A sound education

Headsets: Teachers find that microphones in the classroom can be good attention-getting devices.

September 18, 2001|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

Sometimes, Leigh Anne Mayo looks more like the soccer mom version of Britney Spears than she does a first-grade teacher.

There she is, in front of her class at Sparks Elementary School, wearing a headset microphone by her lips - a microphone that sends her "time to line up" instructions into the ear of every child from the front of the room to the back.

The wireless contraption is part of Sparks' schoolwide sound amplification system - a set of speakers built into the ceiling of each classroom to promote maximum attentiveness. Teachers like Mayo can be heard in every corner of their classrooms - and sometimes into the hallways.

The system was installed when the new Sparks Elementary was built in 1998, nearly four years after the old school was destroyed by fire.

When the school opened, Principal Thomas N. Ellis said, the sound system was perhaps the only one of its kind in the country. Since that time, two other Baltimore County schools - Dogwood and Westchester elementaries - have put in the amplifiers, officials said.

"You can't believe the reaction of the kids," Ellis said in an interview last week. "There was instantaneous attention."

A classroom can be a noisy place - even before the teacher starts lessons. The heating or air-conditioning vents contribute constant noise, and when she was teaching kindergarten, Mayo found herself competing with the blocks and the toy piano and the chattering of the children.

Her first-graders, she said, instantly snap to attention when she uses the microphone.

"I feel like it saves my voice and helps them tune in to me," Mayo said. "When it's turned off you can totally hear the difference."

It doesn't at all sound as if Mayo is shouting. She's speaking in a low voice, but it is easy to hear her and understand what she is saying. Teachers find the system effective with all pupils, particularly with children who have impaired hearing.

Ellis learned of the sound system from a special-education teacher who came to the old Sparks school to tutor a hearing-impaired boy. She brought a portable system with her, and Ellis was soon convinced it would work schoolwide.

When he oversaw the construction of the new Sparks Elementary, Ellis was given $500,000 to equip the school as he saw fit. A self-described "wheeler-dealer," he persuaded Telex Communications Inc. to install the system throughout the school for less than $15,000.

"It was a wonderful investment," he said. "It's probably the best money I've ever spent."

A glitch or two appeared at first. A few teachers picked up citizens band signals from truckers on nearby Interstate 83. Some teachers wearing microphones accidentally left them turned on while talking to one another in the halls or in the lunchroom - broadcasting their conversations into their classrooms - or even while in the restroom.

"The kids have had quite a chuckle," Ellis said.

The pupils in Steve Bender's fourth-grade class give the system rave reviews.

"I used to go to Park School, and sometimes when my teacher had a sore throat she'd tell us to be quiet so we would hear her," said Carson Satterfield. "I think it's a great system. I can hear Mr. Bender much better."

"You can hear the teacher [even] if they're really far away from you," said classmate Emilee Madden.

Not everyone is a fan. Ellis spotted a veteran teacher in the hall, and told her she was the last person he expected to see wearing the headset. The woman, who looked as if she were having a rough morning with pupils who didn't have much interest in following her directions, huffed, "The kids can rise above it and ignore us anyway."

Kathy Carter, a third-grade teacher in her third year at Sparks, said the microphone took some getting used to. If you speak too loudly, she said, "you can scare some kids."

But, she said, "The kids definitely always have eyes on me when I'm wearing this. Right when I see I don't have them, I go over and get [the microphone]. It works wonders."

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