Is silence more eloquent than words? I was about to find out. Having woken on Thursday morning with a sore throat, I had a four period day followed by Y11 Parents’ Evening. By the time Friday dawned, my vocal register was somewhere between Cher’s vocoder, a teenager mid-voice-break, Frank Butcher, and those people who do creepy whispering videos (don’t know them? that’s what Google is for).
So I had no voice. I couldn’t talk. Friday looked like: double Y12, Y11, Y10, Y7, tutorial. Like many of us, I had heard tales of laryngitic teachers of yore, venturing forth voiceless amongst the multitudinous hordes of Y11; I too wanted to join this mythological brethren. Silent teaching? Bring it on.
And my lessons were affected – but not in the way I had expected.
Usually I greet students at my door, saying good morning/afternoon and checking uniform, so already the start of the lesson routine was challenged. Instead, I smiled and nodded as the students greeted me, perhaps some of them wondering why I wasn’t responding politely, but probably most of them unaware of my vocally challenged status as yet.
As they came in, there was a typed message from me on the whiteboard simply saying ‘I have lost my voice.’ The initial response was a few laughs, gasps, sighs some ‘how’s this going to work?’ and some lovely ‘why are you in, Miss, you should be at home’ (awww). ‘Have you really lost your voice, Miss?’ Nodding. Slightly at sea, the students hovered behind their desks unpacking, then one by one fell silent and looked towards the board where I was now typing:
‘This is how it’s going to work. Please have a seat while I take the register and watch the board carefully for questions and instructions.’ (luckily I can type fast and only one wag did the Stephen Hawking voice).
Now, I wait for silence as much as the next fairly experienced teacher.
And not (always) like this…
Yet somehow, by using only typed instructions and questions, silence came to me like a beautiful oasis of calm. It was immediately noticeable in all my classes how much quieter my students were. A calm, focused atmosphere of zen-like peace had descended, the like of which is usually my holy grail.
It seemed the lack of my voice somehow led to greater awareness of their own. Also, because I was not speaking, I was able to *listen* to everything, which I think made them more self-conscious about off-task behaviour. Students also had to focus on my written instructions or questions on the board, which meant facing the front, and when I typed either ‘talk about it’ or typed individual names or pairs after each question to answer, there was an element of suspense to see who would be nominated. Some students offered to read the instructions and develop the questions so that they were leading the learning. The quietness also made me notice the quiet students more, so that I asked them more questions and checked on them more. My style of teaching in terms of classroom routines, task setting, questioning and plenaries was essentially the same, but the silent delivery radically changed the temperature of the classroom.
Which led me to reflect. This peaceful classroom was rather lovely. Why wasn’t my classroom always this peaceful?
The truth is that the enforced teacher silence was a fairly dramatic change of personality for me. Not that I prance about like a circus monkey desperately trying to keep them interested, but … but …
On reflection, my personality sets the mood of the classroom and I am energetic and outgoing, I love my subject and get enthusiastic about what I’m teaching, I can get sidetracked by interesting ideas, I have a sense of humour and like to chat to students (about the work, always the work!). But it’s not all about me, is it?
The silent teacher experiment reminded me that while it’s easy to relax into your comfortable teacher personality and your relationships with classes, sometimes it’s good to step back. To observe. To listen. And while teacher talk is no longer seen as the devil’s work, some of us still talk too much.
Essentially, I found not talking made me more observant, tuned in and a better listener. I was able to observe my own students more effectively, analyse the questions I was asking as I asked them, revising and improving them on the board as I typed. Students took more responsibility in the lesson and worked effectively in a calm, peaceful silence. I even noticed in the staff room at break and lunch how becoming an enforced listener meant I listened to different people and conversations. Enlightening.
So I’m thinking, perhaps this could be A Thing? A Pedagogical Thing. The Silent Teacher. Is the domain name taken yet? I just know someone will have done some research on this. #ResearchEd ? Laura McInerney? Anyone with a PhD? I need some scientific, impact-measured back up here.
What has the Silent Teacher taught me? The need to consciously create that oasis of calm in every lesson and perhaps in the future choose to run the occasional ‘Silent Teacher’ lesson to reset the tone. For now, I’ll just stop talking and tune in to the inner peace.
Next time – renegade meditating in tutorial.