Protecting your teaching voice

Written by: John Dabell | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Teaching is a profession that relies heavily on your voice – but do you look after it? John Dabell looks at the risks and explains some simple voice care techniques

As a pupil, I remember Mr Shephard at my secondary school. He was the deputy and feared by everyone.

Mr Shephard was a beer barrel of a man and stood probably only around 5ft 6in, but his voice was massive.

He bellowed and boomed louder than Brian Blessed and was the only teacher in the school who could make you physically tremble and suddenly need the toilet – student or teacher.

He was tough and took no nonsense from anyone. Even the end of his name was tough. The students had heard he was ex-special forces, something he would never confirm or deny. I for one suspect that he was made out of chromium and ate steel for breakfast.

Bullying soon disappeared after he had been appointed. He didn’t shout all the time because his mere presence was enough sometimes and his silence could be deafening.

Some schools might need a Mr Shephard and at the time my school did. There were problems with gangs and he parachuted in like a force of nature.

The thing is, Mr Shephard wasn’t a very good teacher. He was a much-needed disciplinarian but the few times he taught he had some students in tears and the more timid children were too afraid to learn and shrivelled up.

“Keep Calm and Don’t Shout” wasn’t something Mr Shephard was familiar with – more like “Get Angry and Explode” (although his was a very controlled anger and controlled explosion).

As we all know, shouting doesn’t make you an effective teacher, as most students will soon tune out and just see an angry adult; they stop listening and just hear noise. Shouting is, on occasions, effective but used too much it will soon result in voice injury.

Mr Shephard used to lose his voice quite often.

Vocal misuse, overuse and abuse

Protecting your voice is vital to the day-to-day business of teaching, so shouting seems to make no sense at all. Our voice is our most powerful teaching tool and one that gets hammered every day.

Preserving our vocal health is perhaps something many teachers don’t really spend that much time thinking about as they just go to school and get on with the job.

But think about how much talking and how much throat-clearing you do. Lots of teachers get hoarse and raspy at some stage in the year and many end up losing their voices by soldiering on.

Voice issues are school issues because teacher absence through some sort of voice disorder can be quite common and so have a negative impact on students. What’s more, the cost to schools of staff taking time off for voice issues has been calculated at approximately £15 million a year. We are a high-risk group.

But voice problems aren’t just caused by shouting. Other instrumental factors include ineffective projection and breathing techniques, speaking for long periods and teaching in environments with poor acoustics and lots of background noise.

Speciality areas or environments can have an adverse impact too, such as teaching music, drama, or physical education – in fact any subject where it is harder to be heard because of equipment or the noise being generated in an activity.

While voice problems are an occupational hazard, they can be avoided or prevented by being alert and mindful of some voice-saving tips and techniques:

