Find your voice and be a better teacher

7th July 2000 at 01:00
Profundity commands respect and to control a class you have to sound like you mean it, says James Campbell

I HAVE a new girlfriend! The good news is she's ridiculously pretty. The bad news is she's a primary school teacher. Everything has to be planned before we do it, I need a parental consent form to go to the pub and we have to tick off the relevant boxes of the curriculum over dinner.

But she's great at tying my shoelaces and wiping my bottom. We spend romantic evenings together - bottle of wine, Barry White, candlelight. I watch her do her marking. Funny thing is, she's started marking me. I started off with two gold stars, then went down to "excellent", "try harder", "see me" and - finally - "stop seeing me, you're boring".

She met my parents the other day. I wasn't allowed to be there, of course. I had to hang around with the other teachers' boyfriends, swapping Pokemon cards and saying: "I hope she doesn't say anything bad about me. I'll get grounded." Apparently she was a little bit concerned that I cried for the first three dates but I'm settling in quite nicely now. I just hope she doesn't start knitting me a cardigan.

Technically speaking, she hasn't become a real teacher yet. She's finished her "postgrad" and has been doing teaching practice. Come next month, however, she'll be released upon the children of Scotland fully trained and superbly qualified to write assignments and get discounts off car insurance - which has to come in handy.

Over the bank holiday we spent a very enjoyable afternoon on Glasgow Green in the uncharacteristic sunshine and I was giving her my half-baked theories on education - formed from the experiences of storytelling in more than 600 schools in Scotland. I have always believed that teachers' salaries and training should be doubled but also that teachers should be trained in voice use and the skills of storytelling.

A teacher's voice is her main tool. A carpenter would be trained to use a chisel and those who have to lift things for a living are shown how to do so without damaging their back. The voice, however, is just as sensitive. Apparently she was given a brief talk on the subject but she still speaks from her chest and moves her shoulders when she breathes.

This episode also coincided with a conversation I had with the director of studies at Moray House Institute who refused my offer of a lecture on storytelling because the genre is "adequately covered by the course". I have another friend who has recently graduated from Moray House and tells me that it wasn't even mentioned.

It appears then, through the extensive research of two trainee teachers, that a bit of advice about using the voice in the classroom would not go amiss. There are books on the subject. Speak to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama if you want a list of valuable tomes. But here's a crash coure in how to avoid damaging your voice.

One: Don't drink too much coffee. It dries the vocal chords and makes them easier to strain. I never touch the stuff and it always makes me smile to see teachers gulping it down in break times. Tea has just as much caffeine in it but isn't as harsh. Invest in a staffroom teapot and a water dispenser. Coffee is not just a symptom of stress, it's a cause.

Two: Stop drinking white wine. It contains a chemical which allegedly damages the vocal chords. Switch to red - the only side effects of that are a lack of co-ordination and vomiting.

Three: Begin your day with a few simple voice exercises. Take a deep breath without lifting your shoulders. Your rib cage should expand outwards. Pretend you are blowing out a candle that is far away. Yawn with your mouth closed for a few minutes. Watch any P7 on a Friday afternoon to see how to do this. Lift your shoulders a fraction of an inch and let them drop - this helps you relax.

Don't let anyone see you doing these voice exercises or they'll think you've gone mad and you'll be taken away before you can say, "Padded Cell."

Four: Don't ever shout. Project your voice from your diaphragm and you can make a lot more noise than rattling air through your throat.

Five: Don't over-pitch. It is a characteristic of the human race that we try to mirror those we are seeking to influence. Even though female voices don't break like male voices, everyone's voice deepens as they grow older. Throughout adulthood your natural pitch will drop by one semi-tone every 10 years and the difference between a five-year-old child and an adult is huge.

Because of this it is very easy to strain your voice by talking in a high-pitched tone to children all day. I don't think this style works particularly well anyway. Try screeching at a dog and see if it sits. Children respond to a powerful but restrained voice. Profundity commands respect.

I do all these things (apart from the occasional glass of champagne) and I talk to assembly halls full of children for more than four hours a day. I have been doing this now for five and a half years and I haven't strained my voice once.

I also manage to arouse children's emotions through the use of the voice. I have variously been able to hype children, calm them down, make them sick and wet themselves.

When I'm performing in theatres, I occasionally have a bonus baby in the audience - brought in by parents with older children. I can usually manage to send the baby to sleep with the first five minutes of stories, while keeping the other children interested, so that the baby doesn't cause any disruptions for the rest of the show. I do this using our most powerful tool - the voice.

I hope this advice comes in useful. Now, I have to go away and write one hundred times "I will not leave the toilet seat up".

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