Tone of Voice Matters (In Surprising Ways)

In one of the schools I worked with a while ago, we were working hard to implement an engaging, project-based curriculum with hard-to-teach students, the hardest in the city. As with many hard-to-teach students, ours could be challenging. But where some of the teachers found that to be true, others seemed to have little problem with them.

I did a series of classroom observations to see if we could learn why. What could we learn about how different ways of interacting with students impact student behavior?

It became clear from the observations that there are generally three kinds of tone of voice teachers use with students and that the (hard-to-teach) student reaction to each was fairly predictable. My experience in classrooms since then has confirmed this pattern. Granted, easy-to-teach stidents will have much less reaction to tone of voice, but easy-to-teach students aren't who we're struggling to reach and trying to develop more success strategies for.

Disappointed Voice
It is no surprise that the classroom observations showed that teachers who used the “disappointed voice” (a tone that indicated that the teacher was disappointed, upset, or angry with the student) generated the most difficulty with students. Students who might have been calm and compliant would quickly become loud, defiant, and oppositional. Students who where already acting up generally became worse.

Interestingly, feeling angry (and perhaps showing it in your voice) is human nature when students act rudely or are persistently off task or disruptive. Wanting to subtly assert your authority is perfectly understandable. Grabbing an object a student won't put away seems a normal reaction. But actually doing any of these was totally counterproductive.

The disappointed voice did not necessarily happen only when students were off task or misbehaving; in at least one case, it had more to do with the teacher's natural tone of voice than it did with how the teacher was feeling. I was further surprised that some teachers were not aware that they were using the disappointed voice, showing how important it is that we be very conscientious, deliberate, and intentional about how we interact with students.

Teacher Voice
It was student reaction to “teacher voice” that surprised me the most. Teacher Voice is that voice that has just a little formality in it, or says I'm the teacher and you're the student. On the surface, there is nothing wrong with the teacher voice. Such a tone seems completely appropriate, and I doubt that any principal or colleague would even notice during an observation that a teacher was using it (it's that normal and natural).

But it certainly caused problems with our challenging students! Again, it drove them to act up and be confrontational.

I think, where many children simply hear an adult tone or a formal tone, many hard-to-teach students hear authoritarianism or standoffishness (even a little “I'm better than you”), attitudes that they seem to take as confrontational and aggressive. Teachers certainly didn't mean any of these and I suspect that the teacher voice is fine for easy-to-teach students and some underachievers, but these observation certainly suggest that teachers will be more successful with their hard-to-teach students if they avoid that formal tone. Rather than debate whether students are right or wrong in their reaction to the teacher voice, I think we have look from the perspective of what works and what does not.

People Voice
It was interesting to see (and perhaps no surprise) that the teachers who seemed to have the best rapport with hard-to-teach students talked with them as people – they used what I have come to call the “people voice” (as if they were just talking with another person – I think some teacher educators call it the adult voice). There was no positional authority in their voice. Emerick (1992) reported that teachers influential with underachievers were willing to communicate with the student as a peer. That was certainly confirmed during these classroom observations.

The teachers who used the people voice still drew the line with behavior, set expectations, and intervened when students weren't doing what they were supposed to. In other words, even though they didn't wield their authority through in their voice in general, these teachers still used their authority when appropriate and necessary.

Ironically, in the past, I was a middle school teacher and had very good luck connecting with my students. But later I was moved to the high school and had a really horrible year before moving to the university to work with preservice teachers. I realize now that I had used the people voice with my middle school students and the teacher voice with my high school students. In light of these much more recent classroom observations, I can't help but wonder if using the teacher voice had had something to do with the quality of my year…

Tone of Voice Matters
Some of these differences in teacher behavior can be explained as stylistic differences. For example, some teachers relate more informally with students while others are more formal, and some teachers are more straightforward about their content, while other teachers work to make it more fun.

Although various behaviors, approaches, or reactions are natural, logical, understandable, or one's personal style, they can still be nonproductive or counterproductive. Much of this blog is about teachers being strategic, deliberate, and intentional in using productive behaviors, approaches, and reactions, even over those that are natural or otherwise “appropriate” but less effective. Teacher behaviors and approaches have to not just be “ok,” they have to work.

Clearly challenging students are very sensitive to the teacher's tone of voice, and teachers should avoid both the disappointed voice and the teacher voice in favor of the people voice. It would appear that using the people voice is a much more effective way of dealing with hard-to-teach and underachieving students

 

About Mike Muir

I'm an educator interested in collaborating with other educators on engaging all learners, proficiency-based learning, technology's role in learning, and leadership for school change.
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