My mother is an extraordinary person. Yesterday, while I made lunch for my son, father, and her, she was playing her weekly game of tennis – at age 90 – for an hour and a half. Two days previously she had hosted 6 for dinner. She is a force of nature.
As with all such vital people, she has strong opinions. Indeed, one of the time-honored family traditions is to discuss and argue the issues of the day over meals. Naturally, when I am around, discussion often turns to education.
My mother was shocked and irritated to learn that teachers do not have to take voice lessons to become teachers. “How in the world can you engage young kids and make the teaching clear without having a trained voice?”
This query does not come from ignorance. My mother took acting lessons back in the day from the great Stella Adler and Stage Voice lessons from her colleagues. My mother’s strong New York accent was eradicated in one year; she still commands a room. My 95-year-old step dad chimed in: he had taken voice lessons in preparation for his work in the Foreign Service, eradicating a too-nasal style of speaking.
Furthermore, my mother recounted that, at Queens College back in the day – a College founded out of a speech pathology school – every student had a pre- and post-assessment in which their voice was recorded when they entered college and just before they graduated – the same speaking test (the reading of a famous poem).
Odd, isn’t it? We relegate speech, debate, and such performances to the minor ranks of goals, courses, and assessments in public schools as well as in teacher preparation. (I know that Waldorf teachers often get voice lessons, as do Phys. Ed. teachers in some programs.) Yet, there is arguably no more crucial ability (whether in teaching or the adult workplace generally) for distinguishing oneself as competent and for having an impact in an organization.
I have been in a bunch of classrooms, over decades. I can count on one hand the number of teachers who commanded a room based on their voice. In some cases it is embarrassing: many teachers have nasal and monotonic teacher voices that actually make learning much harder than it needs to be. Few teachers use silence, modulation and pacing effectively. Yet, when you come across such a teacher they command great attention, focus, respect – and often cause greater achievement than their colleagues because they communicate so effectively.
There are speaking (and listening) standards in the Common Core. Isn’t it about time we took seriously our obligations as educators to – literally – give our students voice – and to help our teachers develop a more effective voice?
Oh, and Happy Mother’s Day to all moms, including mine! Thanks for giving me (and educators) voice.
Does your school or did your teacher prep program do something interesting about voice? Let us know in the comments.



23 Responses

  1. I absolutely agree. Voice, acting, and “choreography around the classroom” are components of commanding a presence with the audience/students. Some come to it naturally, but it can be taught. I can barely understand today’s fast talking young people who end each sentence with an upward “lilt.” I did have a course in undergraduate school in “oral interpretation.” Now it would be replaced with another STEP course.

    • It’s so funny – and telling – that you mention the upward lilt because we discussed that at length, contrasting it to the total precision of up and down of BBC broadcasters!

  2. Grant, I must complement both you and your mom for a very thought-provoking post. I have often “voiced” my opinion about how many of the most successful teachers are also talented actors/actresses who effectively use the classroom as their stage. I must admit, though, that the idea of requiring teachers to take voice lessons has never entered my mind. Let’s require that right along with a handwriting class! ?

    • Ann, the handwriting is just as important; you are so right! Oddly, I have often been impressed with the handwriting of, say Anchor Charts by teachers – more so than their voices. [Hope all is well! Have a good summer!]

      • I have a voice, but am dreadful when it comes to handwriting (made the switch from lefty to righty due to an injury in my yourth). I combat that with trading a colleague anchor charts for copies. She hates to stand at the machine, but gets great joy out of making posters and charts. My students get great joy out of being able to read them!

  3. Oh, Grant! Don’t get me started. I’m a theatre education specialist. I teach plenty of current teachers how to simply read aloud to make meaning for their students, let alone to command a room. Pre-service elementary teachers who take my methods class are sorely lacking in vocal hygiene, and the ability to make creative use of voice. One of my frustrations is that principals buy microphones BEFORE they teach teachers how to speak effectively.

  4. I have taken classes with Second City in Toronto as well as with other improv groups- to put myself into the mind of the learner. I am working on an article about what i have learned from these courses, so your mother’s comments struck a chord.
    A timely post. Thanks.

