Which voices do you hear in the course of your professional life, as you prepare, teach and reflect? Which ones are the strongest? Which do you really listen to and take notice of?

The voices that guide us - methodology article - guest writers
Author: 
Rod Bolitho

In this short article, I reveal some of the voices that I hear from time to time, and highlight the ones that I really tune in to and have learned from.

Voices I heard as a learner
There are two of my teachers whose voices I hear from time to time. One of them was my secondary school German and French teacher, a genuine polyglot, who also taught me the little Spanish and Russian that I needed to pass GCE O level. I particularly remember the passages he gave us to learn by heart, and I can still hear him intoning the mnemonic he offered us to remember how inversion works in German syntax. He told us about an encounter he had on a train in Germany before World War 2, when he asked a fellow passenger whether the train was going all the way to Leipzig. I always ‘hear’ the reply in his voice: ‘Nach Dresden fährt er sicher durch; nach Leipzig weiß ich nicht.’ (It definitely goes as far as Dresden but I’m not sure about Leipzig.) He taught me a lot about how to remember important stuff in foreign languages, and in particular about the importance of anecdote as a way of making bits of language memorable for learners.

Much later, as an adult, I was entranced by the voice of our elderly and pint-sized Russian teacher at an evening class at the Volkshochschule in Düsseldorf, singing simple Russian songs with us and breaking out into wreaths of smiles as she praised us for our efforts at the pronunciation of some of those intimidating polysyllabic words that Russian seems to abound in. I still hear her ‘molodyets!’ (well done!) and am constantly reminded of the importance of a little bit of encouragement to learners who are struggling with basics.

Funnily enough, I see the faces of teachers who put me down or discouraged me at school, and there is even one (a maths teacher) who still occasionally visits me in my worst dreams, but I don’t hear their voices. I wonder why?

Tutors’ and colleagues’ voices
Geoffrey Broughton was my tutor on my teacher education course at London University Institute of Education. He was small in stature but big in ideas. He was also a bundle of nervous energy, always on the move. I remember him giving a demonstration lesson to a ‘stage army’ of learners in Barcelona in early 1968. He shot questions at them like bullets, drilled them as though they were on the parade ground and never gave them a moment’s peace. I can hear him saying ‘Come on, come on!’ to any poor learner who threatened to slow down the pace of his lesson. I loved it and I admired him enormously! For years I thought that was how I should teach and I spent much of my early career trying to imitate his all-action style.

Then, when I started teaching in the Language Institute at Konstanz University, six years later, I was asked to video-record one of my language lessons with university employees for discussion at a staff INSET session. It was one of my new colleagues, a lecturer in Slavonic languages by the name of Miroslav Kania, who made me stop and think, for the first time, about my teaching style. I’ll translate his words from the German, though they still ring in my ears in his rather lugubrious tones in the original! “I respect you for your energy and your commitment. But what about your learners? They have no time to stop and think, no room for manoeuvre. And if you go on teaching that way I’m sure you’ll be burnt out before you are 40!” Though I felt some initial irritation, that encounter really made me think, and I believe, looking back, that it was the impulse for a gradual change in my view of the relationship between teaching and learning. In particular it introduced me gently to the notion that learners need space, and to the difference between teacher as performer and teacher as facilitator of learning. It also made me think back to Geoffrey, and finally led me to question the value of demonstration lessons in training and teacher education. I’m still allergic to them.

There are other colleagues whose voices I hear from time to time, with one message or another. I sometimes picture and hear my friend and colleague Tom Hunter in Torquay saying, about a group of less than diligent Swiss students, “Why work so hard? Get them to mark their own homework. They might actually learn something!” One of the most amusing voices I hear is that of an Irish teacher, Jim Power, who I taught with on summer schools in Bournemouth. He always used to cross himself before going into class, and when I eventually asked him whether this had religious significance, he answered, “Bless you, no. It’s just a simple check I make – tie, fly, handkerchief, pen!” Useful advice in both cases!

