“1, 2, 3, Testing”: 5 Classroom Communication Factors You Should Assess Now
Think of the best educator you’ve ever had. Can you hear his or her voice? Chances are you not only appreciated the information she presented but the way she presented it. Most of us have also had the opposite experience of poor classroom communication, being taught by someone who clearly is brilliant in the subject matter but has the “teacher drone.” You know, like the Charlie Brown teacher voice. No student engages with the “wah-wah-wah” monotone no matter how inspiring the Gettysburg Address is or how useful the quadratic formula may be.
How you speak in the classroom is something you may not consciously give much thought to since so much focus is placed on the content itself. And yet, your delivery of that content can make or break student outcomes.
According to Olivia Hanifan, “The communication skills that students learn at school are fully transferable and essential across all aspects of life. Furthermore, it has been proven that supportive teacher-student relationships have a positive impact on class participation, engagement and ultimately a student’s achievements.”1 It’s impossible to overstate the importance of effective communication in the classroom environment.
Check out these five ways to gauge your effectiveness—and improve—as a classroom communicator: signal-to-noise ratio, tone of voice, non-verbal messaging, listening skills, and student participation.
1. Signal-to-Noise Ratio
It’s a scientific fact: students can’t understand what they can’t hear. A teacher’s volume compared with all the other sounds in the classroom is called the signal-to-noise ratio. “Research shows that for students to understand, they need the teacher’s voice to be at least 15 decibels (dB) louder than any background noise. Since the average conversational voice is about 65 dB and average classroom background noise is 50 dB, it seems like there shouldn’t be a problem.”
However, there’s a significant problem when you factor in distance. “Every time we double the distance from a sound source, that sound’s intensity diminishes by 6 decibels. Students who are further away from the teacher receive the sound at a much lower level, making it difficult to understand what is being said. This can result in more distracted students, increased behavior issues, and lower academic achievement.”2
Non-Pandemic Classroom Communication
Teachers compete with thousands of sounds all day long, and those decibels stack up from every direction: students chattering, tech equipment whirring, pencils scraping, papers rustling, fluorescent lights buzzing, in addition to bells, lockers, zippers, and hallways. No doubt you could add your least favorite pet-peeve sound to the list. Maintaining an appropriate signal-to-noise ratio is a major challenge in any classroom at any given time—on a good day.
Classroom Communication and COVID-19
As if a happy signal-to-noise ratio wasn’t hard enough to achieve, COVID-19 marched in with all its muffled madness. Masks have turned the verbal classroom communication process into an all-day game of “Telephone,” which poses serious threats to teacher voice strain and student hearing and understanding. Mask wearing and hybrid/remote learning certainly make for a less-than-ideal teaching and learning scenario. How drastically does mask-wearing impede classroom communication? Check out the eye-popping results of this data.
Want to solve the signal-to-noise ratio problem once and for all? A teacher microphone is now a must-have. Audio Enhancement’s Classroom Audio Solutions are designed to distribute sound evenly throughout the classroom. The instructor’s wearable mic allows students to hear wherever they are, including remotely, and the teacher can use his or her natural voice instead of straining to be heard, mask or no mask. During discussions, students use a handheld or tossable mic so that their voices can clearly be heard as well.
Questions to Ask
- • What sounds in my classroom can I minimize or eliminate?
- • Do I need to repeat myself often?
- • Do my students miss instructions or have gaps in their understanding?
- • Does student attention fluctuate as I move around the room?
- • Do I experience vocal cord fatigue from using my “teacher voice”?
- • Can my remote students hear as clearly as students attending in-person?
2. Tone of Voice
Acquiring knowledge and relating knowledge are two very different talents. It’s not just what you teach but how you teach it that will have an impact. Consequently, your tone of voice is one of the most important principles of classroom communication to be aware of and to develop.
Whether or not you consider yourself to be a gifted presenter, your classroom delivery is a skill that you can (and should) improve with some conscientious effort. Start by understanding that your tone goes beyond the words you say to include pitch, volume, rhythm, inflection, and cadence. “A voice that is too loud, quiet, fast, slow, staccato, or lilting can jolt, sedate, confuse, bore or just be generally off-putting.”3
How can you troubleshoot your weak spots? First, find out what they are! Ask someone to evaluate you objectively, and be sure to get feedback from students who tend to be honest and sincere in their recommendations.
Next, consider doing some vocal training. Seriously! Many sites offer exercises (like these “Quick, easy, effective tips for vocal variety”) to help you practice the tone you’re shooting for. Or step it up even more by enrolling in a drama class or club. David Kretschmer, an education professor at California State University, Northridge, goes so far as to assert that every teacher should take a theater class.4 Don’t be surprised to see student excitement and engagement increase as you tweak your tone!
Questions to Ask
- • How would students describe my classroom tone?
- • What aspect(s) of my tone do I want to improve?
- • Do I regularly ask for formal feedback from students, parents, administrators, and colleagues regarding the tone I use in my classroom?
