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The voices that guide us

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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?

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.

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.