  5. Seems like teacher ed programs are the best place to incorporate this, given the shortage of PD funding and the focus on other things in schools. But I like the idea and will recommend it to our principal for an in-house PD, utilizing our drama teacher.

  6. I totally agree with all of your comments. I have a physically small mouth (confirmed by my dentist) but have little trouble “commanding” a group with my speech volume. I do remember one of my classmates being told by our Speech 1 professor that he’ll never be able to be an effective teacher because of his voice patterns. I didn’t understand then and still don’t. That person changed his major. I still think he could have been taught how to project with more volume. You have a strong roll model in your mother. Keep it up and give her a hug from Mrs. Dorsey.

  7. I can’t imagine the effect size compares to that of content knowledge, fostering connections with colleagues and leaders, or learning to implement technology that gives students voice in new and interesting ways. In my experience, it doesn’t even correlate with classroom management. When it comes to students failing to meet their potential, there’s a different between understanding and excuses, and in the common complaints of college freshmen in their first classes that hold them responsible and also their first experience with someone who speaks differently, more often than not a TA’s speaking is an excuse.

    • I suspect you are right about effect size but that doesn’t excuse ed. programs for not considering it as an important skill. The ES of most of teacher ed. is surely small!

  8. Grant, it’s so curious on one level that educators study so much about best practice curriculum strategies, methods, procedures, assessments– with the underlying value judgment that those things are the most important things to master for student learning to happen. This is an ethical judgment.
    Yet, as this post reveals, there are factors of human interaction like voice that hold– in my judgment– a much more important place in determining how compelling the learning experience is. How a teacher speaks dictates flow, concern, care for others– how a teacher responds to a student dictates the possibility for future risk-taking. And the intelligent use of silence can make or break any lesson plan.
    Your mother probably knows this by empirical observation which isn’t reducible to graphs and charts and numbers– the sort of things that education studies must now produce or they are rendered useless. This is intuition inspired by the art of human interaction. These are the nuggets of wisdom that are being ignored, for what place does this type of wisdom occupy within the engines of professional development for teachers? None that I can think of. And I think it’s precisely because empirically measuring the impact of such professional development doesn’t lend itself to data which administrators and teachers could harness.
    A really great post…

    • Thanks, Dan! Though this should be easily measurable if anyone would care to do the study: same content, same kids, different teachers with different degrees of voice clarity and control…..

      • Yeah, I guess that makes sense. Absent a formal study, you could structure professional development where teachers who were skilled at using voice and silence could lead other teachers through activities which showed their creative uses. Teachers would ‘get’ the importance pretty quickly I think.

        • Never mind the easiest ‘experiment’ – tape yourself teaching and see which vocal moves need changing and which don’t just by listening to yourself. (I wish self-assessment on an ongoing basis were part of teacher accountability systems…)

  9. Teaching is a performing art and delivery is everything. Ignite the spark and the brain magic ensues like fireworks.

  10. I have taped myself teaching and oh what an enlightening experience. If you can’t stand to listen to yourself, how can you expect your students to? Thank you and your mom for this thoughtful post. It’s time not only to teach listening and speaking but to become learners in the work as well!

  11. Thanks for this Mother’s Day message. By coincidence, we had company last night — 2 singers + Jim, my husband, all of them musicians/singers and our conversation turned to ‘voice’ and the power of voice. I spoke about voice from the perspective of writing, and wish I had read this to share with them. I will send this along, I know though they are not educators, they will enjoy this Post. Thanks, Grant.

  12. In my “how to be a grad student” course, I spend about an hour on teaching students how to speak loudly—we go out into the woods to practice without the echos off walls to increase the volume. I also spend a few minutes on how to write on a whiteboard, and about an hour on preparing sildes. These students are mostly going to become researchers, with a few becoming professors, not k–12 teachers.
    I thought that education students got at least some minimal training in voice and blackboard technique—it saddens me to think that the minimal training I’m giving to researchers is more than many teachers are getting!

  13. Reblogged this on teachingontheverge and commented:
    I’ve found this blog a few days too late but I’m going to enjoy reading through the archives. This one in particular spoke to me; I often chuckle at the ways that my dance and theatre training help me in the classroom – especially since I was often told how useless those skills were. I would love to see more teachers develop stronger performance skills!

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