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The Class Whisperer: How I Learned (the Hard Way) to Shut Up and Listen

By Jessica Cuthbertson — March 20, 2013 3 min read
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As teachers, we develop our own toolboxes of signature “moves.” While all our toolboxes are different, most of us have a “look,” a “tone,” an immune system of steel, and a predictable set of rituals and routines.

Recently, all of my tools were put to the test.

Last week, during the second week of administering our annual state standardized test (coincidence?), I fell ill for the first time this school year. The drippy, sneezy, feverish feeling? No sweat—I can teach through that. The minor ringing in my ears? Not a problem—the whining of 6th graders has stretched the limits of my aural sensitivity. And then … laryngitis set in. A teacher’s worst nightmare.

As a middle school literacy teacher, my voice is one of my most powerful tools. Every day, I read aloud, confer one-on-one with students, facilitate small groups, and lead a variety of discussions. I meet with parents (in person or on the phone), plan formally and informally with colleagues, and monitor hallways. I rely on strong vocal cords that I can adjust in volume and tone.

So what happens when a teacher loses her voice?

It turns out that wonderful things happen.

My laryngitis lessons learned:

Never underestimate the power of positive relationships. Ok, so maybe some of the compliance and politeness my students exhibited came from a place of pity for a red-eyed, sniffling mess? The truth is that I believe I teach incredibly kind and empathetic adolescents. Being under the weather helped me step back and appreciate my students as human beings. Our students love us, and when we take time to build and nurture relationships with them as individuals, they reciprocate with maturity, patience, and understanding.

Let kids do more of the talking … and teaching. I believe in facilitating a workshop-centered classroom where student voices are at the heart of the learning. But losing my voice made me realize I need to let kids do even more of the talking (and leading). With nothing more than a one-line prompt, students facilitated their own mini-lesson. They worked as a class to transform a list of bland verbs into more interesting, vivid verbs. Then they used those brainstormed lists to help them revise narrative drafts. And I didn’t say a word.

Listen longer. Being unable to speak forced me to listen to and observe my students more closely. Laryngitis is a really helpful strategy for improving a teacher’s wait time! In the absence of teacher direction, students find different ways to figure things out. Long after my voice comes back, I want to remember to pause—frequently and often—to create a space for students to do the critical thinking and problem solving.

Get creative. Instead of speaking, I relied on digital tools for conferring with and supporting students. I held writing conferences by commenting and chatting in Googledocs. The experience reminded me that these tools are powerful ways for students to collaborate with me and with one another. It also reminded me how much I can learn from my students: One taught me to use a text-to-voice app to communicate key instructions or transitions to the whole class. (Ah, “teacher robot,” I will never be as entertaining as you when giving directions!)

Trust the classroom rituals and routines you’ve established. I couldn’t help but feel proud and relieved at the end of my first voiceless day. Multiple language arts classes filled with 25-30 students ran smoothly. Students respectfully distributed and collected materials, cleaned their workspaces, followed posted directions and helped each other. They interpreted simple nonverbal cues and maintained eye contact with me during transitions. It was a wonderful opportunity to reflect on the way students internalize, follow, and own the norms and routines of our classroom.

I wouldn’t wish laryngitis on any of my colleagues. But I must say that losing my voice was an unavoidable (even karmic) occasion that forced me to shut up and listen. What I discovered: When my voice is nothing but a whisper, my students’ voices rise in a crescendo of learning and leadership.

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