(Is there ever a time to yell?)

I conducted a series of interviews with teachers and parents at the K-6 levels to gather suggestions on how teachers can use their voices in more effective ways. (Some of the suggestions are appropriate at the higher levels as well.) The importance of using a moderate or soft tone of voice is highlighted by two stories.

Kazu Iijima, a family friend, had a son whose second-grade teacher yelled all day long.  He would wake up every morning with a stomach ache and not want to go to school.

Kazu discussed this problem with the teacher.  “Although you don’t yell at my son,” she said,” he gets very upset when you yell at others.”

The teacher responded, “You have such a wonderful son.  I would never yell at him, but there are other children who need to be screamed at.”

She never changed her behavior, and Kazu’s son had a miserable school year.

Gloria Carlson, a retired 6th-grade teacher, remarked one day about a former teacher in her school:

“In our school we once had an art teacher with very creative and wonderful ideas, but the pitch of her voice was horrible, and she spoke in an angry, strident tone.  Children did not want to go to her art class.

“I think there are teachers who scream and don’t know they are screaming. They don’t hear their own voices.  However, if used sparingly, appropriate anger is justified in certain situations and is perceived by children as caring when they understand you have their welfare at heart.”

As Ms. Carlson says, yelling can be helpful in certain situations, but only if it doesn’t become a way of life.

Kathy Matson, 5th-grade teacher, raised her voice in the following situations:

    1. If there was a fight in class, she sometimes yelled briefly to stop it. Then she returned to her normal voice and took steps to discover the underlying cause and how to prevent the fight from happening again.
    2. To redirect wandering minds, she sometimes started talking very loudly and quickly slipped into a soft tone. The dramatic contrast in volume caught children’s attention.
    3. If a child yelled a question at her from across the room, she yelled the answer in the same volume as the child’s. This made the child laugh and pointed out how unnecessarily loud the question was.
    4. If there was an emergency such as a fire drill, and the class was not serious enough, Ms. Matson sometimes yelled to make sure they got out of the building in time.

Sometimes she used no voice at all to make a point.  If the class was too noisy and wouldn’t listen, she might use drama to get their attention such as walking out of the room, banging the door, counting to ten, and then returning.  By then children were quiet and in their seats.

Some teachers use the phrases “inside voice” and “outside voice” when children don’t realize how loud they are talking.  They have children practice speaking quietly the way they should in class and then loudly as they might outside.  Once children are clear on the difference, all you have to say is “Use your inside voice” to get students to quiet down.

Millie Fulford, in her first year of teaching, spent 90% of time yelling at her second graders.  She realized that the children were not responding.  She noticed that an experienced teacher next door didn’t yell, and this teacher became her mentor.

She observed her class to learn more effective ways to manage her own.  She asked her questions.  She then made a conscious decision not to raise her voice unless the situation were very serious.

The following year she told her class that she didn’t like to yell.  She asked, “If I need your attention without yelling, what should I do?”  Then they had a brainstorming session which resulted in students agreeing on calm ways their teacher could get their attention.

This system worked says Ms. Fulford “because the kids had a stake in creating the solution.  95% of children don’t want to be yelled at.”

In addition, Ms. Fulford says it’s important to be well-organized, to be clear and specific about what you expect.  She often deliberately speaks in a low voice to get the children’s attention and says, “I’ll only say this twice.”

Another reason Ms. Fulford rarely has had to yell is that she became the trainer of student mediators in her school.  She learned this skill from Educators for Social Responsibility, particularly from their recommended book Creative Conflict Resolution by William Kreidler.  Mediators learn how to resolve problems in the lunchroom, playground and classroom through negotiation.  They learn how to monitor each other positively, and as a result they are often able to solve their problems without the teacher’s help.

“After awhile” explains Ms. Fulford, “resolving conflicts creatively without violence and yelling becomes who you are, a way of life.  It gives the children the power to make choices on how to behave.  This approach has opened my eyes.  It has enabled me to treat kids firmly, fairly and upfront.  If you are insecure or phony, older children can read right through you.”

Here are some brief thoughts by various teachers I interviewed on how to avoid screaming:

    1. Give each child a feeling he or she is important. This will cut down on the child’s need to act up to be recognized. One way to do this is to have children draw a picture of themselves with positive words written underneath such as “intelligent, loving, easy-going.”  Then have children show their picture to the class and read the words they wrote about themselves.
    2. Hug them. Tell them “I’m not mad at you, just at your behavior.”
    3. If a child is mumbling something negative about you, ignore it. If another child says “Did you hear that?” say “No, I didn’t.” If the mumbling and student remarks continue, take the disruptive student into the hallway.  Have a private talk.  Don’t pounce on the student.  Ask questions, listen, give the child a chance to settle down.  Without an audience it is more possible to talk to them or to arrange another time to talk such as at lunchtime.
    4. We teachers often talk too much, and students turn us off. Then we get frustrated and raise our voices to get their attention. One way to avoid this is to teach them that words can be signals.  Instead of saying, “Now it’s time to put away your things in your desk and go to the rug area for a meeting,” you can simply say “Meeting time!,” and everyone knows what that means.

However, you have to practice these signals, so children learn to respond as quickly as possible.  Then you won’t have to be constantly repeating yourself which can become boring, exasperating and cause you to yell.

