Sometimes in teaching, we can’t see the wood for the trees. Voice is one of those things that we stop seeing, or asking about, because we’re too busy worrying about subjects, and knowledge, and skills. Sometimes we need to take a step back and remember that there’s a big old wood out there, not just a collection of trees.
When I was a kid, I used to wait outside my mum’s classroom for her to finish teaching for the day. Listening through the door, it always puzzled me that she never sounded quite like the mum I knew at home. There was a tension in her voice that worried me: I could feel that she was stressed just through listening to the sound. I didn’t need to hear the words to figure that one out.
Fast forward twenty years and I’m the one in the classroom, going all screechy because the kids are making me stressed, and shouting from my throat to try and make myself heard (even though I know I’m not meant to.)
I’m absolutely fascinated by the subject of voice usage in the classroom. I was lucky enough to have some voice training at my first school, and I’m a drama teacher, so you could say it’s my stock-in-trade. As a teacher, you are classed as a ‘professional voice user’. Your voice is your instrument, it’s essential for you to do your day-to-day job, you can’t replace it if it gets damaged. It has always puzzled me, then, that so few teachers are trained in how it works (not just the mechanics of voice production, but also its influence on learning and behaviour).
I’ve just finished researching and writing a short guide to voice usage in the classroom. Here are five of the fascinating facts that I didn’t know before I started.
* A study found that babies can pick up on the tone of a person’s voice from as early as seven months. I love this quote from lead researcher, Tobias Grossman: “A happy tone of voice does something special to the baby’s brain.” This has very interesting implications for us as teachers.
* Vowel sounds travel better than consonant sounds. Maybe that’s why you feel the urge to call ‘oi!’ when a student isn’t listening. This explanation of singing touches on the physics of sound and also on the psychology of voice. It’s complicated, but worth a read.
* All that yawning you do first thing in the morning is good for your voice, because it opens up your throat. Just don’t finish off the yawn, because apparently this closes it up again. So, go ahead and have a good old yawn in Friday morning’s staff briefing. If they ask, tell the SLT that you’re ‘warming up your voice’.
* In order to project your voice further, and speak more loudly, you have to increase the pressure of air behind your vocal chords and let the sound resonate more on the way out. In other words, you have to breathe better. Squeezing your larynx simply doesn’t work.
* Women’s voices are higher than men’s, because their vocal folds are shorter, and therefore they vibrate more often (up to a million times a day!). This creates a higher sound. I wish children heard more male voices while they’re being educated, particularly in the early years and primary sector. I do think the gender imbalance in schools should worry us more than it does.
Try this: Listen to yourself the next time you’re in the classroom. Step outside yourself and really listen to how you sound. Then try to imagine yourself sitting in your students’ shoes, hearing your voice all day. Become more conscious about the quality of the vocal sound you make, because it most definitely does have an impact on learning and, indeed, on behaviour.
At the heart of all learning is the teacher and the astonishing, magical power of a unique human voice. The teacher is the wood, the rest is just a collection of trees.