Picture this – You’ve just returned to teaching after a year of maternity leave. You’re starting at a new school, and your bub is starting daycare. He gets adenovirus during the first week of students being at school, so you take some time off to care for him. The second week, you start feeling a bit unwell, but hubby is looking after bub so you go to school.
By the end of the day, you can feel your voice slipping away. No biggie, just one more class to get through. Sure, they’re a loud year 9 class who need lots of verbal direction, but it’s just one more class. Soldier on! The next day you wake up with no voice at all.
You go to the doc, and she says you also have adenovirus, and to not speak until your voice returns, which may be by the end of the weekend. It’s currently Thursday. Sure thing doc. Me, a full-time working mumma, not speak – no problem at all! Yeah right! But you follow her advice and take Thursday and Friday off work. You whisper a bit to your family, and every now and then try making actual noise (to no avail).
Sunday night rolls around and you realise doc was 100% serious – you still have no voice at all! Emails start flying, telling your HOD and school you won’t be in again because you still have no voice and aren’t well. The guilt is palatable. It’s the beginning of the year, at your new school, and you’ve been there for a grand total of 4 student days, and it’s already week 3. After further consultation with doc and with school, the school tells you to stay home for the week and get better. Oh the relief, and oh the guilt!
Now comes the prospect of returning to school next week with a significantly reduced vocal ability. Even when my voice does come back, I am to look after it very carefully for another couple of weeks lest I have a relapse. I have many loud classes, and used to be able to handle them fine with my louder voice. It seems this will no longer be the way to go. I need to find ways to work while using my voice as little as possible!
Often transitions between activities are the times where you need your loud teacher voice the most. Students are generally talking to each other (whether on task or off…), there is often a lot of movement, and you need to speak over them in order to get things moving along.
Having a countdown timer is a great way to prepare for transitions, or to signal the end of a particular activity. Have it very visible on the board, even from the very beginning of the activity. That way the students can prepare themselves for when they need to be transitioning.
Do Less Talking
Just talk less.
Ha! You know, just do it!
Realistically, think about the way you teach and the way your class responds. Is there a way you can actually talk less during the lesson? If you’re standing up the front of the class explaining everything and talking the entire lesson, there’s definitely room for change. If it’s you doing all the talking, generally that means it’s you doing all the work, which isn’t right!
Do you actually personally need to explain this particular thing by speaking it out loud? We often feel like if we haven’t physically spoken out loud the content, then there’s no way the students have learnt it, but this certainly isn’t always the case.
Have the students discover the content in a way that isn’t by you talking. Could a YouTube video, or written text, or diagram do it for you? Videos are brilliant in that they often include animations that you can’t, which can really strengthen the learning process. The only issue is finding the right one – but once you do, make sure you bookmark it or save it in some way so you can use it again next time!
See if you can incorporate more group work, or individual work, into your lessons. Using written text is perfect for this, and it doesn’t have to come out of a text book. There are hundreds of ways you can have students interpret the text other than just reading it. Perhaps this lesson they are reading a text individually, then explaining the concept to a partner and work together to answer some simple recall questions. Next lesson they read a text as a group and work on complex questions together. The next lesson they could read the text to a partner, then convert the information into a mind map or diagram. Perhaps the next lesson you give them a detailed diagram and they have to interpret it and write notes or annotations. Find out what your class works well with and enjoys, and use a lot of variety. But don’t be afraid of failure! If you find your class can’t handle a particular type of activity, try it again one more time with more scaffolding, then if it’s still not working simply let it go and move on to something else.
Group and individual work provides you with the perfect opportunity to work with individual students who are struggling with the content. It also lets you talk at a more conversational level, so you are preserving your voice while still being very active in the classroom!
Noise Levels and Technology
If your class is loud, you are louder. Let’s see if we can change the dynamics a little.
There are heaps of different apps, websites, etc that can monitor the sound levels of the classroom. They often have a buzzer that activates when the noise level reaches a certain point. Find one you like and start using it! At the very least, your ‘louder’ won’t need to be quite as loud.
You can also purchase voice amplifying devices to project your voice without straining. These are particularly helpful if you have a large room, a lot of students, or a naturally quiet voice.
Waiting for Silence
I’m sure we’ve all seen this meme:
Heck, maybe you can pop that meme up onto the board when you’re waiting and see if they respond appropriately.
Sometimes waiting works, other times it does not. You know your class dynamic – if waiting does work then go ahead and do it!
Otherwise you might need to get your student’s attention another way. Think to the strategies that primary teachers often use – a clapping sequence, raising hands, singing a song. I teach high school, and they are often embarrassed if I have to use such techniques. So I make a HUGE deal out of doing the ‘primary school clap’ to get their attention – usually by the next lesson they’re more watchful of my actions and when they need to be quietly paying attention again.
Other strategies include standing in a particular spot of the room (next to the board for example), tapping the board, a whistle or other noise.
All of these strategies takes practice and routine before students will respond automatically. A key point to remember is to give them some take-up time – you can’t realistically expect them to fall instantly silent as soon as you clear your throat (even the most respectful adults will want to finish their sentence to their partner).
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When You Simply Cannot Talk
In all honesty, if you cannot talk what-so-ever, you shouldn’t be at school. It is a health and safety issue, especially as you are the carer of 20+ other little people. But sometimes you just have to be at school and you really want to minimise the use of your voice. You need to do some extra planning in advance, but it can be successful.
Choose the loudest, most obnoxious student in your class, and enlist their help. They will be your voice for the lesson – drawing the class together, reading out notices and the roll, asking for quiet when you need to show them something. You’ll often find their own individual behaviour in class will improve dramatically as they are finally being allowed to be useful and authoritative, and likely the next lesson they will come straight up to you and ask if you still need their help.
If you have access to laptops, plan the entire lesson around a web quest, where they have to find the information themselves! There are quite a few pre-made web quests out there, so see if one already exists for your needs.
Alternatively find an online simulation they can work with – particularly good for science and math lessons.
We all love these lessons – find a suitably long documentary that showcases the content they need to learn, find/create an appropriate worksheet, and let loose. At the end you can even have students share their answers with the whole class and all you need to do is confirm or deny their correctness (perhaps have the correct answers ready to go on a PowerPoint just in case).
Text Book Lesson
We all dislike these lessons, but sometimes they’re unavoidable. Students read the textbook and answer the associated questions. These lessons can often get VERY loud though, as students drift off task.
If you can incorporate the above techniques even when your voice is perfectly fine, you are doing a fantastic job of preserving it. The added bonus is you are providing different pedagogy for your students, which means more incidental engagement!
What strategies have you used to preserve your voice? Or when have you lost it completely at the most inconvenient time?
Emily is a secondary Science and Maths teacher, with a background in science and science communication. She taught in London for a year and is now into her 8th year of teaching in Australia, and juggles teaching with two energetic and beautiful children, two kittens, and a scientist husband. She is the founder of Staffroom Stories (www.staffroomstories.com) – head on over and check out the site for a fun and informative dip into the human side of teaching! 🤗