The adventures of a fourth grade teacher in East Central Illinois.

Speaking Clearly

I spent the majority of my public education life learning how to speak clearly. Some people know, although most probably do not, that I received speech therapy from kindergarten all the way through eighth grade. I was even offered speech therapy services in high school, but after much discussion with my previous therapist and my parents, we decided to decline. I had a rather severe speech impediment in kindergarten, noted by my inability to clearly pronounce several consonant sounds, includes L, R, S, Z. (I think there were some others, but I don’t remember them off the top of my head). After many years, I learned to pronounce most of them without difficulty but, honestly, I still struggle with R-controlled vowel sounds. (I have often said that if I had my way, I would completely eliminate any words with such vowels. Alas.)

I will be forever grateful to my kind and patient speech therapist, Mrs. Vicki White. Without her, I do not think I would have learned to speak clearly and I do not know if I would have had the confidence to pursue a degree in education and seek out a job that requires me to spend all day talking in front of large groups. I am still very self-conscious when it comes to hearing my recorded voice and I often worry that my speech is not as clear as I imagine, but since I have never had students, parents, or colleagues ask me to repeat something because they couldn’t understand me, I hope that my speech impediment is relatively unnoticed. Because of this, I am very cognizant of the struggles my students may have and will often seek out our school’s speech and language pathologist for advice. I have found that parents and students are more willing to consider services when they know that I received services myself and can share my experiences with them.

But there are other ways we can and should speak clearly to one another. Today I took several opportunities to pause in my instruction to talk to my students about speaking clearly. More specifically, we talked about the importance of being clear about what we mean to others, clear about what we are asking, and clear about what we expect. A few examples may help illustrate:

  • When having the class line up, I will say, “Please stay in your seats until I have finished giving all of the directions. I will tell you when I want you to move. Let’s review. Please raise your hand if you can tell me what you are supposed to do when I say, ‘Ready!'” Several students raised their hands, but a few also shouted out the answer. I responded, in a calm, even voice, “I did not ask anyone to say anything yet. All I asked was for you to raise your hand if you can tell us.” Then I called on a student who explained that every student should stand up. I said, “Okay, when I say, ‘Ready!’ I want everyone to stand up. Let’s try it. Ready!” Every student stood up. A few pushed in their chairs. I said, “Oh, remember, we are only standing up. We aren’t pushing our chairs in yet. Let’s try it again. Everyone sit down! Okay, ready!” We did this a couple of times. Then we did the same thing for “Set!” (everyone then pushes in their chairs) and then I called the groups one at a time by number. We rehearsed this a couple of times until everyone was going through the routine the way we expected.
  • While sitting at the carpet, I noticed some students were talking so I asked one to move. He began to argue that he had not been doing anything wrong. Instead of engaging in an argument, I realised I need to clearly explain why I had asked him to move. I reviewed a social-emotional learning lesson from last year that pointed out that the only person we can really control is ourselves. When I ask a student to move, it isn’t because he is in trouble, but because I want him to think about what he can do to control himself so that he can stay focused and on task. It isn’t about whether or not he was talking or whether or not someone else was talking to him. It was about him learning to self-regulate and control himself. I related this to when someone does something that bothers us. We can’t make anyone do anything. But we can calmly ask the person to stop and explain that what they are doing is bothering them. That person, out of respect for the other, should stop, not because it is bad or wrong, but simply because it is respectful to stop doing something if we know it is bothering someone else. (There are going to be times when someone wants us to stop doing something because it is the right thing and they want to do the wrong thing and you setting a good example makes them feel uncomfortable. Those are not the kind of circumstances I am describing here.)
  • When finishing up in the library, the librarian always instructs the students to close their books and sit quietly. One student had not closed his book. His friend, sitting next to him, quietly reminded him to close his book. The first student got upset and, after slamming his book shut, said, in an argumentative voice, “Fine! My book is closed! Are you happy now?!” I called both boys over and had a quick conference. I asked the first student if he had heard the librarian. He said. I asked if his friend had quietly told him that he needed to close his book. He said yes. I pointed out that his friend was not trying to bossy or mean, but was rather trying to help him by explaining the directions. I observed that, 9 times out of 10, when someone says something to us about what we should be doing, they are trying to help. They aren’t trying to be mean, they aren’t trying to get us in trouble, they aren’t trying to cause a problem. They are just trying to help out. Instead of arguing, it would be better to follow the advice or suggestion. I also observed that there was a big difference between his friend quietly saying, “Hey, you are supposed to close your book now” and yelling at him or reaching over and closing the book for him.

Being clear in our directions is a skill all teachers work on. Sometimes we forget and think we were clear when we weren’t. I told my class today that I want them to respectfully call me out if I get upset with them for doing something I never told them not to do. Even if I think they should “know better,” it is not fair for me to hold them accountable for actions I never taught. My hope is that by continuing to speak clearly to my students, especially now at the start of the year, my expectations will also be clear and I won’t have to pull out my hair in frustration when something doesn’t happen the way I expected! I would also encourage other teachers and parents to try this out and home and let me know if it works!

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