Students’ voices
I could never give a full or entirely satisfactory account of all the students’ voices that ring in my ears and that have taught me important lessons. There have been many language learners who have commanded my attention by reminding me of their needs. One who stands out is the intermediate German learner, an adult, who brought home to me one of the idiocies of ‘pure’ direct method teaching. In one class I spent at least five minutes explaining and demonstrating the meaning of ‘happiness’ to the group by every means I could think of – defining, blackboard drawing, miming, exemplifying – but Helmut still looked puzzled until finally the penny dropped – “Ach so! Glück meint er!” he shouted triumphantly to his astonished classmates. I could have killed him at that moment – after all the mother tongue was banned in the classroom - but when I later stopped and thought about it, I realised that he was only articulating the conclusion of the mental translation struggle that had been going on in his head, and that I as a teacher would never have any control over that in my learners.

The voices, and sometimes the silences, of many other learners, postgraduate students and teacher participants have taught me lessons that have helped to shape me as a teacher and a trainer. I have learned that I just need to clear my head of all the stuff that is rumbling round in it when I go into class so that I can more easily tune into what my students are telling me. This creates space for their voices to resonate in.

My own voices
As teachers, we all have several voices. Here I want to mention three that I am aware of and sometimes listen to; my teacher voice, my talking-to-myself voice and my inner voice. They all play a part in my professional and personal life.

Most of us, whether we are aware of it or not, and whether we like it or not, do have a teacher voice, one that we use in classrooms and which we have learned to perfect and use when we need it. If you are in any doubt about your teacher voice, watch yourself on video. I have mixed feelings about mine – it can grate a little on occasions, and I have been known to use it inappropriately, as my younger daughter was sometimes quick to point out – “Dad, don’t use your teacher voice to me. I’m not one of your students.” Despite this, I still like to think that there is no huge difference between this teacher voice and my ‘real’ voice. However, it does do me good to listen to it from time to time as it reminds me of how my students experience me.

In his series of blog entries on this site Mario Rinvolucri wrote of the importance of mumbling to himself as he prepares to tell stories. I see this sort of mental rehearsal as a kind of thinking aloud, a process which has always helped me to prepare for or reflect on my teaching. Talking myself through a lesson or training session helps me to visualise it and to engage with the materials I’m going to use as well as the people I am going to be with. Talking to myself after a session or lesson, particularly when something went badly, helps me to understand what I have just experienced and to put it in some kind of perspective.

The third voice - my inner voice - is the one that I value most. It’s the one that talks to me when I least expect it, for example in the middle of a session or while I’m sitting quietly, engrossed in thought or simply daydreaming. It reminds me, sometimes sharply, that I’m not focussing, not giving a student or participant my full attention or coasting along lazily by recycling material that isn’t really appropriate for the group I’m working with. Sometimes I experience this ‘alter ego’ voice as though it is almost disembodied and physically present, over by the window ‘watching’ me critically. Sometimes I wish it would keep quiet and leave me in peace, but at other times I welcome it. It only pipes up when it has something useful to say. Whether I really take notice of it or not depends on my mood.

Conclusion
I don’t think I could have developed professionally in any significant way without the help of all these voices. Being open to what they have to say to me and thinking about their meanings has been at least as valuable as all the books I’ve ever read and all the experts I’ve ever listened to.

Please do write in and share some of your voice stories.

Tags

Comments

My students speak to me loud and clear, but at times I do not hear them in my rush to teach and give them all I have. But, year after year, I have come to realize that their faint whispers about their worries, fears, or hopes for improvement ring loud and strong. My decision for the new year is to listen more and to listen carefully. These whispered comments of thoughts certainly will help me become a better teacher if not an educator who caters to her students' needs. Rania

Peter Clements

What a wonderful and reflective article. I'm sure so many people will find so much they can relate to. I know I have. Funnily enough, the German anecdote about the train destinations brings other German voices to my ears. I too recall the voice of the teacher from classes I attended at the Rendsburger Volkhochschule illustrating the differences between the three uses of  'dass', first as conjunction then article and relative pronoun respectively: 'Ich weiss dass, das Messer, das Du in der hand heilts, ausserordentlich scharf ist.' (Lit: I know that the knife that you are holding in the hand is extremely sharp)

To help me get to grips with the four cases in the earlier stages of learning, my sister Jude impressed upon me: Der Mann gab dem Hund des Maedchens einen knochen.' Literally 'The man gave the dog belonging to the girl a bone.' Forgive me if the grammar is not accurate in the German but it is the voice or expression of it that I recall with this one and simple explanation concept provided a breakthrough in my learning at that time.

