The importance of voice care for teachers

Written by: Julian Stanley | Published:
Julian Stanley, CEO, Education Support Partnership

Voice care is incredibly important for teachers and vocal damage is a big risk. Julian Stanley offers some voice care advice

We often hear of cancelled shows by well-known singers due to vocal damage. Voice is of course, the essential tool of their trade. What is less acknowledged is the fundamental importance of voice in teaching. Yet it must be nurtured and protected.

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. 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.

As winter begins, it’s a good time to remind ourselves of the importance of protecting our voices. The cold air of the season is bad for the vocal chords and increases the risk of throat infections.

It is not until any of us lose our voice that we realise what a precious commodity it is. Major voice loss can blight lives and end teaching careers. Research by the specialist charity Voice Care UK has shown that teachers are up to eight times more likely to suffer from voice-related health conditions compared to other professions and there are growing reports of “repetitive voice injury”.

Joyce Walters was a teacher who found her role immensely rewarding but, some years ago, developed vocal nodules. An experienced ESOL teacher, working at an adult education centre based at a secondary school, she first noticed symptoms when she had been at the school for just one month.

As the year progressed she found that her throat would improve at the weekends and during holidays but it became increasingly difficult to get even temporary relief from being hoarse and sore. In term-time, she was working in a large class next to a noisy playground and found that she frequently had to raise her voice.

An examination found that her vocal chords had been damaged and become thickened and she was forced to miss the next year while receiving speech therapy. On her return, she had to report to the same classroom and despite suggested remedies (taking breaks during the noisy playtimes) or teaching a different class, she felt that her employer had acted unreasonably by not accommodating any changes. Her voice had become ruined for life. She won a landmark employment tribunal hearing and recognition that there is nothing inevitable about a teacher losing their voice and job as a consequence.

The Royal College of Speech and Language expert therapists can help people including teachers to protect their voices. They offer the following top tips on caring for and projecting your most vital teaching tool:

In general

  • Aim for good hydration. Drinking eight to 10 glasses of water each day is recommended, as irritation, caused by alcohol or caffeine can play a key part in vocal cord irritation.
  • If you are already hoarse, don’t whisper. Use your voice gently to avoid any strain.
  • Before public speaking, try to “warm up” your voice through gentle humming.
  • Ensure adequate sleep and exercise. Your voice reflects your general health and wellbeing.

Things to avoid

  • Long periods of over-use, especially speaking over background noise.
  • Heartburn and reflux can lead to vocal cord irritation so avoid foods that cause indigestion and avoid eating late at night.
  • Reduce or avoid smoking. Smoke irritates the vocal chords and makes them swell.
  • Avoid too much dairy produce as it can cause thick secretions and throat-clearing.
  • Throat-clearing can lead to vocal cord irritation so try to avoid this by gently sipping water or coughing gently.

How is your voice care?

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. 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.

  • Julian Stanley is the CEO of the Education Support Partnership.

Further information


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