Public Speaking . . . in the Classroom

Teachers probably do more public speaking than any other professionals, and far more than the public figures with whom we usually associate public speaking. As teachers, we do not think about ourselves as public speakers, however, possibly because our public speaking happens in our classroom in front of our students, which may not seem very “public.” But, it wouldn’t hurt to think about what we do in the classroom everyday as public speaking of the sort we associate with a President, a Governor or a celebrated author, and to prepare for each class with the same ambitious goal as public figures: to inspire our audience.

This raises the most important point about preparing for each class: know, respect and trust your audience, just as a public figure would his or her audience. Students’ time is as valuable as your time, and everything you do and say in the classroom influences how your students think about you and about the larger enterprise of education. As you know, teachers change lives. Aim to make that change positive.

When teachers speak in a classroom, we are more like Martin Luther King, Jr., or Barack Obama than we realize, in terms of what we should try to do, and what we can accomplish when we get it right. Like public figures, we stand up and speak in front of a group of individuals who can and should be moved—moved to remember what you say and that you say it because it is important.

If we do not view and prepare for daily teaching as public speaking, I think we lose our very best opportunity to show our students why we love the material we share with them, how discussion can transform how they think, and what learning important things deeply feels like. When we stand in front of them and present on the subjects we love, we have everything we need to improve academic and social outcomes. We need to plan for, speak to, and interact with our daily audience as though the future depends on it, because it does.

In my experience, there are three possible outcomes of a well-planned lesson that is delivered effectively:

  1. Students will remember what you say, which means they will learn the content;
  2. They will have a positive response to what you said, or to you as a speaker, which will leave them with a positive impression of your class and of the subject you teach; and,
  3. They will find the larger enterprise of formal education to be meaningful and worthy of future commitment, which will make them life-long learners and thinkers.

So, to review, every classroom teacher is a public speaker and every class is a public speaking opportunity of enormous moment. So, what does your particular daily public speaking opportunity require?

Plan. You do not need a script, but you do need an outline of the most important content you will share in class, and the outline has to be realistic, given the time and the audience. If you have two or three key points to present, discuss, elaborate upon, and revisit, that may be enough for one class session.

Aim to expose important things students will find important. In your planning for the day’s lesson, you have a single challenge: show students what is important to learn in a way that helps them understand why it is important for them.

Do not trust, verify. You should seek feedback on how well you present content in front of your students. You can get this feedback from the students (with an anonymous survey), from colleagues who observe you in the classroom and give you candid feedback, and even from yourself, if you record your lesson and observe what you are doing. Do you say “umm” or “like” too often, are you moving around too much, or do you have odd habits that distract your students? As one example, my sociology professor said “uhh” so often I spent class time counting how many times he said it, rather than thinking about whether Emile Durkheim found that modern society led to greater social isolation.

Do not read your presentation to students. Do not, under any circumstances, just read to students something you assigned them to read on their own or something you prepared to frame the day’s lesson (e.g., a PowerPoint). If it is visible to them and you are reading what is visible to them, you and the whole enterprise of formal learning are undermined, maybe irretrievably. The most you should write out in advance is an outline of key points, observations, quotes, and other content you consider critical to share in this lesson. This content should be connected in an obvious way to content the students have already seen and the content they will see in the future.

Do maintain eye contact and interaction with all of your students. Every student should be a part of your classroom planning and practice, which means being more thoughtful about eye contact and interactions during class. You should look at all of your students, and should look at each long enough to confirm they are paying attention. Your questions should be spread across the students, and the same small group of students should not be permitted to be the only ones answering in every class. This will breed resentment or encourage indifference among students who are not part of the day’s conversation. To include everyone in the classroom, you will have to become comfortable with extended silences, as you will be calling on students who do not normally raise their hands. Though you must call on everyone over the course of one or two days’ lessons, remember to be kind and save them if the silence lingers more than 15-30 seconds by giving them guidance to help them answer. One benefit of this is that the students themselves will get regular practice with speaking in front of others.

Do not ask a single question with an obvious answer (unless it is obvious only to you). The worst thing you can do in the classroom, short of not being prepared for the day or belittling a student in front of his peers, is to ask a simple question for which the students already know the answer. If you are not asking questions worth answering, your students are not going to invest the attention and effort to answer your questions.

Conclusion

I hope these observations make your daily public speaking more enjoyable for you and more memorable for your students. You are giving a number of performances every school day, and if you love your subject you have all you need to inspire your students.