593. Knowing What We’re Saying

Much of the time, we talk without knowing exactly what we’re going to say until just before we say it. What we end up saying depends on what other people say, and on what we think about what they say. Sometimes we surprise ourselves; through effective conversation, we can learn about ourselves and other people, and we can influence each other’s thinking. Some teaching is like that – fairly spontaneous conversation.
At other times, some of us know exactly what we’re going to say. Either we’ve memorized speeches, literary passages, poems, or lines in plays, or we read aloud. When we do that, it can be easier to concentrate on aspects of our speech other than content – tone of voice, facial expressions, and gestures, for example. Because we’ve already chosen the words to say, we can concentrate on our other communication tools. That also describes some teaching; teaching can involve knowing, in advance, precisely what words we’re going to use.
But I think most teaching is somewhere between spontaneous conversation and recitation; teachers are supposed to know approximately what they’re going to say and have some ideas about what pupils might say in response. And they’re also supposed to be ready for surprises; the utterances of teachers and pupils neither are nor ought to be totally predictable. We can get more and more confident about our plans as we experience success, but we never know for sure what to expect; we always have to “wing” at least some parts of our lessons.
Pupils listen best when teachers speak to them in a way that’s both planned and a little spontaneous. If what the teacher says is planned too meticulously – if the teacher is reciting instead of conversing, pupils can feel left out. If, on the other hand, the teacher seems to be spending too much time fishing for words, that can also be awfully boring. Get to the point, think the listeners.
Planning too much or too little can have the effect of tuning out the people who are supposed to be listening. I can see that now, as someone who doesn’t have to teach a whole class. I sometimes see teachers working hard, just as I sometimes had to, to get children to pay attention.
It’s easy to blame children for not paying attention. And sometimes some children do have trouble focusing, no matter what teachers do. But I also see teachers who rarely have that kind of trouble; children listen to them. These teachers don’t spend much time talking, and when they do talk, they are quite economical with their words; they say what they need to say, and then move on to activities.
I don’t think it’s easy to be economical with words that way. Writers can do it. We can delete, rearrange, and all. But teachers and others who use speech to do a lot of their communicating don’t have that luxury. They’ve got to think hard about what they plan to say and who they plan to say it to, so that as effectively as possible, they involve listeners in the process of communication.

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