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Voice Lessons

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I remember the day I learned about a power that real teachers have, a power that I call The Voice. I was a naive student teacher caught up in the mad swirl of my first recess duty. If I didn't enforce the playground rules, every 3rd grader in the school would know I was a fake--a student just like them, only taller. "Please don't challenge me'' was written all over my fresh-from-the-dormitory face.

Things were going smoothly until Christopher, a boy from my class, stole another student's jump rope. I called out to him, mumbling some vague threat. To my shock, he flashed a mischievous grin and headed for the jungle gym. When I walked toward him, he ran. Following my completely faulty instincts, I began chasing after him, pleading with him to stop.

Suddenly, the voice of Ms. Adams, my supervising teacher, rang out across the field. "Stop it right there, Christopher.'' He did, immediately. Without another word from Ms. Adams, he quietly joined his classmates.

The Voice. Ms. Adams had it; I wanted it.

The Voice was clear, firm, unhesitating, and controlled, not too loud or strident. The Voice could stop a speeding child in mid-flight, a bully in mid-punch. The Voice could bring a roomful of frenzied students to their senses with just one syllable.

I studied the timbre and tone of Ms. Adams' voice all semester, trying to figure out the key to her power. I discovered only one thing: The Voice cannot be imitated. I could only hope that my own voice would emerge.

When I finally got a classroom of my own, I thought I was ready to be a real teacher, able to handle every aspect of classroom life without a hitch. But my first assignment was in a junior high school--not, as I had hoped, in an elementary school. I had to adapt to a new age group, curriculum, schedule, and structure. For a while, I taught by the seat of my skirt. Just getting through the day with the furniture intact was enough.

One day, as I was enjoying the silence of an empty classroom during my planning period, my intercom buzzed. The guidance counselor requested my presence in her office. One of my students, a boy named John, was in some kind of trouble. John had a disarming smile, a great sense of humor, and a genuine desire to learn. He was also an "at-risk'' kid. Still in the 8th grade at age 15, he had a history of violent behavior.

As I approached the guidance office door, John burst into the hallway, almost knocking me over. I'd never seen a face so full of rage. Screaming angrily, he bolted toward the school's exit. I almost ran after him. But then I stopped and used my voice: "Stop it right there, John.''

He froze.

"I like you, John,'' I said spontaneously. "I'd miss you if you walked out that door.'' It was true. He was one of my favorite kids.

John turned around and smiled. I saw relief and recognition in his face. I was for him, not against him. He could hear it in my voice.

In that instant, I finally realized what gives The Voice its power. While it may convey tension, disappointment, or frustration, The Voice also conveys concern and genuine affection. It protects children from harm, including the harm they sometimes do to themselves. It says: "You aren't mature enough to know how to be good to yourself. So I am watching out for you because I believe you can succeed, and I want you to succeed.''

It is not a voice that scolds because it likes to scold, sling threats, or induce fear. The message of that voice is: "You'd better toe the line or someone bigger than you will make you regret it.'' While there is force in that voice, it fades quickly.

Later that day, I thought back to Ms. Adams. She was firm, but there was no doubt that she loved her students. You could hear it in her voice. And I realized how lucky I was, during my apprenticeship, to have been within earshot of such a teacher.

Even though I'm not teaching anymore, The Voice is still there. I needed it the other day at the neighborhood swimming pool, when three older boys invaded the baby pool where my 2-year-old son and I were playing with other moms and tots.

Impressed with their own relative brawn in such a small-fry setting, the big boys quickly launched into a rowdy game of "keep away'' with a tennis ball. Despite their splashing and the growing anxiety of the moms, the lifeguards sat in their perches high above the large pool and said nothing.

My voice rang out. "Knock it off or somebody's gonna get hurt.'' They froze, and I recognized the look on their faces: I was right, and they knew it. They took a Popsicle break, and peace returned to the baby pool.

A mother who had been guarding her infant turned to me. "Wow, that's some voice,'' she said. "You sound just like a teacher.''

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