  1. Warm-up: actors do it and singers do it, but less than one per cent of teachers will do it. Warming up and stretching your voice is so important and yet often ignored. You don’t have to feel foolish doing it either as you can warm-up on the way to school (if you drive!). This includes stretching and relaxing facial muscles too (see www.voicecare.org.uk for some great ideas).
  2. Pose: think carefully about your sitting and standing postures when speaking as this can affect the tone and resonance of your voice. Stand tall if you are standing, sit up if you are sitting. Poor posture and muscle tension will soon show in your voice.
  3. Take a breath: if you breathe from your chest then this will affect your voice as it is shallow breathing. Centred breathing where you breathe from the diaphragm improves vocal quality.
  4. Keep hydrated: teachers are renowned for being big coffee drinkers and while caffeine hits during the day are often necessary and come with a feel-good factor, it is also a drink that can make you dry. Make sure that you drink plenty of water because it is a must for keeping the vocal chords lubricated. Two litres of water a day might be the recommendation but not before your first lesson. Lots of sips through the day are sensible and achievable and keep the larynx moist.
  5. Use a humidifier or air purifier: indoor air quality is an important component in a school environment. In the autumn and winter when the heating is whacked up the internal atmosphere can often drop below 40 per cent relative humidity and it will draw moisture from any available source. This will leave us all dehydrated and have a drying effect on our nose and throat. Poor air quality will affect students’ ability to focus but also your voice by drying your vocal chords. Rooms ideally should be well ventilated. Keep plants in the classroom to combat dry air.
  6. Snooze: your voice needs to rest and so try not to spend too long talking in one go. There are lots of opportunities within a lesson to listen to students, and do not feel obliged to think that teaching is always about talking.
  7. Amplify: if you are forced to raise your voice in class then this will put strain on your voice. You could use a wireless microphone and amplifier to project your voice and to take away some of the stress and strain.
  8. Don’t clear your throat: virtually impossible on occasions perhaps but clearing your throat isn’t good for your vocal chords as it is the equivalent of smashing them together and causes irritation and damage. Water certainly helps to clear mucus so sip before attempting a hack.
  9. Steer clear: if you do have a sore throat then avoid things like lozenges or throat sprays because they dry the larynx and make matters worse. Avoid sugary foods, milk and dairy products too as they make thick and sticky phlegm which interferes with vocal chords. Avoid eating late in the evening too as this can cause acid reflux and this can spill onto the larynx irritating the vocal chords creating inflammation.
  10. Slow it down: to reduce the amount of strain on your voice then decrease the volume, speak more slowly and articulate from the front of the mouth.
  11. Think before you speak: avoid using the extremes of your vocal range such as whispering then shouting as this can stress your voice.
  12. Wait: try not to talk over students who aren’t listening. Use your “teacher voice” with clear , calm commanding authority.
  13. Find other ways to communicate: there are plenty of ways to “speak” without using your voice, e.g. flashcards, whiteboards, non-verbal classroom management techniques.

While there are lots of things that are out of our control there is still plenty we can do to look after ourselves and a little knowledge can go a long way. Minimising inefficient or harmful vocal habits is something everyone can engage with.

Don’t be a work hoarse

There are lots of symptoms to look out for when vocal difficulties start to become real problems. For example, you may have regular or unexplained voice loss, there may be a change in your voice quality, your voice may weaken and sound tired (or suddenly deeper), you may have a constant sore throat (feeling raw, achy or strained) and feel the need to always clear your throat. Swelling of the vocal folds, laryngitis and calluses are just some of the problems you may experience.

It could well be that your voice doesn’t seem to get any better and if that’s the case then don’t ignore it because you could be suffering from something more serious. At the extreme end of the scale voice problems could link to something like oral cancer, particularly if some of the following warning signs are present:

  • A raspy or hoarse voice that doesn’t improve after three weeks.
  • Coughing up blood.
  • Difficulty eating and swallowing.
  • Feeling a lump in your neck or tongue.
  • Pain when speaking or swallowing.

It is easy for us to dismiss the above ailments as being something we will shake off and things that will go away in time, but sometimes they don’t as they aren’t normal. A croaky voice will often get better but it can be indicative of another health issue that needs seeing to by a GP or specialist.

Raise the profile of your voice

Teachers have some of the highest vocal demands of any profession yet we receive very little training or guidance about how to use our voices or how to look after them. Teachers are eight times more likely to suffer from voice-related health problems than other professions. School managers can help raise the profile of voice care by getting teachers together to share tips, holding a workshop, creating a school environment that minimises strain, and providing practical interventions where needed.

Managers need to speak up for their staff by making sure there are risk-assessments in place too. Those who have had voice training appear to have fewer problems than those who haven’t so why not invite a speech and language therapist to your school at the start of the year (and before school begins) to talk to teachers about voice health.

A functioning voice is essential to teaching effectively but many professionals lack an understanding of voice health. Schools have a responsibility to make sure their staff have a voice and know how to use it, not lose it.

  • John Dabell is a teacher, teacher trainer and writer. He has been teaching for 20 years and is the author of 10 books. He also trained as an Ofsted inspector. Visit www.johndabell.co.uk

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