Most of my learning took place whilst working long shifts in a shipyard.I kept offcuts of wood around me on which I wrote new words or phrases as visual reminders - an earlier 'Fred Flintstone' equivalent of Post-It  notes I suppose. And it was from the many voices of my colleagues that I learned the most. Funnily enough, I still dream sometimes about being back there and hearing those same German voices.In some ways, the workplace was an enormous classroom where the language could be practised and used with relative safety among familiar faces as I worked there for more than  two and a half years.In that way those men were also my teachers and continue to be so as voices  in my memory.

As for my own voice as a teacher, I constantly battle with what Scrivener refers to as 'the running commentary 'voice and have to consciously restrain myself from filling in those moments of quietness  when students are reading or writing or simply reflecting. An observer noted this tendency and helped me realise that it is enough for students to have to process the language involved in the task at hand without hearing irrelevant interference in the form of ' Right, I'm just going to make a note of...ah, now where did I put that pen...' etc!

During discussions, I try to remove from students the expectation that I will assert any right have an equal voice with them unless they specifically ask. I do this by placing myself out of the frame and leaving them to it whilst listening whilst sitting elsewhere or making notes apparently about something else( but usually noting generic errors or points for commendation).Once, the benefit of this was illustrated in a remarkable way during a slow discussion by what I had judged to some rather shy students. Unexpectedly, my manager popped in to ask for some details. As we spoke in whispers in the corner, the discussion gradually came to life - The discussion now belonged to them and they were not under duress to 'perform'! So now I am more patient,I tell the students to address their comments to each other and not me and then I deactivate my  voice temporarily - even indicating if necessary that it 'off' or restricted for a period time by making a motion as if to zip it shut, a bit like that glove puppet Zippy used to do on TV.

Thank you Rod for allowing me to have 'a voice' after 'hearing' where you were coming from in your posting!

 

Peter Clements 

 

Dear Peter,

Thanks so much for returning the compliment by sharing your 'voice memories' .  I loved your German shipyard classroom and I think I envied you a little for it!  I specially enjoyed reading about how you keep your own voice under control to allow your learners space to use theirs.  This is a strategy that many teachers could usefully follow.  I have learned far more from listening to my learners and participants than from talking to (or at!) them.  That way I can tune my teaching much more effectively to their needs and interests.

 Thanks again and warm wishes

Rod

 

I loved that as I have been told off by husband and kids not to be a teacher at home !

But being a mother is as good as being a teacher  isn't it ?Teaching is nurturing whether sweetly or not.

 Of course, with my husband it amounted to being 'dogmatic' I guess, and he looked annoyed! With my dog it had  a magical effect and it obeyed at once.What images exist of us  as teachers in others' minds!!

But seriously speaking, I have been  a good listener too and therefore a good teacher  which I say in all humility after retirement.

But the "inner voice' is the Voice of God, I'm sure , restraining us when over 

enthusiast ic and encouraging us when deflated after a poor class. One must listen to all these voices and  avoid the use of the strident one at home !

Iris

 

Thanks, Iris, for sharing your domestic story and your perception of the 'inner voice'.  I definitely agree that husbands and dogs should be treated differently!  But I wish my inner voice would pick up a bit more often on the things I do well!  It has a habit of paying most attention to anything that needs criticism!

Thanks for your interest and very best wishes, to your husband too!

 Rod

Dear Rod

Great thanks for the reflections on your own learning and teaching experience and provoking me to share my own ones. It happened so that being at the stage of re-assessment I was thinking about different people I met through my life and their impact on my personal and professional development. I was tracking back all my life and teasing myself with various questions that brought me to the answer that my own learning experience contributes much into my teaching. Any experience is valuable for me as a learner - no matter positive or negative it was I have got a lesson. I came to the conclusion that I was a lucky one to meet many good people and teachers on my learning way.  My school teacher always encouraged us to speak and to express our own thoughts without great anxiety of intonation and pronunciation. He always said: ‘Be natural! Everything will come to you with practice’. We were happy not to learn grammar rules, but to use texts as illustration of different grammar structures. We sang English songs, listened to the radio, watched films in English, read fairy tales, learnt poems by heart, read many books written in English… We wrote compositions the topic of which made us think. He never put us bad marks, but only said or wrote: ‘You are a good girl, but………!’ If any of students failed to give an appropriate answer he always put a question sign (?) in the diary that greatly disappointed our parents, but we knew what was it for and what to work on.

