It was late on a sunny afternoon in June, about two years ago. I had dismissed my class of Year 5s and was catching up on paperwork when I got the phone call that we all dread. A child had not yet arrived at home, despite leaving school at 3.15pm with her friends.
Heart sinking, I went to see the deputy head, and we decided that I should go with the girl’s increasingly distressed sister to the local park, just in case. Of course, she was there. Suppressed panic and fear overcame my carefully studied air of calm, and THE VOICE came out.
The entire playground fell silent, a flock of birds took flight, a baby started to cry and the child came down from the climbing frame. A group of parents, startled into looking up from their phones by the tone, if not the words I used, started to rise to their feet, then sat down again, looking puzzled.
A blessing and a curse
Having an authoritative voice can be both a blessing and a curse. I was encouraged to speak “properly” as a child. I learned to do so by reciting poetry aloud, by listening to my grandmother answering the telephone, from a probably unhealthy obsession with Bertie Wooster’s Aunt Dahlia, and from my school in Cambridge: a school that has produced many leaders of men, most of us women.
My school, then known as the Perse School for Girls, was well known for producing fine examples of the teacher voice, to the point where my parents were asked by a stranger on a beach in Rhodes if I was a Perse girl, as my commanding tones, aged 10, sounded exactly like his adult daughter.
In my late teens and early 20s, I struggled to drop my “posh voice” and to speak using a form of Estuary English. Well, it was the 1990s, after all. This was partially successful. A stint in the City, however, soon reminded me why I needed to maintain it.
And then I started my PGCE. Working at a school in Charlton, in south-east London, I discovered I could get the children and – perhaps more importantly – the parents to listen to me and take me seriously when I spoke like someone who at least sounded reassuringly competent.
Someone not to be ignored
An impressive teacher voice is not just about volume. Shouting has been shown to be ineffective, and creates an adversarial atmosphere in class. But a voice that expects compliance, that expects the listener to understand that you are not someone to be ignored, is a great asset to a teacher.
As an NQT, I practised on my first class, honing the voice until I could be heard across the playground – not shouting, but certainly someone who should not be disregarded.
It can be difficult to rein in the voice now. While on maternity leave, I found that if I had to get the bus on a school day, I could get past the teenagers of West London simply by using a tone they recognised; they would move before they realised that they didn’t have to.
When my children were younger, I would speak to them in cafes, only to find that the man behind me was also sitting nicely with his hands in his lap, waiting for his biscuit. I sometimes hear the teacher voice coming out of the mouth of my 11-year-old as she rallies the Brownies; I see a bright future for her.
Teacher voice can cut glass
A woman with a commanding voice has often been seen as someone to laugh at. Certainly, Bertie Wooster was slightly frightened of his aunt’s voice, and Rumpole of the Bailey felt himself positively downtrodden by his wife, Hilda, "She Who Must Be Obeyed". One of Roald Dahl’s most famous creations, Miss Trunchbull, was certainly a woman with a great teacher voice and a commanding presence, if not someone to be admired for any other quality.
It seems likely that these women with their imposing voices were based on figures who had terrified their creators as children. The teacher voice leaves a lasting impression.
A good teacher voice can cut glass if used with care. It can silence a class of children; it can strike fear into the hearts of grown men. A quiet, carefully placed “Excuse me”, with just the slightest emphasis on the “-se”, is more effective at stopping an argument between adults or children than any amount of reason.
Most valuable of all is consonant enunciation. Used properly, and sparingly, the force can be devastating. Just ask MP Margot James, who used her version of the teacher voice to tell the other members of the House exactly what she thought of Dominic Cummings, simply by saying his name. While the other politicians’ laughter could be heard through the chamber, it was the uncomfortable laughter of people who realised that Miss was very unhappy with their behaviour, and they would probably be missing at least part of their playtime tomorrow.
"Advisers advise, ministers decide"— BBC Politics (@BBCPolitics) September 4, 2019
MP Margot James, who was expelled from the Conservatives for voting against the government, tells Boris Johnson “to bear that statement closely in mind in relation to his own chief adviser Dominic Cummings”#PMQs: https://t.co/utgDYwoyV8 pic.twitter.com/dbjxSuck0p
Julia Croyden is a teacher in West London. She tweets as @sljuls