Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Substitute Voices

Teachers use our voices much the same way singers do -- all day, every day, at a strong volume. Teacher voices have to project above the voices and noises of 23 bodies in one room, and across large spaces such as the hallway or the playground. But we never learn the things singers learn about how to warm up, how to project, or how to breathe, so voice problems among teachers are common.

Right now at least 3 teachers at my school are suffering from severe voice strain, and I am one of them. I am going to speech therapy once a week to learn exercises I can do to use my voice more efficiently, so that I get maximum volume with minimum effort. I am drinking buckets of water every day. (All day, my students remind me: "Ms. Swamp, drink water! Ms. Swamp, here's your water bottle.") I am supposed to vary the range and tone of my voice throughout the day, and not to talk too much or too loudly.

My students are all on board with this. They understand the problem. They are quieter than usual, and they hush each other so I can talk at a lower volume. I am working really hard not to talk too loudly, so my voice is pretty quiet. I'm using a normal speaking-voice volume, but in an action-filled room, it can be about as effective as a whisper in a noisy bar.

Today I decided to share some of the vocal work. At the end of recess, I asked Ola to lead the circling up. He counted down from 10 to 0, then told everyone to hold hands, raise them, drop them, and check their shoes (to see if they were tied), all in exactly the same words I use when I lead that routine. He called students to line up (and called Cliff last because Cliff was smiling -- God forbid anyone smile in school!), and he led the class back to the classroom. He told the line leaders to stop at the appropriate places in the hall, and directed the door holders to do their job as well. At the classroom door, he made the class stand silently at the door, and only let quiet students in to walk to their seats for lunch.

"It looks like you've found your substitute voice," Amalia remarked to me as she went by.

But really I have found 22 substitute voices. Raheem is brilliant at quieting the class when he rings the bell to make an announcement. "Michael, please go to your seat," he instructs. "Everyone, please stop touching the cubes. It's time to clean up. Make sure you check the floor under your tables. Ramon, please look at me when I ring the bell."

In the hallway on the way to drumming, Ivan quieted the group. "Ms. Swamp is waiting for you," he said, his eyes on me as I stood quietly waiting for silence. "Bria, please stop talking. We are going to be late for drumming!"

The classroom could run itself without me, it seems. They know the routines inside out and backwards. Not only do they know the routines, they know exactly what I am going to say, and exactly what words I am going to use, at least when performing everyday maneuvers. It is fun to watch their leadership emerge, and to see how they rise to the occasion. If Tyshaun is in charge of getting the class to PE, he doesn't fool around in the hallway like he might otherwise. He stands a little taller, and looks around at his classmates with an authoritative expression on his face. They ask each other in respectful but assertive tones to listen, to be respectful, and to help us get where we need to be. Meanwhile, I stand back and watch, and grin.


  1. This is so great! Just like children learn their mother's habits, your students have learned their teacher's. I think that next year, you should demonstrate your methods, vocab, etc. for two months and then turn over the reins to the little leaders of Young Achievers!

  2. You know, though, it also speaks to your teaching, how well the children are able to take on a leadership role in the routines.

    You've clearly been consistent with routines and your language, encouraged their input, and valued them, so because you've been that model for them, they can take on the responsibility.

    Can I come be in your class? ♥

  3. Well, I learned from the best! :)