A long time ago in a classroom far away, a 20-something student sat in a class titled Speech Communication in the Classroom. The professor explained that among the many concepts learned in the course, one of the most important would be finding your voice. Throughout the semester, each student had multiple opportunities to stand and deliver his or her lesson to the class. Of course, each student would receive a grade and comments on their performance. At the end, the entire class would receive an impromptu mini lesson on teacher voice. Personally, I thought this old man couldn’t hear! I was not entirely wrong, but that is another story.
A few years later, I found myself in my first classroom. As a wide-eyed graduate of teacher college, I was ready to impart my knowledge on the young minds in my charge. I thought of the fictional character portrayed by Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society and the teacher portrayed by Edward James Olmos in Stand and Deliver. Would I be that good? Unfortunately, my delivery was lacking. My knowledge of the material was spot on, and even my methodology was solid according to my principal. The problem was my voice. My teacher voice was too harsh. Despite my effort to create an inviting and safe environment for learning, my teacher voice—the loud voice required to be heard across my classroom—was harmful.
My administrator once told me, “You sound like you are yelling at your students all the time. It doesn’t make for an inviting classroom.” Mortified with this comment, I realized she was correct.
The Science Behind the Voice
The reason all teachers are required to create a teacher voice is not a matter of profession, it is really a matter of physics. The term, or in this case the physics law, is called the inverse square law. Sounds ominous, doesn’t it? The general idea is that the farther you get from a source, the lower the intensity.
Think of the headlights on your car when you drive at night. The road close to the front of your car is bright, so you can see it quite well. However, farther down the road from your car, the light is not as bright. The intensity diminishes. Now think about being at the park for a picnic. As you look for a place to sit, you walk by a group with a radio playing loud music. As you continue to walk away from the music, you notice the music becomes more difficult to hear. You then find a place to sit where you can no longer hear the music from the radio. The sound intensity lowers the farther you get from the radio. These are two examples of the inverse square law.
Let’s get back my classroom. My voice is required to adhere to the inverse square law, which means for the student in the back of the room to hear me (assuming I am standing in the front), I must make my voice louder. Even worse, if I turn to write on the board, I now must also project my voice to bounce off the walls for my students to hear. This projection causes my tone to change. To some, I am now yelling at my students. Whatever label we put on my voice, it was not conducive to teaching and learning.
Tackling Learning Barriers
Understanding what can get in the way of teaching and learning is paramount to ensuring our students have the best possible opportunity to learn. As I did research for this article, I came across information that I found fascinating. Some of it I knew—for instance, I knew that when standing behind a person, the person cannot hear me as well as they can when I am in front of them. And I knew that classrooms are full of items which absorb sound, including the very students we are trying to educate. What was fascinating was the fact that changing the angle of my voice in relation to my students lowers the level of my voice. What really shocked me is the number of students who have hearing problems—both permanent and transient. Normally a student squinting at the board has trouble with their vision, but I have never known what a student with a hearing loss looks like (and I still don’t). I have yet to see a visual clue outside of them cupping their hand to their ear, but that action is not often seen with K-12 students.
According to the Centers for Disease and Control (CDC), 1.3 out of 1,000 8-year-olds have bilateral hearing loss (loss of hearing in both ears) of 40 decibels (dB) or more. 14.9 percent of students between the ages of six and 19 have hearing loss of at least 16 dB in one or both ears. A hearing loss in only one ear has a tremendous impact on academic performance; furthermore, research shows anywhere from 25 to 35 percent of students with unilateral hearing loss are at risk of failing at least one grade level.
The Importance of Hearing for Learning
The ability to hear is critical to a student’s speech and language development, and a hearing loss causes delays in the development of their speech and language skills. Consequently, these delays lead to learning problems as well as poor academic performance and behavior. According to the American Speech-Language Hearing Association (ASHA), children who have mild to moderate hearing loss and do not receive intervention services are very likely to fall behind their peers by as much as four grade levels.
In addition to students who have a general hearing loss, hearing students often suffer transient losses of hearing due to illness. According to WebMD, students have six to 10 colds per year, and temporary hearing loss typically accompanies the cold. While the hearing loss is temporary, there are still a large number of days per year when the student is missing instruction due to illness.
Unfortunately, we do not have a magic wand to cure the common cold or permanent hearing loss. We do, however, have the next best thing to a magic wand: technology that helps alleviate some of these challenges. Stay tuned for the next part of the Finding Your Teacher Voice series, which will cover how technology like the MimioClarity™ classroom audio system is tackling these challenges and helping all students hear more clearly.
Want to read all about our new MimioClarity classroom audio distribution system? Click here to learn more!