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Denisia Wash, a kindergarten teacher in Berkeley, didn’t want to use a sugary voice when she talked to her 5-year-old students – they weren’t babies and that voice wasn’t actually effective, she said. But she didn’t want to use a sharp-edged voice either, the impatient tone that can come out when she’s tired or under pressure. “I call that teacher voice my ‘stress voice,’” she said.
Last year, she conducted an experiment as part of her evaluation at Berkeley Unified. If she changed her tone of voice, would her students feel more involved in what they were learning?
Wash isn’t alone in thinking about how she sounds when she talks to her students. Principals, parents and departments of education increasingly are asking teachers to create classrooms where students feel that it’s O.K. to speak up, even if they’re not sure of their idea, and where they are given a chance to explain themselves before a misunderstanding blows up into an office referral. These relationships necessarily involve a small thing that’s not a small thing – a teacher’s voice – say Wash and other educators, including Joyce Dorado, director of the Healthy Environments and Response to Trauma in Schools program at University of California, San Francisco.
“I’ve known teachers who have been yellers and teachers who have been very, very soft-spoken,” said David Kretschmer, an education professor at California State University, Northridge. “Just as with the tone we use with anybody we’re conversing with – or the tone we use with a pet – it can have a powerful impact.”
Part of Kretschmer’s job is to observe student teachers in classrooms, where they are practicing their craft in real time, and he doesn’t hear them yelling or whispering. What he has heard, he said, is “student teachers who have been very, very flat in terms of delivery of information.”
“And guess what?” he said. “Kids are pretty bored.” He offers tips. “I tell them if you put an inflection in there, and vary your tone and volume, that can have a remarkable impact on students,” he said.
If he had his way, every aspiring teacher would take a theater class.
“I’ve known teachers who have been yellers and teachers who have been very, very soft-spoken,” said David Kretschmer, an education professor at California State University, Northridge.
Gene Kahane, who has been teaching for 24 years in the Alameda Unified School District in the east Bay Area, agrees. “There’s a theatricality to a classroom,” he said. He took a class early in his career about “education through dramatization” and put those skills to use as a 4th-grade teacher presenting a unit on California history.
He’d step out of the classroom, put on a “goofy old hat and a cowboy vest,” and return to students anew. Recounting the transformation, he dropped into character. “Hey kids,” he said in a scratchy, old-timey voice. “It’s Crusty the prospector here. Let’s talk about prospecting for gold.”
Now Kahane is a high school English and drama teacher, and he has traded Crusty the prospector for a tone of voice that he said works almost like magic on students who are disrupting the flow. “What I discovered was the power of whispering,” he said.
“When you work with teenage kids, and with kids who come from backgrounds where they have a history of friction with teachers or adults, if you approach them with a harsh voice, with negativity, they will push back,” he said. “But if you lower your voice and whisper to them – as much as they will let you get into their space, and that’s always a difficult part of whispering – it de-escalates everything. It really does.”
He demonstrated the technique. “I might just lean up close and say, ‘We talked about this the other day. You need to focus on this, or I’m going to have to take some steps. I’m going to have to make some phone calls, and let’s don’t go down that road. Show me you can do this, OK?'”
For Kahane, whispering is a way not to embarrass a student. He said he doesn’t mind if students are a little scared by his whispered message, but he doesn’t want to embarrass them. Respect matters, particularly in high school.
“There’s a theatricality to a classroom,” said Gene Kahane, an English and drama teacher in Alameda.
“You can exacerbate the situation by being loud, by forcing that student to try to defend themselves and their own ego and their own sense of who they are in the classroom, and it can become combative,” he said. “But if you bring it down to that whisper, you show respect for them.”
Exactly how a teacher’s tone of voice is being received by students is worth finding out, said Wendy Murawski, executive director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at California State University, Northridge. “There are teachers who are seen as far too critical or negative and they just don’t know it,” she said. Being observed by another teacher or by an administrator is one way to find out. Another is to survey students about what’s working well and what could be better, she said.
Like children in the same family, students in the same classroom may react differently to the way a teacher tells a joke or reads aloud in a funny voice. Murawski noted that a student with autism may not be able to decode a teacher’s tone. “What works with most won’t necessarily work with all,” she said.
Unless it is the voice of Aretha Franklin, James Brown or, on one memorable bus ride, William DeVaughn, said Laurie Cahn, a San Francisco Unified School District bus driver who retired last year after 42 years of service. Sometimes students just need to hear someone else’s voice and sometimes it’s best if that voice is singing rhythm and blues or soul.
“You guys ever heard of Aretha Franklin?” Cahn asked the students on the bus. She hit play. “Let’s give it a shot.” Aretha Franklin made everyone on the bus feel good, she said, as did the music of James Brown. “We can all agree on James Brown,” she said.
On another day, it was raining as they drove through the industrial part of the city. “I had some pretty rough kids,” Cahn said. “I picked those kids up and they were always trashing each other. I’d say, ‘Say something nice, guys — guys, guys.’” She turned on the radio and “Be Thankful for What You Got,” sung soulfully by DeVaughn, filled the bus.
Demonstrating what happened, she started to sing: “Though you may not drive a great big Cadillac….”
“They all starting singing, and moving side to side, and I started directing them,” she said. The right side of the bus took the chorus: “Diamonds in the back, sunroof top, diggin’ the scene with a gangster lean.”
“I thought, this is the greatest job in the entire world,” she said.
As for Wash in Berkeley, she found her voice, somewhere in the middle between stern and candy-coated, and the students started asking more questions, she said. “It’s having that talking voice – not at their level, but with them – and they have an opening to interact with you in the learning process.” She added, “If you can show your student the real you, your real voice, that’s where you make your connections.”
She remembered a moment from last year. “The kids were fooling around and you just want to say, ‘Boom! Listen right now.’ And then you stop, breathe, and you hear that they actually are engaged.” The kindergartners were laughing, but they were laughing about what they were learning.
“In your voice, you’ve got to pull back, look at them, see what they’re doing and go with it,” she said. “It is a 100 percent job to keep that voice every second.”
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