Protecting your teacher's voice

Written by: Steve Burnage | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

A teacher’s most precious resource is their voice, as the saying goes – but many of us do not look after ours as we should, storing up problems for the future. Steve Burnage offers some essential voice care advice

International classical musicians and pop stars think nothing of insuring their hands or voices for millions of pounds since, should they become damaged, their career has all but ended. Just look at reports that Mariah Carey insured her voice for $70 million!

Those of us working in education may well use our voices for pretty much every part of every day in our professional lives, but insurance is obviously something that teachers just would not consider!

It is not until you lose your voice that you realise just what a precious commodity it is.

For most of us, sounding hoarse is no more than an inconvenience but, for teachers, the voice is the crucial tool of their trade – damaged vocal cords can mean the end of a career.

The Health and Safety Executive estimates that one in five teachers have missed work due to voice problems in any one year, five times the rate for the workforce as a whole. Voice strain, one might argue, is becoming the new RSI.

The incidence of problems in music teachers, physical education teachers, language teachers and pre-school and primary school teachers is higher than the rest of the school population and there is a high incidence of voice problems in teachers early in the first five years of their careers. Another increase occurs after 15 years of teaching.

Many teachers tolerate voice problems and do not seek help, this may exacerbate the voice problem.

However, as SecEd reported recently, those whose initial training included advice on the care of their voice appear to have fewer problems during their careers than some of their peers (The importance of voice care for teachers, SecEd, November 2017).

So below, I offer a range of practical advice and tips to enable us to take better care of our voices.

Voice care top tips

  • View your body as a “six-cylinder car”: Breathe properly using your whole chest – not just the upper part – to support the voice. If you only use the upper chest to breathe, you are running on three cylinders and putting unnecessary strain on the body.
  • Hydrate and hydrate again: Drink plenty of water to keep the vocal chords lubricated. Drink one glass every mealtime and at least one in between. Try to stay away from coffee and fruit juices that can dry your throat and cause congestion.
  • And relax: Tension tightens the voice and makes it harder to talk. Keep your shoulders low and easy, your face and jaw relaxed. Stretch your upper body regularly. Massage your neck on either side of your voice box.
  • Yawn and sigh: Although yawning and sighing before speaking might not look good in front of a year 9 maths group or during that staff meeting presentation, it opens the voice and relieves stress.
  • Warm-up like any other athlete: Try making the sounds of “mm” (as in hum), “ng” (as in wing), gently slide up and down in pitch. Do a “horse blow” with your lips. This helps to warm up your vocal cords.
  • Pace is everything: Speak slowly, pause frequently and rest your voice if you feel tired.
  • Ask questions: Effective questioning is a great teaching and learning technique. It encourages learner independence and peer-to-peer or small group discussion and is a simple and straightforward assessment for learning strategy. It also gives you the opportunity to rest your voice!
  • Empower your learners: Plan and implement work-arounds for managing your classes and saving your voice. For instance, instead of calling out, give instructions to a small number of students who then have responsibility for informing the rest of the class. This saves your voice for when it is really needed, gives learners responsibility and, again, encourages learner independence.
  • Pitch it right: Adopting a lower or higher than natural pitch in order to sound authoritative or emphatic is a common classroom management and teaching strategy and something that I frequently observe when I am helping colleagues in schools.
    Raising our voice to get students’ attention is not the best approach, and the stress it causes and the vibe it puts in the room just isn’t worth it. The students will mirror your voice level, so avoid using that semi-shouting voice. If we want students to talk at a normal, pleasant volume, we must do the same.
    However, teachers will often pitch their voices higher and higher as classroom management gets more and more challenging. This is counterproductive since not only are you harder to hear, but you will also gradually harm your voice and find it more and more difficult to be heard.
    In order to find the best pitch for maximum comfort in your voice, make sound of agreement – “mm, mm” – the second “mm” is likely to be close to your optimum pitch.
  • Use non-verbal cues: Playing a piece of music, handclaps, a whistle, bell or body pose to signal changes in activities or the need for students to quieten down can provide respite for your voice.
    Holding one hand in the air and making eye contact with students is a great way to quiet the class and get their attention without straining your voice.
    It takes a while for students to get used to this as a routine, but it works wonderfully. Have them raise their hand along with you until all are up. Then lower yours and talk.
    Flicking the lights off and on once to get the attention is an oldie but a goodie. It could also be something you do routinely to let them know they have three minutes to finish an assignment or clean up, etc.
    With younger students, try clapping your hands three times and teaching the children to quickly clap back twice. This is a fun and active way to get their attention and all eyes on you.
  • Expect quiet: Talking above student chat is never a good classroom management strategy to adopt since it gives the wrong messages to learners about behaviour. Use non-verbal cues or the “teacher stare” to discourage student chat. Another effective technique is to use close proximity – simply standing near to those causing the disturbance. You can also clap your hands to demand silence.
  • Listen to your voice: Don’t ignore warning signs. If you have a throat infection, rest your voice and inhale steam. For less serious voice problems, drink lots of water and, even if you haven’t a sweet tooth, take teaspoons of honey – it is great for lubricating your throat and it is good for you.
  • Keep it clear: Coughing and throat-clearing cause vocal fatigue. If you persistently feel the need to clear your throat, you may have acid reflux. Avoid coffee, tea, red wine and spicy food, take an antacid tablet and see your doctor.
  • Keep off the weed: There are many health reasons not to smoke but here’s another one – it damages the vocal cords. Other substances can also cause voice problems – alcohol and cannabis are irritants which should also be avoided. Some antihistamines can cause a dry throat, too.
  • Consult an expert: See your doctor if you are hoarse for more than two weeks. Consider having professional voice training – it could reduce the risk of problems.

Signs of problems

As Julian Stanley wrote in SecEd last month, “early signs of possible long-term problems can include discomfort speaking, a lower pitch to the voice or a breaking voice as well as voices that become more harsh-sounding or thin” (The importance of voice care for teachers, SecEd, November 2017).

He adds: “It is, in any school or workplace, possible to ask for ‘reasonable adjustments’. Breaks between classes and revisions of timetables and classroom locations can be simple ways to reduce the risk of vocal damage.

“Our voices aren’t designed to talk continually without breaks. For serious problems, speech therapists can offer support including exercises. If symptoms persist, don’t suffer in silence. It’s important to get them checked out and see a doctor.”

Conclusion

Educators use their voices all day long, often in classrooms with poor acoustics and stagnant air. It’s part of the job. In fact, teachers have among the highest vocal demands of any profession. All of that talking, throat-clearing and even whispering takes a toll. It can be easy to take our voices for granted and it is not until something goes wrong that we realise just what an important part our voice plays in our teachers’ toolkit.

With the correct care, we can avoid lasting damage to our voices even if we can’t avoid the odd cough or cold. However, if we persistently avoid the warning signs, we can do lasting damage to our voices that can be difficult if not impossible to correct.

Your voice is your most powerful teaching tool, and these simple tips can help you preserve your vocal health, support your classroom presence, and ensure your teacher toolkit remains well-resourced for years to come.

  • Steve Burnage has experience leading challenging inner city and urban secondary schools. He now works as a freelance trainer, consultant and author for staff development, strategic development, performance management and coaching and mentoring. Visit www.simplyinset.co.uk and read his previous articles for SecEd at http://bit.ly/2u1KW9e

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