3. Non-Verbal Messaging
There’s a lot going on in verbal communication, but non-verbal messaging is every bit as nuanced. Body language can easily contradict our words, and kids are exceptionally adept at picking up on the disconnect if one exists. When it comes down to it, non-verbal beats out verbal every time.
So what are we saying through body language? Our facial expressions, posture, and gestures convey what we’re feeling, and ideally we’re confident, prepared, excited, patient, and empathetic most of the time. However, students quickly sense boredom, anger, anxiety, lack of preparation, and detachment whenever they exist.
Identifying negative non-verbal messaging and changing it are two different things. “After all, how exactly are you supposed to remain in constant control of your [messaging] when it can be so easily influenced by your emotions, your health, what you saw on TV last night, you name it?”5
One idea is to start with something you can easily change: your physical appearance or health. Maybe a new outfit or hairstyle is the simple thing you need to get out of a rut. Or perhaps adjusting your exercise routine, diet, or sleep schedule could help you feel better. Your professional look should reflect the skills you’ve worked long and hard to hone.
In addition to how we look and feel physically, we can regularly evaluate our social and emotional wellbeing. Consider developing a talent you’ve been neglecting or planning a trip to somewhere you’ve always wanted to visit. Maybe you would benefit from talking with a friend, family member, or therapist about unresolved issues you’d like to be free of.
No one is asking you to mask every negative emotion you feel in front of your students because that wouldn’t be natural—it’s important for kids to see adults discussing and managing difficult feelings. But staying aware of your habitual non-verbal cues, and changing them when necessary, can assure students of your love for teaching and your love for them.
If nothing else, the simplest things like smiling, maintaining eye contact, using movement, and projecting excitement and energy will take your teaching from great to amazing.6
Questions to Ask
- • What does my body language communicate as I teach?
- • Do I easily allow my mood to influence how I speak?
- • Does my appearance reflect professionalism and my teaching values?
- • How can I limit negative emotions from emerging in my non-verbal messaging?
4. Listening Skills
We’ve discussed the many ways that teachers deliver communication. Now let’s talk about receiving skills. Effective communication is a two-way street. Gone are the days (hopefully!) when teachers stood at the front of the classroom and lectured for hours on end. Educators are well aware of the huge benefits that come from collaborative, engaged, and project-based learning.
Hearing never directly translates into listening. (Think white noise, background music, the hum of appliances, outside traffic, and even our own breathing.) Our brains efficiently tune out secondary sounds. A good question alluded to in an above section is, Are my students tuning me out? An equally important question is, Am I tuning my students out?
Listening is active, whereas hearing is largely passive. There’s so much going on in a classroom that it’s easy to hear students’ words literally and fail to look for their underlying meaning.
Some ways to practice being an effective listener include
- · giving your full attention to the speaker,
- · minimizing distractions (like your cell phone),
- · asking follow-up questions,
- · asking how you can help,
- · being aware of which students haven’t had a chance to participate, and
- · seeking clarification.
Also, a great tip is to listen for “sounds of learning” when your students speak, including “evidence of curiosity, inquiry, earnest endeavor, shared thinking and collaboration,” and facilitation.7 Demonstrate what it looks and sounds like to practice good listening skills, and students will take note.
Questions to Ask
- • Do I listen as well as I speak?
- • Do students, parents, administrators, and colleagues believe I’m approachable? Are my • students comfortable speaking with me one-on-one?
- • Am I teachable, and do I regularly identify ways to improve my teaching?
- • Do I conscientiously listen for “sounds of learning”?
5. Participation, the Student’s Role in Classroom Communication
Finally, student participation is one of the major factors affecting classroom communication. Some students participate more naturally than others. No doubt you have students who are comfortable and willing to share their ideas and others who would be fine going all year without saying a single word. Often the quiet students have a lot to contribute but for some reason don’t feel comfortable doing so. The classroom dynamic you intentionally create will help determine the students’ level of participation.8
Simple rules lie at the foundation of an open classroom dynamic—rules such as raising your hand to speak and not speaking out of turn. Additionally, to encourage students who don’t usually volunteer, you can organize small group discussions, assign conversation partners, and schedule presentations. Often students find their voices when they work with a partner and can prepare ahead of time to present in front of a larger group or the whole class.
Questions to Ask
- •Do I have clear classroom protocols in place to manage and encourage student participation?
- •Which students would benefit from small group work, conversation partners, or scheduled presentations?
What Is Effective Classroom Communication?
Effective classroom communication is effective teaching. As an educator, your job is to communicate. Because you’re already brilliant at what you do, you know that effective communication skills for teachers continually need to be learned and practiced. Challenge yourself to be curious about what and how you’re communicating and how you can improve your classroom communication process.
If adjustments are necessary, recognize that habits aren’t always easy to break, and every small improvement is a success! Make a goal to improve only one or two components of classroom communication at a time.
And remember, look for the results in your own outcomes and those of your students. They will thank you for the rest of their lives, not only for teaching a subject, but also for teaching the invaluable skill of communication.