An effective signal to quiet a noisy class is to flick off the lights.  This, you tell them, is the signal to speak more softly.  Let them talk loudly, then turn off the lights to see how quiet everyone can get.  Children will enjoy the drill and learn the lesson.

Another way to improve students’ listening skills is to practice giving directions.  Begin with three directions at a time such as, “Get up.  Go get a book.  Give it to Mark.”   You can make them more complicated as children respond more easily to simpler directions.  They will enjoy this, especially if you turn it into a game.

    1. Be active and vigilant. Don’t sit at your desk doing paper work.  Walk around the room.  Notice any budding signs of discord, so you can deal with them before they escalate into something serious.

Example: Nereida Morales, kindergarten teacher, used this technique when a girl came into class one day with a patch over one eye under glasses.  Anticipating that children might wonder what had happened, stare at her, or make disparaging remarks, she held a class meeting.  The children asked the girl questions and she answered them.

After the meeting they were very sympathetic and wanted to be her special friend.  Ms. Morales said to the girl, “Are there things that you will not be able to do that you might need help with?”  The girl mentioned a few, and the children had suggestions. The class was now her ally, ready to help her if need be. In this way, a potential situation in which a child might have felt harassed and ridiculed was averted, and Ms. Morales had no need to raise her voice.

    1. Be well-prepared each day so you can feel comfortable with what you are teaching. Students are less likely to get into trouble if your lessons are interesting, interactive and they are kept busy.
    2. Separate your school life from your home life. Give yourself time when you don’t think about school.  Focus on your family, a hobby, friends.  Have some fun.  This will nourish you, so you can deal more effectively with your students.  Then the constant demands made on you in school won’t be so draining and stressful.
    3. Don’t struggle alone with difficult class problems. Talk with other teachers. Get advice.  The more suggestions you get, the easier it will be to find a solution.  It is not a sign of failure but a sign of intelligence to consult with others.  You may think you are the only one with a serious problem, but you are not, for developing positive human relations in your classroom is a skill that requires a lot of practice.  It does not come naturally to most of us, but once you learn how, it becomes an intrinsic part of daily life, like breathing.
    4. Communicate regularly with any other adult in your room. This is especially important to do with para-professionals who are there every day.  If students see you talking together in positive ways, it is a role model for them.  If you compare notes on how each day went – the lessons, the behavior of children and what can be improved – there will be more coordination between the two of you, and therefore more chance of successful collaboration. This time should be structured into each day and not left to chance.

If there is friction between the two of you, don’t ignore it hoping it will go away.  It won’t work.  It just leads to a build-up of tensions which the children notice and which interferes with teaching and learning.

You have to sit down and have a heart to heart talk.  If that fails, you can call in someone from the staff to mediate.  I had to do this one year when a paraprofessional and I were not getting along.  The assistant principal listened to both sides and made a few suggestions.  We agreed to try a couple of them; as a result, our relationship was better and the classroom environment for learning improved.

After so many years of teaching, encompassing many mistakes and victories, I still got a high when I saw poorly behaved, angry or depressed students change, knowing I was instrumental in achieving this, and knowing I helped them to become more positive and better students behaviorally and academically – all of this without any vindictive action on my part.  These times have been some of the most fulfilling moments of my teaching career.

Raising My Voice in a Literacy Class at the Brooklyn House of Detention for Men

I have many vivid memories of teaching in this jail.  One that stands out was the time I actually yelled at a student/inmate in front of the class. Here’s how it happened.

We had been reading poetry over the term, and an inmate came to the class one day with a poem he had written.  I asked if it would be O.K. to make copies for the others to read – that it might encourage some of them to write poems too. He agreed, and the next day I brought in multiple copies which I distributed.  Immediately, James dropped his copy on the floor saying, “I don’t read other people’s works.”  Students stared at him and I worried about a fight breaking out.

I was taken aback and asked, “Why?”

“Because I just like to read my own.”

It was then that I lost my temper, and spoke louder than I ever had:  “This behavior is totally unacceptable.  Bruce has taken the time to write a poem, and I asked him to share it with us. It is very rude to drop his work on the floor.  How would you like it if someone did this to your writing?

“You can either pick up the paper or leave the room!”  I was talking so loud that two guards came running to the door.  (There usually was one in the back of the room, but today there had been no one until then.) James slowly picked up the paper, and I quickly got back to the poetry lesson. The other twelve students were respectful as Bruce read his poem, and we discussed it.  James sat silently with the paper in front of him.

Later the guards told me they were going to intervene, but since I handled it well, they stayed quiet.

Reflecting on this incident, I think that there was no need to yell.  I could have spoken very firmly the same words without the volume.  If James had refused to pick up the paper, I could have said that he had to pick it up in the next few minutes or he would have to leave. Then I would immediately return to the lesson without looking at him. This would have given him space to pick it up without everyone looking at him.  If that had failed, I could have had him removed for this day only.

It would have been better for me to have made time to take James aside at some point and gently ask him more about why he only wanted to read his own writings, but I didn’t.  It might have meant a lot to James for a teacher to take such an interest in him, and even ask him to let me see a sample of his work.

At least I was glad that I had given him a second chance, something that rarely happens in a jail.


How to Teach Without Screaming Copyright © by jcaliff. All Rights Reserved.

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