Recently, on a grim winter afternoon, a group of students got under my skin. According to one student, I wasn't letting him speak enough in discussions. He was furious. His friend was supporting him by chiming in with snide comments. Someone else was loudly telling her tablemates what was wrong with the way the unit was designed and complaining that we weren't spending enough time on topics.
I had previously discussed related issues with each of these students, but in this moment my efforts felt futile. Earlier attempts at connection and relationship were offering me nothing as I continued to overhear comments that were getting further under my skin. Each of the students' gripes held the potential for an important conversation, yet I also felt a strong urge to change the situation quickly -- the negativity emanating from these few was starting to influence the entire group.
Immediately after class, I sat down and drafted three emails. With stern words and ultimatums, I was ready to tell these students and their parents that the buck stops here. Yet, something made me pause, save the drafts, and continue with my day.
Beyond the Stereotype of Teacher Voice
While the stereotype of the desired voice for teachers is stern, commanding, and uncompromising, the reality of teaching, nurturing student voices, facilitating, and building community is much more nuanced. Power and authority are an inherent part of the teacher's role, but respect and engagement don't result from threats or stern voices. Effective teacher voice entails a combination of flexibility and firmness while keenly reading individuals and the pulse of a group.
Feeling stuck between frustration and a desire to transform the negative dynamic that I was witnessing, I spoke to several colleagues and tried to figure out what was needed. (Thank you Chris, Meenoo, and Sophie!) My conversations helped me realize that if I alienated these students further, I would have no chance at future meaningful connections. We would be trapped in a power struggle, and they would continue to resist my efforts to get them to "conform." I also remembered that conformity isn't one of my teaching goals. I don't want my students to passively accept any information, whether from me or from any other source.
This experience helped me to reexamine and attempt to decipher some of the different, necessary aspects of effective teacher voice.
Honor the Group
Teaching is group leadership. It is important that all students feel connected to and part of a shared mission. Teacher voices can speak to all and insist on respect from students, for other students, and for the learning environment. This ethos of respect can be modeled in the way that a teacher speaks to a class.
Connect With Individuals
It is not enough for students to feel connected to the group. Teacher voice should respect difference and individuality. Teachers can be like shape shifters working to find a balance between leading, developing personal connections, listening, and mentoring.
Be Respectful, Thoughtful, and Real
Contrary to the stereotype of the strict, no-nonsense teacher with absolute control of a class, students, teachers, and learning itself all benefit from teacher voices that are understanding and reflective.
Maintain and Practice Fair and Reasonable Expectations
Everyone benefits from high expectations, but teachers should also be attuned to what their students can reasonably accomplish. This means carefully deciding when to be flexible and accommodating, and when to clearly communicate with students who are not putting in their best effort or are negatively impacting the learning environment.
An Ongoing Process
In the end, I revised those emails that I'd drafted in frustration, and instead I recalculated how to respond to each of the students who were influencing class negatively. I changed the tone and included and openings for follow-up conversations. As these conversations developed, I made a point of complimenting different students on their work and accomplishments throughout the year, made clear my hopes for them as positive leaders in the months ahead, and was also clear and firm about the need for respect of the learning environment.
I can't report that this recalibration of my response instantly changed the dynamic in my class, or that disgruntled students were entirely appeased. Yet I can embrace the fact that, throughout different bumps in the school year, I have attempted to maintain a teacher voice that creates openings and opportunities.
Teaching and the construct of school have no simple formulas for success. When challenges emerge, reverting to old formulas and expectations of power, obedience, and conformity do little to increase learning. Progress results from the pursuit of multiple approaches while maintaining a vision of larger goals and possibilities.