Here’s how practicing your speaking skills can make you a better teacher.
By Celeste Behe
St Anthony of Padua’s eloquent preaching earned him the appellation “Hammer of the Heretics.” St. Ambrose is known as the “Honey-Tongued Doctor” because of his sweet, pleasing oratory. The brilliant preacher St. John Chrysostom was given his surname because it meant “golden-mouthed.”
St. Vincent Ferrer, the “Preacher of the Judgment” who had the gift of tongues, converted thousands of Muslims from his pulpit. St. Bernardine of Siena was known as the greatest orator of his time. And in our own day, the charismatic Venerable Fulton Sheen captivated millions of listeners with his weekly program, Life Is Worth Living. One can only imagine the number of souls that these evangelizers brought to the Faith.
As Catholic educators, we too are called to evangelize, even as we teach. Our task is to educate, not only for this world, but for eternity.
Teachers as students
Whether we are teaching calculus or the Catechism, biology or Bible history, the key to success is good communication. One of the most effective ways for a teacher to improve his or her communication skills is by joining a Toastmasters Club.
Toastmasters International is an organization that teaches leadership and public speaking skills through a powerful incremental program. Its local clubs provide a venue in which members can practice their speaking skills by delivering prepared speeches and giving impromptu talks on assigned topics.
Feedback and evaluation are provided by fellow club members. The Toastmasters leadership track offers training in leadership skills and gives members opportunities to implement and hone those skills by serving in various roles within their clubs and in the greater community. With over 15,900 clubs in over 142 countries worldwide, a Toastmasters Club is never far away.
Educating to evangelize
Although Toastmasters International is a secular organization, it allows for the chartering of faith-based clubs. The Holy Mackerels Catholic Communicators of Central Texas is one such club.
Formed in 2013 by a group of Texas Catholics within the Diocese of Austin, the club’s stated mission is “to provide Catholic faithful with training and support in communications skill development, and to enable articulate proclamation and defense of the Faith.”
One of the first things that a new member will learn at a Holy Mackerels Catholic Toastmasters meeting is how to pray. Explains Larry Odom, past president of the club, “Most Catholics are really good at standard prayers — The Lord’s Prayer, Hail Mary — but ask them to just “lead us in prayer,” and they’ll probably fumble and stumble and get tongue-tied. So club members take turns as “Invocator,” the person who starts each meeting with a prayer. This allows members to break that invisible barrier.”
Once that barrier has been broken, a new Toastmaster is invited to introduce himself to the club in a short speech called the “Icebreaker.” The Icebreaker is always the initial step in the Toastmasters communication track program, regardless of the provenance or particular mission of the individual Toastmasters club.
“The first speech given by a new club member is his own story,” says Odom, noting that “we can become much more effective in our evangelization when we gain confidence in speaking on general subjects.” (Teachers, take note: Those first-day-of-school “getting to know you” exercises may ultimately facilitate your evangelization efforts!)
Says Joe Condit, founder and CEO of the Catholic speakers’ bureau CMG Booking, “The Baltimore Catechism teaches us that God made us to know him, to love him, and to serve him in this world so we can be happy with him forever in the next. Catholics who are good communicators and try to live out their faith are great examples of what it means to carry out this mission.”
This mission belongs to each one of us, but since catechesis is so important in the formative years, teachers of children have a particular responsibility to communicate the truths of the Faith.
<h3″>Educating for the world
When it comes to the nuts and bolts of teaching, there are few programs as helpful to educators as Toastmasters. Here are a few of the lessons a teacher can learn through participation in Toastmasters.
Know your audience
Any experienced educator can tell you that when it comes to student receptivity, not all classes are created equal. The good news is that if a teacher can manage to relate to her students, the students will relate to her. Toastmasters training can help a teacher “read” her class and adjust her style of communication to improve student engagement.
Stay on schedule
Every Toastmasters meeting includes a Table Topics session in which participants speak extemporaneously for one to two minutes on an assigned topic. Speakers are closely timed.
Comments Grace Huang, a teacher of special needs children and a former member of the Lehigh Valley Toastmasters Club, “In six years of teaching, I never met an educator who managed to teach the contents of a math book cover-to-cover in the span of one grade year. Practice in Table Topics helps teachers learn the fine art of paring down information to include only the most pertinent material.”
Modulate to communicate
Although a high-energy teacher can be engaging, that kind of intensity can wear on students. A teacher who is unanimated, on the other hand, is likely to have trouble keeping students’ attention. To avoid both these pitfalls, Toastmasters encourages vocal variety — those changes in pitch, volume, and tone that make a speaker’s voice more “listenable.”
“Vocal variety is one of the things that club members pay attention to when listening to a speaker,” says Huang. “In fact, members would be happy to actually simulate an audience of kindergarten students or second-semester seniors while evaluating a teacher’s speech. It’s surprisingly effective and can be a lot of fun.”
Teach on the fly
Toastmasters training can provide a teacher with the opportunity to stand in front of a roomful of club members and practice before presenting to an actual classroom.
“The Toastmasters meeting imitates real life,” observes Huang. “Anything can happen: speech notes get lost, the projector dies, you forget your props — just like in the classroom. The truth is that improvisation is the most important teaching skill you’ll ever learn. But don’t tell that to the professor who taught you phonemic awareness strategies in college!”
Toastmasters stresses that there are two components to effective conversation — speaking and listening. A student’s parents will have greater respect for a teacher who demonstrates good listening skills during parent-teacher conferences and values the parents’ input. Careful listening breeds cooperation between parent and teacher, which can be helpful in customizing teaching strategies and preventing academic or disciplinary problems.
According to Stephanie Richman, a Toastmaster club member who teaches psychology at Westminster College in Pennsylvania, Toastmasters leadership training gives teachers the tools they need to handle uncooperative students.
In a November 2015 article in the Toastmaster magazine, Richman stated:
One of my biggest challenges personally is dealing with conflict or “difficult” people. This comes up often in teaching, when a student is being distracting or misbehaving in class. In the past, I have been too intimidated to confront the student and often let it slide instead. Toastmasters has helped me to be more assertive in confronting students with these issues.
Start your learning journey
Toastmasters’ proven program for improving communication and leadership skills leaves little doubt that teachers will benefit from spending some time in the Toastmasters “classroom.” Toastmasters training is a godsend to Catholic educators who aspire to teach with the eloquence of St. Anthony of Padua, the boldness of St. Vincent Ferrer, and the charisma of Venerable Fulton Sheen.
As the Holy Mackerels’ mission statement declares, “Let others stand up and be counted. We [Catholics] will stand up and be heard.”
Celeste Behe is a blogger, speaker, and ardent Toastmaster. She lives in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, with her husband, Mike, and eight of their nine children.