Teachers, pay attention to your voice! Middle school teacher Ariel Sacks asks teachers to reflect on how much their voice is dominating the classroom and encourages them to follow some tips for increasing student voice.
I’m sure every one of us has sat through a class, as a student or an observer, and thought, “Gee, this teacher must love the sound of his or her own voice.” We watch the students tuning out the teacher’s words, waiting until it’s time for them to participate or “work.” Some students take the opportunity to entertain themselves or each other, while simultaneously checking to see if they can get the teacher off track. I’m certain we have also all been that teacher.
The teacher’s voice is an important piece of the teaching puzzle but it’s not the key to student learning. When the balance tips too much in the direction of the teacher’s voice, it can actually hinder student learning by diminishing space for students to think, comprehend, solve problems, collaborate with one another, and find words to express their thoughts.
Just before I entered my second year of teaching, one of my mentors from Bank Street—the wonderful Anna LoBianco (who passed away so sadly)—reminded me and my cohort of new teachers to monitor our talking time. “In the first weeks of the year,” she said, “Ask yourself how much of the class period am I speaking? What percentage of the class period are my students speaking?” The ideal balance of teacher vs. student voice in a classroom where students are actively engaged probably includes far less teacher talk than our natural inclinations might suggest.
It’s helpful to monitor our talking time before, during, and after teaching.
Plan your talking. First, when planning lessons, think about where in the period you will talk to the whole class. Also identify those places where your presence should be used in other ways—observing the class working (try taking notes on what you see), moderating a discussion where students have the floor most of the time, or helping individual or small groups of students. Unless your plan is for an actual lecture (which I believe very occasionally can be a beneficial format for student learning), the balance should be heavily tipped toward the students.
Plan out your talking points in advance. In the first few weeks of school, I often write out my talking points word-for-word in my lesson plan. In the classroom, I almost never actually refer to the plan but I find the act of writing through what I will say helps me be more polished and economical with my airtime and less nervous.
Monitor in the moment. Beyond the plan, it’s important to monitor our talking time during the teaching period. In general, choose your words carefully and learn to be short-winded. Less is often more. When students ask questions during whole-class teaching time, ask yourself, “Is this a question I need to answer or can I ask a student to answer it? Is this a question that the whole class needs the answer to right now or can I follow up with this student individually?” When a student makes an interesting comment during discussions, instead of jumping to respond to or evaluate it yourself, try asking, “What do the rest of you think?” If you pose a question and get silence in response, apply “wait time.” Do not jump give in to the temptation to discuss your own thoughts. Give students time to think and let them act on that same temptation you feel. Do not look mad or impatient. They are probably shy and worried about being wrong. Look approachable and unhurried.
Avoid overexplaining things. If directions are written down, give a brief overview of what students will be doing and then let them work through it, offering help to those who need it. If a student ruffles you feathers, avoid lecturing them in front of the class. Ask them to talk to you privately on the side.
Notice how loudly you tend to talk. If you find yourself shouting, try lowering your voice and watch the class perk up to attend to what you are saying.
Reflect afterwards. When you get a chance, reflect on how your voice feels in the classroom. Try to recognize when you’ve talked too much or rambled. Learn to trust your gut on this matter and decide what you want to change. You may adjust your planning for that week to include opportunities for students to speak. Or work on being more concise by planning tomorrow’s talking points in advance. You might decide to talk less loudly while making sure you don’t talk over students’ voices.
These tips are not meant to suggest that the teacher’s voice is unimportant. On the contrary. Think of your voice as fuel. You need it to make the engine of your classroom run. Just don’t waste it on unnecessary trips to the corner store when you could have just walked or waited til your big grocery trip or asked someone else to pick up your item. Don’t engine idle. If it’s not your turn to talk, turn your engine off for a few minutes to listen or watch. Your students will get a message that in this classroom, all voices are essential.
[Image credits: (1) blog.mozilla.com; (2) commwes.com]