A teacher’s voice is important. It is a tool of multiple uses and ultimate flexibility. And yet, it is something we tend to neglect.
We each enact a physical performance and a vocal performance to create our teacher “persona”. A clue to the significance of your voice is in the word persona: its two parts – “persona” – mean “to sound”. How we sound in our classroom can affect how successfully we teach.
Our students recognise the subtle sounds of our voice and make instant judgements. They judge our social class, our confidence, our competence, our sensitivity and warmth, all in the blink of an eye.
We know from psychological studies that people who use tiny fillers in their speech – an “erm” or an “um” – or those people who lack verbal fluency, are deemed less confident and less competent.
Studies have shown that students can judge their teacher, with great accuracy, in less than 30 seconds (see bit.ly/PupilsJudgeTeacher).
This ability is more widely known in psychological circles as “thin-slicing”, which conveys our human skill for quickly stereotyping and judging people, for good or ill, based on quick-fire experiences.
With a shrill, fast-paced voice, we can be deemed weak and not worth listening to. And yet, if the pitch of our voice is slightly lower, we slow the tempo a little, and add a little variety to the emotional tone of voice, we are more likely to be listened to.
Of course, it is tricky to find out where you sit on the scale of how engaging your voice is. We dislike hearing our own voice recorded – it seems alien to us.
We are not a very good judge of how we actually sound. But if we are to utilise our voice properly we have to get over this.
Here are four things we need to do to ensure we get our “teacher voice” right:
1. Verify your voice
Listen to yourself using a recording and get others to listen to you. How fast are you talking? Are nerves taking the pitch of your voice higher than is natural for you?
You need to be brutal in your judgement of yourself.
2. Pitch it right
Now find your natural pitch range, from high to low. Take deep breaths (this is so important for the sound quality of your voice) before then singing the sound “ah” in your “normal” voice. Then go as high as you can on the musical scale while remaining comfortable, before moving down the scale to see how low you can go. Finding your range means that you can then begin practising your deployment of that all-important tactic: vocal variety.
3. Copy the masters
Listen to the great public speakers, such as Winston Churchill. In Churchill’s inimitable style, he varied his vocal tone, generating interest and authority. This didn’t happen by chance. Churchill actually suffered from a stammer and a lisp that crushed his speaking confidence. It took a great deal of practice and hard labour to train his voice: learning to slow down his speech, to enunciate and vary his vocal tones, to subtly alternate the pitch of his voice with such emotional force that it resulted in his words echoing through history. We may only be looking to ensure that our voice echoes through the corridors of the history department, but we should heed Churchill’s lesson. Practise varying your tone in front of people. Record it and judge for yourself.
4. Look after your voice
We can help to protect and nurture our voice with the usual suspects: resting, keeping hydrated, taking a little walk and avoiding shouting and overusing our voice. Those last two recommendations are, of course, things that should already be happening as part of good teaching.
Alex Quigley is director of research at Huntington School in York