November 3rd, 2015

The Silent Professor

By:

female professor

As college faculty, we put tremendous pressure on ourselves to talk. We want to cover the course content and thoroughly explain our assignments. We want to sound smart, share what we know, and communicate convincingly about the work of our disciplines. Our students assume we are experts, and we don’t want to disappoint them. All this amounts to teacher-centered pressure that confuses talking and teaching.

I teach English, and midway through the spring 2013 semester, I lost my voice. Rather than cancelling my classes, I taught all my courses, from developmental English to Shakespeare, without saying a word. Though my voice had mostly returned by Tuesday evening, what I was observing compelled me to remain silent for the remainder of the week. My experience teaching without talking proved so beneficial to my students, so personally and professionally centering, and so impactful in terms of the intentionality of my classroom behavior that I now “lose my voice” at least once every semester.

A wealth of literature focuses on active learning and learner-centered instruction, but I submit that nothing empowers learners as immediately and profoundly as does removing the professor’s voice from the room. Here is my approach, a few practical suggestions, and some of the benefits I have found in teaching without talking.

Teaching without talking
First, you must decide whether you will tell the class that you cannot speak or that you will not speak. There are pedagogical advantages to each, but I find that students take ownership of their learning more quickly and convincingly when they think they are helping me out. If you choose to frame the class as one in which you cannot speak, you must be fully committed to remaining silent outside the classroom as well. If students see you talking to a colleague in the hall, you will lose your credibility and their trust. I print a short statement that explains that I have lost my voice, carry it in my pocket, and show it to anyone who speaks to me on campus throughout the day. Be prepared to hold silent office hours, which can be an illuminating exercise in and of itself.

Choose a day of activity or discussion-based classes. Plan a series of discussion questions or learning tasks, each one building on the one that comes before it. With a basic smart classroom setup, you can roll out a discussion in stages by projecting a series of questions or scrolling through a projected document that you have prepared. For activity-based classes, I prepare a handout of clear instructions that aren’t so exhaustive that they deprive students of the experience of fully discovering, struggling with, or working through a question or concept. I use presentation slides to cue a particular reading, writing, or discussion activity on my handout, but I scrap the handout if my lesson plan benefits from an element of surprise.

You can still write on the board or type into a projected document, but save this for when you really need to direct or focus the learning. Questions are most effective. A written statement from a silent instructor will command attention and, while impactful, can shift the learning center back from student to instructor. Do not write because you feel pressure to talk.

Use your nonverbal toolbox
Consider all of the nonverbal teaching sounds you can make. Whistling, tapping on the board, snapping a finger, clucking your tongue, and clapping your hands may sound clownish, but they can be powerful teaching tools when used in place of speech and timed well. Think about all of the physical motions that are available to you, particularly those that communicate a desire for elaboration or that suggest a relationship between what two students have said. Your capacity to observe what happens in your classroom will increase exponentially when you relieve yourself of the pressure to speak, and you will become more aware of what your movements and postures alone communicate to students.

Benefits
A full consideration of when and for what reasons we speak is paramount to an intentional, reflective teaching practice. How many of your learning objectives for a course are best achieved by reinforcing students’ listening skills? For those of us who benefited from great lectures and class discussions in college, it is easy to assume that more talk equals more learning. The more we transmit, the more they will receive. We talk with the best intentions; the most logical way to teach something is to explain it in a way that makes sense to us. Teaching without talking forces students to take ownership of their own learning and shifts the burden of silence from teacher to student. It also forces us to more deliberately plan our classes, because we relinquish our ability to rely on our knowledge and experience in the moment.

At the end of a class during which I did not speak, a student remarked that it had been the best discussion she had yet had. Take the pressure off of yourself to teach, and instead create a situation in which learning will occur. If that means remaining silent, don’t worry—you will not have lost your voice.

Reprinted from The Teaching Professor, 28.6 (2014): 1,4. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.

Joseph Finckel is an associate professor of English at Asnuntuck Community College in Enfield, Conn.


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  • Robert Chen

    Wonderful tips and techniques! Will have to be brave enough to try it on my students!

  • Beth J

    I had a couple of great class sessions when I lost my voice too last year. I had to figure out a new plan on the fly and it's true that the students were willing to "help me out." Luckily they came prepared that day.

  • Jordan H

    I know several on line support faculty that use this modality since they can no longer speak. In fact, faculty that are experiencing cancer (self included) will continue to support their courses non verbally.

  • Mel Anderson

    I no longer have to talk to my students. As long as I have two hands, a computer and internet access, I can teach online courses. But oh how I wish I could do it in the classroom again!

    On several occasions, I lost my voice and could only speak softly or whisper. I have a boom box about the size of a bread box and a wireless FM microphone; I was able to make enough sound that the FM radio could receive and amplify. I could still walk around the front of the classroom talk into the mike, address my slides and do a fair job of delivering the lectures. There was only one problem: a professor teaching a class in the adjacent room was annoyed with hearing my amplified hoarseness. He unceremoniously came out of his room and slammed my door shut. Lesson: close the door when using an amplifier.

    Mel Anderson