Remember who you're talking to

28th September 2012 at 01:00
Would you use the same tone of voice with adults as you do with pupils? If you wouldn't, ask why, says Victor Allen

Why is it that actors depicting teachers on TV all adopt the same tone? There is an instantly recognised way of speaking that automatically indicates the character is a teacher demonstrating he or she is in charge and demanding they should be listened to.

Think about your own tone of voice within your classroom. Ask yourself where this 'teacher tone' has come from and why it is probably different from the one you would choose to use if you were educating a group of adults.

When delivering classroom leadership training for teachers, I ask them to think about how they would respond to a group of 14-year-olds being loud and disrespectful as they themselves entered a classroom. How does this compare with their probable conversation with a group of adult work colleagues in exactly the same situation? What vocabulary would they use? What would their tone of voice be? Would there be a difference, and if so, why?

The most common answers reflect an expectation that a group of adult colleagues are capable of understanding "reason" and it would therefore be enough to simply suggest a more appropriate way of behaving. It is almost always the view that the tone of a disciplinarian would not be employed.

When asked to qualify this, my teachers have explained their less authoritarian voice with adults as a sign of "not wanting colleagues to think I'm bossy or arrogant" and "needing to ensure a good, positive working rapport".

Yet is this not also fundamental to effective teacher-student relationships?

Guidance not instruction

If I were to close my eyes and listen to a teacher instructing a group of teenagers and then a group of work colleagues, would I instinctively be able to determine a difference?

The vocabulary itself may need to differ, but surely the supportive and caring tone should be the same.

One of the contributing factors in the breakdown of teacher-student relationships is the number of times a day teenagers perceive they are being spoken to in a patronising tone. It is all too familiar to hear pupils complaining that "Mrs X treats us like kids" and "Mr Y talks down to us".

We now understand the different stages the brain goes through in its development and maturation. We know that, from the age of about 11 or 12, people respond more positively to guidance, with direction and instruction becoming less successful as a strategy for engagement.

This is one of the reasons for teenagers often experiencing a "struggle" with their parents, who are still directing and instructing as they were during the early childhood years.

Guidance towards choices and understanding has to be central to a young person developing their own independent character.

We, as educators, need to communicate with pupils, and not talk at or down to them. We are here to help guide teenagers in all aspects of their development into responsible adulthood, and ears hear far more readily when the expectation is of fair and appropriate interaction.

Try it. I promise you will experience a far more positive response as students adopt an "adult" attitude, with you at the helm and in control.

Your own frustrations will also be restrained, as you concentrate on the consideration of appropriate words and delivery. Celebrate your success as your pupils rise to the challenge.

Victor Allen is a freelance behaviour and leadership consultant and founder of Mirror Development and Training.

It is all too familiar to hear pupils complaining that 'Mrs X treats us like kids'


During a recent staff meeting, my principal made the comment that too much is made of the importance of relationships with pupils. This goes against what I believe. I'm interested to know what others think.

What you said


When people are brought together in a particular environment, a relationship exists between these people whether we like it or not. This is the case with teachers and pupils. Perhaps your principal is saying that he or she favours a more distant, authoritative relationship rather than a slightly more intimate one where teachers show more of an interest in the personalities of their pupils. Personally, I think that building a positive relationship with classes is crucial.


It sounds like your head is more concerned with exam results than young people as individuals. While the relationships between pupils and teachers shouldn't be focused on to the detriment of other important pedagogy, they are important to foster learning. A relationship does not have to be friendship, but can be the dialogue between two parties, which is the glue of the learning and teaching process.

The expert view

That is an impossibly broad concept to discuss without knowing what the context of discussion is. As MisterW says, every time you meet someone there is a relationship, so it is pointless to suggest that relationships are not created between pupils and teachers.

What is sometimes overemphasised is the need for the teachers and pupils to be in the wrong type of relationship. For example, some teachers wring their hands over whether or not the children like them, which is a mistake. The question is not "Do they like me?" but "Are they learning, and safe?"

The ironic point is that many pupils eventually start to like teachers with whom they learn and behave, because they respect someone who lays down the law and helps them at the same time.

The other misunderstanding in terms of relationships is when teachers are told to "build relationships" with a class that is being horrible to them. This is usually spineless advice from someone who does not teach that class.

This is closely connected to the mistake of believing that, if the pupils like you or are entertained by you, they will be great pupils and learn loads. This, sadly, is not the case. I think what the trigger statement indicates is that too much is being made of some aspect of the relationship.

We are not here to please pupils, although if that happens incidentally that is OK. The relationship we need to have with them is that of adult first and educator second. If that has been established, you are perfectly placed to teach them. And that is the core of our job. All the good stuff comes after that.

Tom Bennett is author of The Behaviour Guru and Not Quite a Teacher. Read more from Tom on his blog,, or follow him on Twitter at @tombennett71. His latest book, Teacher, is out now, published by Continuum

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