. You can literally feel it when the students are tuned in to your words and when you have lost them. Their eyes, posture, and overall body language telegraph this to you.
If you’re speaking in a soft voice but the vibe is not good, one problem might be a lack of modulation in your voice. A soft voice is calming, but a monotone puts children to sleep! Regardless of the subject matter, you must animate your words by modulating your voice. In the primary grades, it is perfectly acceptable to use a singsong voice pattern (Have you ever noticed that Kindergarten teachers are dramatic speakers? They seem to have mastered the ability to dramatically modulate their voices). Observe them in action and try to emulate their style.) However, as your students become older, use modulation to emphasize key points and establish a rhythm for your presentation.
I tell all beginning teachers and new substitute teachers that if they think they sound too dramatic and “singsong,” they are probably just about right. Use pauses, volume changes, and infl ection to make your points. Your lessons will be much more interesting.
Some psychologists believe that voice articulation and modulation are nearly as important as facial expression in infl uencing a listener. In a set of guidelines for speakers, the U.S. Naval Academy (Guidelines can be found at: http://www.usna.edu/EnglishDept/Deliver.htm.) makes a number of suggestions that can be useful for subs:
- Articulation. People tend to judge speakers based on their ability to pronounce words correctly and clearly . . . you need to acquaint yourself with the correct method of using a dictionary to facilitate proper pronunciation.
- Voice modulation. Good speakers do three things with their voices to maintain audience interest.
- Be enthusiastic. This will communicate your interest and excitement for your topic and help generate audience interest, too.
- Exaggerate voice infl ection. Infl ection in conversational speaking is difficult to detect when you are speaking in front of an audience. Exaggerate infl ection when you are making points or demonstrating some kind of emotion appropriate to the emotions that you are trying to stir in your audience.
- Do not speak in a monotone! Monotone does not necessarily mean speaking in a low, droning voice. Some speakers speak in a loud monotone, and worse, some yell in monotone. You must modulate your voice (see 1 and 2 above) regardless of your speaking volume.
What’s good advice for midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy is equally good advice for you. Try to follow it.
Is There a Way That I Can Practice Modulating My Voice?
In the elementary grades, reading a story to the class is the perfect way to fine-tune your voice modulation skills. This is also an excellent way to use the long pause trick. Begin the story by introducing the author and illustrator. Open to the first page and just wait. Do not begin until all students are paying attention.
Read slowly for dramatic effect. Pause so that each student can absorb what has happened on the page. Let them look at the illustration. Raise your voice when appropriate, usually during dialogue when the character is loud and boisterous, and lower your voice for a quiet character.
As your voice modulation skills improve, begin using the same techniques for your own dialogue with the class.
Should I Ever Yell?
The answer is no, but it’s only human to raise your voice at times. If you must raise your voice, do so only when you encounter extreme circumstances. If you do this very rarely, it will have an immediate and compelling effect on your students. When a teacher like Mrs. Muffet must raise her voice, the shock value alone will have an instantaneous effect. On the other hand, if you yell regularly, the students will become so used to it that it may not have any effect at all. Teachers who are “yellers” are usually frustrated and ineffective.
Are There any Nonverbal Techniques for Focusing Students?
If you have to raise your voice each time you need to get students’ attention, you have lost the benefits of the “soft voice” approach discussed earlier in this article. To avoid yelling, there are a number of nonverbal techniques that can be used.
Special clap. Use a special clap to ask for instantaneous attention. Some teachers have the students imitate the clap. • Lights out. Walk to the light switch and turn the light off. This is a very dramatic technique, and after a few times, just walking toward the light switch may have the desired effect. • Hand signals. Most teachers raise their hand with two fingers up to indicate a need for attention. Students mimic the signal to show that they are ready to listen. • Props. In the primary grades, you can use a bell and teach the children to “freeze” when the bell rings.
As a sub, you should try to determine the technique that is used by the regular teacher. Ask the special helper how the classroom teacher quiets down his or her noisy class. The students will be surprised that you know the special technique used by their teacher and will respond positively to its use.
If the classroom teacher does not have a nonverbal method for getting attention, then teach the students your own favorite method. Practice it with them and reward those who cooperate.
To be effective as a teacher, you must use your voice to project confidence and control when you stand in front of a classroom. The following guidelines will help you:
- Speak softly. Try to master the art of decreasing the volume of your voice as the student volume increases. It is a very effective tool for classroom management.
- Don’t yell. Teachers who yell are out of control. Students tune them out.
- Modulate your voice. Be careful that you do not speak in a monotone. Use modulation and articulation to emphasize key points and to maintain student attention.
- Use nonverbal techniques to get the attention of the class. These techniques include lights out, a special clap, a bell or whistle, and a hand signal. Try to use the technique that is used by the regular teacher in the class because the students are already familiar with it.
Teachers are “actors.” No one ever won an Academy Award by yelling in a monotone! The best teachers are rewarded when they use a soft, modulated, and animated voice to control their students.
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