How Tone of Voice Shapes Your Classroom Culture
It’s no easy task, but developing your tone of voice can build trust, reduce conflict, and set the stage for more learning in your classroom, research shows.
Using your voice to manage a classroom is one of the most powerful tools at your disposal. Teachers vocalize to impart information through direct instruction, gauge student understanding by asking questions, facilitate transitions between activities—and also manage behavior by redirecting wayward learners and issuing directives when necessary. It’s a deceptively complex, multifaceted tool, requiring constant modulation to fit changing classroom circumstances—and it can take teachers years to hone.
In a 2022 study, researchers set out to explore the nuances of tone, and especially how a teacher’s tone of voice can shape classroom culture. Researchers from the University of Essex and University of Reading analyzed how elementary students reacted to common classroom instructions—“It’s time to quiet down” or “Get in your seats, we’re starting the lesson,” for example—which were delivered in tones varying from controlling to neutral to supportive. While the words remained the same, shifts in tonality had a surprisingly large effect across multiple dimensions of classroom health, including students’ sense of belonging, autonomy, and enjoyment of the class, as well as the likelihood that they’d confide relevant personal information to educators, like their interests or academic struggles.
The researchers concluded that controlling tones “undermined” students’ sense of competence, while supportive tones “enhanced” their sense of connection with teachers. An authoritarian disposition can erect barriers: Controlling voices “dissuaded children from intentions to share secrets with their teachers,” including whether students were being bullied, were suffering hardships, or had completed work they were proud of, said the researchers, eroding the bonds of trust that are needed to learn in the social setting of a classroom.
Yet tone remains difficult to master, and harder still to sustain in a chaotic classroom environment. That’s why it’s helpful to be mindful of how things like intonation, volume, and the pacing of your speech can influence behavior, and how these qualities of voice can be judiciously deployed in ways that are likely to reinforce learning.
Canary in the Coal Mine
Subtle changes in a teacher’s tone of voice can be the first signal that something is awry in the classroom. A note of panic that slips into verbal directions, a rise in vocal register or volume, or a sudden barrage of repeated instructions may indicate to students that things are starting to spin out of control and trigger a fight-or-flight response in the classroom, ratcheting up the anxiety and leading to outbursts.
Emotions are contagious, researchers explain in a 2021 study. When teachers convey warmth and express interest in a topic, students are more likely to stay engaged—and stay out of trouble. Conversely, teachers who overreact to student disruptions or are emotionally distant can unwittingly create a combative or unfriendly atmosphere. Exhibiting passion for the topic works wonders: Teachers who enjoy being in the classroom “sustained their positive attitudes when students struggled and reported spending more time teaching,” the researchers report.
Meanwhile, developing a steady, calm demeanor in a dynamic classroom setting takes time and practice, particularly when students know how to press your buttons. Take things slowly and work from a place of empathy and compassion. One way to prepare for the inevitable tests of your patience is by running scenarios in your head or with a partner. “Think through scenarios that might happen in your classroom and how you want to respond before the start of the year,” suggests high school teacher and instructional coach Emily Terwilliger. “It will make those first redirects and interventions less intimidating.”
As always, focusing on relationships first is a bedrock principle: “Bank time” with students and get to know them better, since these deposits can help ease future conflict. Finally, it’s important to let go and start fresh; it’s easy to overreact if a student keeps pushing your buttons. Try to start each day with a clean slate.
Finding the Warm in Your ‘Warm Demander’
Managing a classroom with your voice requires deftness—use a tone that’s too strict and demanding, and the research over decades is clear: Older students in particular will read it as a challenge and rebel. Go too soft on students, however, and they’ll spend a lot of time testing the boundaries of what they can get away with.
The ideal tone is a blend of both approaches, says middle school teacher Kristine Napper. “Neither high expectations nor kind hearts can do the job alone,” writes Napper, who recommends adopting a warm demander tone that focuses first “on building strong relationships with students,” and then “draws on that wellspring of trust to hold students to high standards of deep engagement with course content.”
When students misbehave in Nina Parrish’s classroom, she sees it as an opportunity to ask thoughtful questions and look for patterns. Did something spark the disruption? Are students trying to get attention from their friends, or are they bored? “Behaviors help students obtain something desirable or escape something undesirable,” she explains. Instead of demanding compliance as a first step, meet your students halfway: Set high expectations, but also spend time trying to understand what makes them tick.
There will undoubtedly be times when you’ll need to raise your voice or speak sharply to a student, but the tactic should be used sparingly. “Developing a calm, neutral, assertive voice is part of the teacher’s own self-regulation, which allows them to help students to be self-regulated and to be secure in the knowledge that the teacher will be receptive to them, but also in control,” says Linda Darling-Hammond, president and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute.
A Dose of the Nonverbal
It’s easy to forget that tone isn’t just conveyed through your voice—it can also be conveyed by facial expressions, hand gestures, and body language, which “help guide facilitation of student learning,” says Samford University professor Lisa Gurley in a 2018 study. Teachers often adopt a formal demeanor in the classroom, modeling behavior that mirrors a professional environment. Yet the difference between too-controlling and just-controlling-enough often relies not on what is said, but on the accompanying nonverbal cues that can soften perceptions.
Are you inadvertently frowning or looking exasperated when a student speaks up? Do you seem dismissive? Modern eye-tracking research suggests that teachers tend to make eye contact with students in the front row and the middle section, so consider circulating in your room and making an effort to acknowledge those sitting in the back (and on the peripheries) with your presence.
You can be formal by nature and formal in speech, and still connect. Students can detect and appreciate teaching authenticity in many forms, according to recent research. And students usually “respond positively to professors who treat them with dignity and seem approachable, even if those professors are more formal in their speech and demeanor,” says Amber Dickinson, a political science professor at Oklahoma State University, in a 2017 study. Acknowledging students with eye contact or an approving nod can “reduce the psychological distance” and help build a trusting relationship without saying a single word, she writes.
The Case of the Disembodied Voice
Vocalizing is not the only way that tone is expressed; our voice continues to have influence even in the absence of our physical presence. When giving feedback on an assignment, writing emails, or having an online discussion, the right tone can be harder to pin down—but it remains crucial—when communicating with students.
“A professor in a classroom may provide succinct instructions that students understand and appreciate, but a short email from a professor may be interpreted as cold or uncaring,” says Dickinson. In her study, she discovered that attempts to be efficient by communicating in a precise manner—such as giving clear instructions on how to upload an assignment—were often interpreted by her students as harsh. Stripped of the nonverbal cues that typically accompany a face-to-face conversation, her online persona became stern and distant, and she saw her students become less engaged as a result.
When writing messages to students, be sure to include personal touches, suggests Dickinson. It not only will make them feel more comfortable but also can create a more positive classroom culture and encourage students to reach out for help. “For example, I included content to offer general encouragement by saying things such as ‘Don’t give up, the semester is almost over, and your hard work will pay off,’ or reminding students I was happy to help them in any way,” she writes.