“You’re just unlucky” said my doctor in his usual jolly manner – the same doctor I’ve been going to since I was born, so of course we have to joke about whether or not my nappy rash has cleared up over the past 35 years. It was my third chest infection of the year and I had just put it down to my body not adjusting after coming back from teaching in the tropics for two and a half years, or perhaps more worryingly something I had picked up over there! Luckily the antibiotics cleared it up within a few days. It got me thinking though – three chest infections in six months? Throughout my ten years of teaching I’ve had plenty of issues with my chest, throat and voice. The voice is the key tool of the trade so it follows that the voice will always show signs of wear and tear. Interestingly a couple of days after I was thinking about whether or not I use my voice properly, the “behaviour Tsar”, Charlie Taylor, came out and said that all trainee teachers should have voice control lessons (Daily Mail, 2nd July 2012) Incidentally, although a media-led moniker, I have always wondered if the word Tsar is the right word to use. Does Taylor sit there as an aging autocratic old bureaucrat on a throne somewhere, desperately trying to modernise in a conservative way, facing endless assassination attempts? Will he be deposed by middle-class intelligentsia acting on behalf of the proletariat?
Voice control, Taylor tells us, is essential. Teachers can sound firmer if the volume goes up and the pitch goes down – and this guy was of course once Head of The Willows, so he is coming from a discipline point of view. My issue is more of a health and safety one. It’s blindingly obvious that we should care about our voice – but how much attention do we actually give to our voice, the key tool of our trade? Try not to strain your voice – I quite frequently find myself doing this and I have tried to stop any cause of strain in recent weeks. Getting the tone and pitch right is essential. I know we have enough to think about in the class as the lesson goes on, but you need to get it right. As any educator knows, shouting is also out of the equation both professionally and from a health and safety point of view. I remember shouting once at my timid little year 7s in Mauritius and you should have seen their faces! Well it was hot, I was tired… I didn’t hear a peep from them for the rest of the term, but not all of us are lucky to be in that position. Patience is a virtue – however angry we might get once in a while we need to avoid shouting – not only will it harm your voice in the long term, but also it’s a commonly held belief amongst students that they ‘have won the battle’ if they get sir or miss to ‘lose it’. Taylor is right – we need proper voice coaching, and not just for trainee teachers.
We need proper voice coaching because we are performers. It was a drama graduate friend of mine who first pointed this out to me, not long after I had finished my PGCE. I was still busy worrying about the million and one other things a newly qualified teacher has to worry about to notice and I have to admit this had not really crossed my mind. In my experience, it’s draining but it has to be done. People who don’t teach can’t understand this, but every good lesson is a performance – hence why we are so exhausted and why naively we used to think as pupils that the holidays were for us and not for the teachers! ‘The performance’ is perhaps easier for some than it is for others but if you can really go for it I can guarantee many of your classroom management issues will disappear. Keep it positive, keep the act. Keep that smile on your face, humour the silly questions, engage all students, use the occasional sarcastic response (disclaimer – no ‘teaching manual’ will say do this!) but if you know the class it works. It is essential to know the class – and I don’t mean just their data.
We’ve lost the personal touch in this overly data-obsessed age and part of your performance is to know what your pupils like, their hobbies, their personalities – this will get the pupils on to your side. Keep the body language positive – this is also something mentioned by Charlie Taylor. This can be nigh-on impossible with shouting yr9s last thing on a Friday but if your head goes down, their heads definitely will – its all part of the act, but it will pay dividends. My final tip on the ‘performance’ is to have a gimmick or two. I ostentatiously wave my hands around to stress my points and the pupils love it, they pick up on it and it helps with the banter – yes there is professional distance and a line they know they won’t cross, but banter and humour helps the students see you are a human too, you are on their side and this in turn makes the lesson run smoothly. We are performers and like it or not, we have to perform. It’s not always easy but the effort will pay off in the long run.