Looking after your teaching voice

Written by: Nikki Doig | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

As a teacher, losing your voice can be debilitating and is an ever-present risk given how much we talk day-to-day. Do you look after your voice? Nikki Doig offers some practical tips

We all know it is not just what you say, but how you say it that has impact. Listen to any successful teacher and you will hear them engage their learners, not just through the words, but also the vocal variety with which they express them.

Far more than simply a vehicle for communicating information, your voice brings emotional colour to your classroom. You use it to build excitement, generate engagement and manage behaviour. Yet, despite the impact that the teacher’s voice has on effective classroom practice, too few teachers know how to support and protect their voices properly.

At best, this could mean hoarseness and an irritated throat. At worst, it might mean total voice loss.

Teachers are eight times more likely to suffer voice problems than any other profession and the working days lost as a result cost schools £15 million per year, according to the National Education Union.

So, what can we do to protect our most valuable asset? The good news is that the development of a few good habits, along with some small improvements to your vocal care, can minimise the chance of vocal fatigue, as well as improve the impact your voice has on your classroom presence.

Breathing

A poor breathing habit is one of the main causes of vocal fatigue. In everyday conversation we commonly use shallow, upper chest breathing. However, to ensure the breath support required when speaking for long periods, we need to utilise our full lung capacity, right down to our diaphragms. Think “breathing to your belly”.

A simple way to check if you are breathing to your diaphragm is to lie on the floor with a book balanced on your abdomen. As you breathe in, if the bottom of your lungs fill with air, the book should rise as your lower rib cage expands and your diaphragm flattens. When you breathe out, the book should lower as your rib cage contracts and your dome-shaped diaphragm relaxes. If this is not happening, keep practising. At first, you may feel like you are using your abdominal muscles to push the book up rather than it being a natural process but that is okay. The more you practise, the more natural it will become.

Try this exercise daily to increase your lung capacity: when standing, put your hands round your torso, just above your waist, so you can feel those ribs expand. Inhale for five. Hold for five. Exhale for five. Repeat (stop if you feel light-headed). As you improve, exhale on an “aaaaah” sound. How long can you hold a steady note for? Just five minutes of breathing exercises daily can help you improve.

Posture

Effective breathing requires a relaxed, open posture. Reflect on how you stand in class. Ideally this means feet hip-width apart, spine in natural alignment, shoulders and neck loose and tension-free. If seated, remain tension-free with your spine naturally aligned (not slumped) and your feet planted on the floor (avoid crossing your legs).

Consider, also, the impact that your posture can have on your classroom presence. Good posture sends a message of confident engagement. Non-verbal communication speaks volumes.

Articulation

Are you a mumbler? Does your voice have a tendency to taper off at the end of sentences? Carve your words clearly with your articulators – your tongue, teeth and lips. Tongue twisters are great for waking up your articulators and preventing you from tripping over your tongue, particularly first thing in the morning. Try a few pre-class or, even better, as a warm-up that involves your pupils.

Vocal variety

Vary pitch, pace and volume to engage your pupils. Do you consistently pitch your voice too high? Do you have a habit of speaking too quickly or too slowly? Either of these can lose your audience. To help you identify areas for development, it can be a useful to invite a colleague to be a critical friend and give you feedback on your use of voice in the classroom.

Volume

If you are breathing effectively, you should find that your volume improves (we are talking projection here, not shouting). The great thing is, if articulation, pitch and pace are all in place, your voice will carry.

If you still find vocal projection a challenge, it can help to literally “think the voice out”. As you speak, imagine your voice travelling to the back of the room, particularly in large spaces such as a gym hall or auditorium. Keep working on those breathing exercises. Speak from your diaphragm. Direct your speech with clear intent. Also, remember that agreed hand signals can help save your voice.

Daily warm-up

A daily vocal warm-up will do wonders for your articulation and audibility. Start with a few stretches to loosen your limbs and release tension. Next, imagine you are chewing a really sticky toffee or allow yourself a big yawn to warm up those facial muscles. A very simple but effective way to warm up your voice is to hum – on the way to work or as you set up your classroom. The vibrations from humming warm up your facial muscles and resonators.

Hydrate

The larynx likes to be lubricated so drink plenty of water throughout the day. We are very good at encouraging our pupils to drink throughout the day, but are we following our own advice? Avoid caffeine, not only does it dehydrate but tiny coffee granules can irritate your delicate vocal folds.

The environment

The space we work in can have a major impact on vocal health. Dust and fumes or dry atmospheres can negatively affect the voice. Classrooms need to be well-ventilated. Are your classroom windows accessible and, if so, can they be opened or are they painted shut? Humidity can be increased by placing bowls of water near radiators or through the use of humidifiers. Heavily furnished rooms with low ceilings will absorb sound, particularly if they contain many people. This means your voice must work much harder. To minimises stress on your vocal folds, maintain a good posture and articulate your words (see above).

Vocal health

It is important to give your voice a chance to rest during your working day. That might mean minimising the staffroom conversation or taking some quiet time on a free period.

Reflect also on the extent that you speak during lessons. Remember – the teacher’s voice should never dominate. If your voice lacks its usual strength, becomes hoarse or you feel a tell-tale scratch at the back of your throat, you may be suffering vocal fatigue.

Vocal rest is the number one method to avoid, and to treat, vocal fatigue. Do not whisper, that just puts more strain on your vocal chords, and avoid medicated lozenges, try a fruit pastille instead. Gargle with cooled, boiled and salted water or soluble aspirin. If the problem persists, you should visit your GP in case of underlying medical issues.

CPD

A report by the General Teaching Council of Scotland into the provision of voice care education found that schools are not adequately supporting teachers with their understanding of voice care and effective use of voice in the classroom (GTCS, 2003).

However, there may be in-house expertise that can provide support. For example, some schools have drama teachers who lead CPD sessions on use of voice. Engaging the help of external training providers may also be an option and there are vocal coaches throughout the UK that deliver training tailored specifically for an education context. This could be face-to-face or online training.


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