Nothing had crucially changed in the university for me personally. But I remember the voice of my teacher in English Grammar who commented the answer of one of the best students from my group who was reciting by heart all the rules and examples from the Grammar coursebook and was proud that she did it. She said: ‘You can teach a hare to beat a drum, but it doesn’t mean it will become a musician’. (We have such a saying).  Rod, I remember your voice saying: ‘You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t force it to drink’. This always reminds me about my students, their needs and wants while designing materials and choosing learning strategies to be used in class. My inner voice says: all people are different and the choice will always be made by learners themselves. My task is only to help them to learn English and sharing my own learning experience develop the study skills they may need in future for their autonomous learning. Fortunately or unfortunately, teachers can’t stay with their learners forever, if not only in their hearts and minds.  

The greatest praise for me to see the happy faces of my students or to hear: ‘Thank you for the interesting lesson. We haven’t noticed how the time flew away.’ Sometimes there are no immediate results of our common work through the course, but they will be at the end or later.  

Of great value for me are the voices of my family. I have never paid attention to my wording until my husband and son told me: ‘We are not your students, you shouldn’t say us anything in three different ways. We clearly understand your message at once – Please, next time tell us once! ‘   If I can’t switch off from my teaching problems they simply say: ‘Relax, you are at home now!’ and I am with them. One of my trainees said: ‘You are talkative, but in a good sense’. I still do not know what she meant ‘in a good sense’, but this message illustrates the first part of her feedback :), although  I’m working hard to be brief and clear.  I’d like to say that I always happy to hear the voices of my teachers that remind me the times I was their learner as well as to listen to the voices of my learners. Maybe learning is my second nature, though I am a teacher. 

Hi Ira and Rayavee, 

Thanks, both of you, for sharing these memories.  These influential voices are part of the hidden dimensions that make us the people we are today, and yet they so often remain hidden - which makes it all the more important that we reveal them, if only to ourselves.  They are part of a process of self-awareness and self-understanding.  I believe that it matters to acknowledge the voices, even if those who spoke to us in such a significant way are no longer with us. 

Warm wishes to you both

 Rod

Dear Rod

Great thanks for understanding. Your feedback and comments are of great value for me.

This is just to say thank you for your contribution into my development as a person and teacher/trainer. You are doing a great job!

Warmest wishes to you and your family for the coming X-mas and New Year!

Ira

Dear Rod,

Thanks for your nice article. It reminds me of my English teacher who changed my life.

 

As far as we didn’t have good English teachers at public schools, I decided to go to a private language school where I saw my favorite English teacher. He was a kind man and at the same time very serious. He did an excellent job and very soon I became the best student in his class.

 

Once when I told him that I had decided to quit the classes, he got very angry and said that he was going to talk to my father about the problem. I was frightened and asked him not to do so. I kept going to classes and met lots of teachers but he was unique. He advised me to study English literature at university and I took his advice.

 

8 years later I was employed as an English teacher at the same language school. During breaks I drank tea with my old English teacher talking about those days I was a student. Some years later I got a promotion and was chosen as the Director of Studies at the same language school. He always said he was proud of me.

 

He is not alive anymore and from time to time, my son and I go to his grave. I still hear the voice that changed my life.

Amir Abbass Ravayee

 

Dear Rod and everyone,

First of all, I would like to express my gratitude to Rod who so kindly agreed to contribute in TeachingEnglish (TE) and TE itself for making it possible to speak with Rod. It is really honourable to have Rod with us.

I would also like to thank Rod for the article which I found very interesting and important. There are such simple notions which one faces every day on their professional path but never thinks of them deeply, at least me. I agree that combination of all voices make person raise in their and everybody else's eyes and support the opinion that the strongest voice is the one which prompts us things inside us.

Thanks a lot

With best wishes,

Yuriy 

Pages

Add new comment

Log in or register to post comments