The overlooked "lethal weapon" of teaching

The kids are drooling on the desk, doodling, and passing notes. They are simply falling asleep! We've all seen it whether in our classroom or whether we were passing by “Johnny-teacher-one-note” on our way to the teacher work room.

Don't get me wrong, it is vital for teachers to be knowledgeable, informed, and educated about how to be a teacher. What about a teacher's voice?

According to Rose Polchin, communications consultant:

…the percentage break down for how messages are conveyed in face-to-face situations is as follows…

Body Language: 55%
Tonality: 38%
Actual words: 7%

So only around 7% of communications is the content of what we are saying. The rest is our body language and tonality of our voice! (Podcasters beware that tonality jumps to 70% when it is not face to face contact!)

I believe that a teacher's voice is the lethal weapon — it can slay your class with boredom or excite them to action.

Why do we think that when we are “jam up knowledgeable” that is enough?

The best teachers I know can do it in their sleep. They are passionate about their topic and it shows – in their body language and in their tone.

I think Jeffrey Jacobi, author of How to Say it With Your Voiceborder=0 puts it so well.

“It hurts. It hurts to put together a speech with solid content and give it your best delivery- then watch some other speaker, who didn't work nearly as hard as you did, get all the glory. When this happens, whether you were talking to just one person or to hundreds, you can be about 99% certain that the reason is the two voices involved: Yours, and the one that grabbed and held everyone's attention so powerfully that they couldn't find words to express their admiration.” (p 174)

Right on the money! We have great content — then why aren't the kids listening? Are kids just sorry? Are they lazy nowadays? Are they unmotivated?

If I ever have a kid fall asleep in my class I ask myself two things: 1) Is the child sick? and 2) Have they ever done this before? If not, then it's ME! I've got to change.

I've got to get excited,
get motivated, and
get animated!

Jacobi goes on to say:

Your first objective as a speaker is to get people to listen to you. Without mastering this crucial first step, you'll never get any further. After all, before you can motivate, convince, or persuade, you must first have your listeners ear!”

I'm not one of those who casts stones at the teachers as to the reasons we're having educational issues in this country. It is hard to stay motivated and excited when you're micromanaged into cross eyed boredom yourself.

What we need is some people with passion! Passionate about history! Passionate about technology! (That's me!) Passionate about the importance of written communication! Science!

Why do students love younger teachers? Is it because they are young and unjaded? No! It is often because they are passionate, animated, excited. Everything is new! It is so fun to teach others!

If kids are falling asleep in your class or seminar, by golly get up and do something about it! Move next to the student, ask them a question, wake them up! Teach them that you strive for excellence in delivery and expect excellence in participation and attention.

As I've reread this book, Jacobi gives us several ways to make our voices more exciting:

  1. Add more variety (modulation)
  2. Emphasize the important words with a pitch change
    (He shows how to do it very well in the book.)

  3. When you're running low on steam make an extra effort to sound exciting
    (I drink my Mountain Dew — I call it my Mountain DO! Wake up and DO it! Get excited! Get motivated! Even if this is the third time I've discussed this topic today, it is the first time for these students! Drink coffee, drink water, move around the room! Wake up!)

  4. When you are repeating a topic, use it as a chance to experiment with your voice.
    Make it interesting for you! If you're bored — your students will be bored. Vary the format! Use different tools! Find something new and exciting to put into the presentation to liven it up! Hit google! Hit the blogs! Add something from today's news to your presentation. When you're excited it shows! I think one reason some older teachers may get a little less exciting is that they get in a rut! Get out of the comfort zone — do what works but do it in a new way! (Wiki it! Risk something new!)

    Broadway actors do the same play over and over and still find a way to captivate their audience. Certainly you can deliver the same class discussion twice!

    Notice I didn't say lecture — I hate the word lecture. I rarely say more than 3-4 sentence without asking a question.

  5. Any topic be interesting!
    It's your job to make the effort. I learned this during the last three weeks. Using wikis, podcasts, team teaching, SAT raps, and a video recorder the SAT went from the most boring three weeks of the year to the most fun! I had a great time and they did!
  6. Vary the rhythm
    (slow down and speed up.)

  7. Pause sometimes
    (Think of the drama of the opening of Beethoven's Fifth — He was a genius and he paused for emphasis!)

Have I arrived yet? No!

I must constantly assess the body language of my class. Are they attentive? Are they making eye contact? Are they answering questions? Are they asking questions? Are they with me? If not, I will do what it takes to engage their attention and their minds. I will do whatever it takes for them to know that I value what I am teaching and want them to learn. I will expect the best and reward those who give me their best. I will have fun, laugh, and not take myself too seriously.

One of my best professors at Georgia Tech was Dr. Eugene Griessman , writer of Time Tactics of Very Successful People. He spent much of his life studying how to speak with eloquence from intonation to pauses. His voice was captivating! In fact every excellent teacher I can remember had a wonderful voice to match! (You can listen Dr. Griessman's voice and see what you think! He is a relatively famous consultant, speaker, and author now.)

Are you using your lethal weapon? What is your voice telling your students?

Wake yourself up and wake up your students!

All the technology in the world isn't going to animate a dull voice — that's your job! Get excited!

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Vicki Davis

Vicki Davis is a full-time classroom teacher and IT Director in Georgia, USA. She is Mom of three, wife of one, and loves talking about the wise, transformational use of technology for teaching and doing good in the world. She hosts the 10 Minute Teacher Podcast which interviews teachers around the world about remarkable classroom practices to inspire and help teachers. Vicki focuses on what unites us -- a quest for truly remarkable life-changing teaching and learning. The goal of her work is to provide actionable, encouraging, relevant ideas for teachers that are grounded in the truth and shared with love. Vicki has been teaching since 2002 and blogging since 2005. Vicki has spoken around the world to inspire and help teachers reach their students. She is passionate about helping every child find purpose, passion, and meaning in life with a lifelong commitment to the joy and responsibility of learning. If you talk to Vicki for very long, she will encourage you to "Relate to Educate" or "innovate like a turtle" or to be "a remarkable teacher." She loves to talk to teachers who love their students and are trying to do their best. Twitter is her favorite place to share and she loves to make homemade sourdough bread and cinnamon rolls and enjoys running half marathons with her sisters. You can usually find her laughing with her students or digging into a book.

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Patti Wood June 21, 2007 - 7:01 pm

I found your blog on body langauge in the classroom interesting. I have been a body language expert and proffesioanl speaker for over 26 years. Their are so many nonverbal cues that a teacher can read in his/her students that can help create more powerful interaction and learning. I have written about some of the newest research such as that increasing eye contact with students dramactically inceases their participation in class. I also have an article on reading your audiances body language. And one on your body language

Vicki A. Davis June 22, 2007 - 9:58 pm

Yes, it is so important to make eye contact with one’s students. The teacher who leaves their back turned is doomed to failure. In fact, some great research has be done and published in Marzano’s classroom management that works — where he talks about such things. Thank you for sharing.

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Vicki Davis writes The Cool Cat Teacher Blog for classroom teachers everywhere