How can teachers best look after their voices?
Most people are aware that teachers use their voices a lot. But few are aware that as a group they are probably more reliant on vocal use than any other profession. Despite this, few teachers have ever had the opportunity for any vocal training and the result is not a happy one. For example, did you know that:
- 62% of teachers don’t feel their voice is equal to the task of teaching?*
- 20% of all teachers experienced a problem with their voice during the teaching year?**
- 20% of teachers have taken time off because of voice problems at some point in their career, compared with just 4 per cent of non-teachers?***
- 50% of NQTs lost their voice in the first year?*
Sources: *S. Martin (2003) Doctoral Research, **Journal of Voice (1998), ***Journal of Voice (1998)
These and many more academic studies show that teaching is a profession particularly vulnerable to vocal health issues. The upshot is that teachers are at least eight times more likely to have vocal damage than other workers. From simple sore throats and hoarseness through to more serious vocal fold damage requiring surgery, teachers are particularly vulnerable to voice problems.
Reasons teachers are vocally vulnerable
Most teachers are at risk of developing voice problems simply because of the sheer amount of vocal usage in a regular school day. Even a good voice user can be challenged by using their voices in consistently challenging environments and situations, and with a high risk of colds and flu. And of course teaching can be stressful, which has its own detrimental effect on the voice.
However, teachers who use their voice incorrectly, e.g. yelling or shallow breathing, are particularly at risk from vocal damage. This means it is very important for education staff to consider voice care and take steps to prevent problems before they arise. The following steps will give you some strategies to protect your voice and reduce any preventable vocal issues. The most useful thing a teacher can do is to educate him/herself about proper vocal use and care, and ideally to gain a practical understanding of good voice use.
Voice care for teachers
There are four major areas over which you have influence to protect your voice:
1. Voice training
The first step in looking after your voice is to understand how it works, then to learn voice production techniques to use it well. So firstly, how does it work and what techniques can we practice to protect it? We produce all speech on an out-breath which passes through the vocal folds, causing them to oscillate and create sound. This sound is amplified by the cavities in your chest, mouth and head. Finally your lips, teeth and tongue shape the sound into words.
This means that the whole body is involved in speaking, not just the mouth. Good vocal technique therefore means we have to pay particular attention to the following areas:
- Stand tall and relaxed with your shoulder blades sloping down the back and your head comfortably balanced at the top of the spine. ‘Ground’ your weight by letting go of your leg and hip muscles and allowing your feet and the floor to support the weight of the body. This physical alignment will ensure a full, easy breath is possible and no unnecessary tension interferes with the voice. It will also increase your physical presence, giving the classroom confidence you are in control.
- Breathe deep into your stomach and back, using the diaphragm (a muscle that crosses the centre of the body) to ensure a supply of supported, steady air to the vocal folds in the throat. Reduce any muscular breathing activity in the upper chest as this causes both psychological anxiety and vocal tension.
- Relax your neck and throat to ensure the vocal folds can vibrate freely. If you habitually thrust or sink your head forward you may need to use the neck to pull it back up over the centre line of the body to take the tension off the shoulder and neck muscles.
- Learn to speak using your optimum pitch. This is the pitch range in your voice that most naturally balances both head and chest resonance, producing the perfect balance of low frequencies (for authority) and high frequencies (for audibility).
- Articulate your words clearly using the lips, tongue, jaw and face. Clearer and sharper articulation reduces the need for actual vocal volume, as your message still carries to your listeners.
2. Resting your voice
Changing your voice use can have a significant effect on your vocal health. If your voice is hoarse or sore, by far the best thing to do is to give it a rest. This can reduce the damage and lead to a speedier recovery.
- Build some quiet time when you aren’t speaking into your lessons
- Organise teaching time so you do less talking when your voice is tired
- If your voice is tiring, speak quietly rather than whispering
- Use speech clarity, pitch and resonance to project your words, rather than pure vocal volume • Use audio visual aids, handouts and written instructions when appropriate
- Use more non-verbal communication such as eye contact and gesture
- Take some time at the end of the day to stop talking and rest your voice
- If it is particularly bad, take time off
- If a few days’ rest doesn’t help, or if the problem recurs frequently, visit your GP
If problems are dealt with early, changing a few habits should be enough to restore your voice to full health. However, prolonged abuse of the vocal cords can lead to “nodules” – growths on the cords – which may require surgery.
3. Vocal Hygiene
The vocal chords work best when the vocal tract is clear, moist and well lubricated. Try doing the following to ensure you stay vocally well:
- Adequate hydration is key. Drink plenty of water throughout the day – between 6-8 glasses per day
- Caffeine dehydrates the body so reduce the amount of coffee and tea you drink
- If the voice is under strain, inhale steam from hot (but not boiling!) water for five minutes three times a day. This is particularly useful if you have a cold as it loosens any catarrh in the larynx. You could also take a hot bath at the end of the day
- Don’t smoke! This irritates the vocal folds, can make you hoarse, and can cause throat cancer.
- Avoid medicated lozenges – try sucking on a boiled sweet instead if your throat is dry
- Don’t overeat foods, such as dairy products, which can provoke the production of mucus or catarrh. Excessive catarrh reduces your resonance (amplification) and encourages you to strain your voice
- Eating spicy foods late at night can cause a condition known as acid reflux, which damages the vocal cords
- Avoid excessive clearing of your throat. It makes the vocal cords clash together and causes wear and tear over time. Try sipping some water instead
- Warm up the voice by humming or singing in the shower before work
4. Manage your physical environment
The main environmental enemies of your voice are high levels of noise, poor acoustics and dry, dusty or smoky classrooms. Sometimes it is difficult to significantly change some of these problems, but there are some things you can do to mitigate them:
- Arrange the classroom so your pupils are closer to you
- Turn down any background noise such as TVs or PA systems before speaking
- Keep central heating and air conditioning levels low
- Use a humidifier in a dry, dusty environment
- Open a window to let in fresh air
- Having houseplants in the room, or placing a bowl of water next to a radiator can increase humidity
By putting into practice some or all of this advice, you will be protecting their voice for the rest of your career. Can you really afford not to?