How does a teacher’s voice affects pupils’ behaviour and their ability to learn? Lesley Hendy considers

As a tool of the teacher’s trade, the voice must be healthy and sustainable throughout the working day, week, term and year. Many teachers have difficulties with their voice and have to take time off work with voice-loss and vocal fatigue. Care of the voice is important for teachers’ personal welfare and professional confidence. It is desirable also to the school and the employer to avoid the inconvenience and expense of the need for supply teachers resulting from one or more individuals’ voice loss.

The matter of vocal health and care is recognised in voice training, but I want to focus here on the effect of teachers’ voices on pupils’ behaviour and their ability to learn.

Your voice has to work
The teacher’s voice needs to be effective in a variety of circumstances. The frequently heard suggestion that (out-of-work) actors might help teachers how to use their voices, ignores the fact that Equity would protest vociferously if any of its members had the daily voice load of the average teacher. Switching from one-to-one and small groups to whole-class, assembly, PE and games situations, not to mention the acoustic delights of corridors and laboratories, teachers have to have ‘adaptability’ as one of their several middle names. They need a voice which projects well and appropriately in all these circumstances and which is also pleasant to listen to, even when being at its most authoritative.

Warm and expressive voices, used in an imaginative way, draw pupils in and make them want to pay attention and listen. If such a voice has quality and liveliness, they will be motivated to attend, participate and learn.

Do you think your voice is equal to the task?
Dr. Stephanie Martin,a senior Speech and Language Therapist, said in a recent study of teachers’ voices (2003) that, ‘…only 38% of teachers surveyed felt their voice was equal to the task of teaching.’

I work extensively with NQTs and other teachers’ groups. The numbers of teachers I find who have had no voice training during their teacher education and are in need of some intensive voice help, distresses me. Some of the young teachers I meet have suffered complete voice loss after only six to eight weeks in the job! What is that doing for their self-esteem and the pupils they teach?

Teachers, like actors, are professional voice users. In their 2nd edition of ‘The Teaching Voice‘, Martin and Darnley (2004:1) argue that ‘ascribing the term ‘professional voice user’ carries with it an implicit expectation that individuals will have had training to bring their vocal skills up to a ‘professional’ level. It suggests that, by training, expertise and ability, their vocal skills allow them to use their voice effectively in a variety of settings…’

‘ The teaching voice should have a firm flow supported by a centred breath, a developed resonance that allows the voice to be projected without strain or effort, and a pitch range that is appropriate to the individual voice, combined with the flexibility to vary tone and inflection.’

Is your voice creating ‘good’ or ‘bad’ behaviour?
Just as teachers have to use their voices over long periods of time, so pupils (the consumers) are required to listen to, or at least hear, teachers’ voices during the long school week. A teacher’s voice under strain can lead to permanent damage requiring medical treatment. Meanwhile, the discomfort the teacher is experiencing conveys itself to pupils. They also feel uncomfortable and they lose confidence in the teacher; it is not too fanciful to say that they become disturbed. Unintentionally, bad behaviour may be the outcome. Teachers should avoid ‘raising their voice’ in the sense of shouting or using a higher pitch, since this in itself may have an even more disturbing effect on the group or class. There is no naughtiness or disobedience as such, but learning and positive activity is no longer possible.

We are living in an increasingly noisy culture, where young people are increasingly less practised in focusing on vocal sound. Children expect the spoken word to be accompanied by visual clues and/or musical signals, without which the message cannot be grasped. At the same time, both background and foreground noise serves to distract attention and obliterate meaning. It seems to require too much effort to filter out what is important and ironically, with so much going on aurally, boredom may result.

When a voice is being badly used and abused in the classroom, this has repercussions on the pupils. A voice that is uncontrolled can often lead to the ‘irritating misbehaviour’ that has been identified by Ruth Kelly. Pupils respond inappropriately when they feel that the teacher’s voice is patronising, ‘shouty’, monotone or weak. Bad behaviour can result from the lack of knowledge teachers have about the effect of their voice on their pupils.

So what can you do?
The most common problem associated with the untrained voice is a lack of knowledge of good breathing habits. If breath is consistently only taken into the upper region of the lung (known as clavicular breathing) then the foundation support needed to expel the air will be insufficient. This leads to constrictions in the throat that will inhibit the voice. This is a very frequent problem in teachers’ voices. As Patsy Rodenberg (1997) describes, ‘your support power suddenly meets blocks and constrictions in the throat and mouth. It is in these areas that we hold and distort our potential power and freedom.That stream of supported air finds itself fully or partially trapped as it tries to place itself in the face.’

Tension in the chest and neck creates insufficient support from the breath and can cause the raising of the larynx in the vocal tract. A further lack of understanding of pitch or resonant quality can cause habitual speaking on a note above each individual’s optimum pitch. Consequently, some voices can be thin or monotonous, others sharp and shrill; all quite inadequate for the work your voice has to do.

Good voice training includes relaxation techniques, development of good posture, breathing exercises that help the centring of the breath, work on pitch, resonance and tone. The teaching voice should have a firm flow supported by:

  • a centred breath
  • a developed resonance that allows the voice to be projected without strain or effort
  • a pitch range that is appropriate to the individual voice, combined with the flexibility to vary tone and inflection.

Good voice production is not enough in itself. Once good flexibility has been achieved, you should move into the area of vocal delivery, to explore how to make the voice sound more expressive. Insufficient experience in speaking to large groups can lead to a rapid delivery or speaking too fast, which contributes to a lack of clarity in expressing ideas and putting over information. Instructions, explanations and story reading may well be dull and monotonous, lacking in vitality and imagination. This is not always caused by a lack of imagination on your part; it may result from the absence of physical techniques to make the voice work in the required manner.

It is very difficult to learn proper voice technique from a self-help manual.You do need to work with a voice coach. Many of you I am sure go to Yoga or Pilates classes or go to the Gym. You need to think of voice training in the same way. It is painless and it is fun.

Make this the year you think seriously about your voice and its effect in the classroom.

References

  • Martin1, S & Darnley, L. (2004) The Teaching Voice, London: Whurr Publishing
  • Rodenburg, P (1997) The Actor Speaks, London: Methuen
  • This article first appeared in Teaching Expertise, Issue 9 Autumn 2005
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