The Voice

Top tips to look after a teacher’s most valuable tool

International classical musicians and pop stars think nothing of insuring their hands or voices for millions of pounds since, should those become damaged, that career has all but ended:

‘Are these the world's most expensive fingers? Fastest violin player insures his hands for £3million’ Daily Mail 15th September 2011 

‘Mariah Carey insures her voice for $70 million’

New York Times 8th April 2016

 

However, this is something that teachers just would not consider. Those of us working in education may well use our voices for every part of every day in our professional lives but, I wonder, how many of us have insured our most crucial of tools – our voice – for a million pounds?

As someone who has been a professional musician for all of his adult life, a secondary school music teacher for a good many of those years; and now offers consultancy and training that support people in caring for their voices and solving vocal problems, it is not surprising that I might use a musical analogy to pinpoint just how important a tool ‘the voice’ is to anyone working in education. It is not until you lose your voice that you realise just what a precious commodity it is.

The press often carries sad stories of international pop stars who have damaged their voices through poor vocal technique:

'I WRECKED MY VOICE'. Devastated Adele fears vocal cord damage may be permanent after she was forced to cancel Wembley Stadium dates

The Sun 2nd July 2017

 

For most of us, sounding hoarse is no more than an inconvenience but, for teachers, the voice is the crucial tool of their trade where damaged vocal cords can mean the end of a career. One in five teachers miss work with voice problems, five times the national average. Voice strain, one might argue, is becoming the new RSI.

The incidence of problems in music teachers, physical education teachers, language teachers and preschool 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. This article will provide help and support that will enable us to take better care of our voices.

Fifteen top tips to help you care for your voice

1.       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.

2.       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.

3.       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.

4.       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.

5.       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.

6.       Pace is everything: Speak slowly, pause frequently and rest your voice if you feel tired.

7.       Ask questions: Effective questioning is a great teaching and learning technique strategy, it encourages learner independence and peer to peer or small group discussion; it is a simple and straightforward assessment for learning strategy; and it also gives you the opportunity to rest your voice.

8.       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.

9.       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.

10.   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. Holding one hand in the air, and making eye contact with students is a great way to quiet the class and get their attention on you. 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 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.

11.   Expect quiet. Talking above student chat is never a good classroom management strategy to adopt anyway since it gives the wrong messages to learners about their behaviour. Use non-verbal queuing, the ‘teacher stare’ or close proximity to discourage student chat for example. You can also whistle or clap your hands to silence a room.

12.   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.

13.   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.

14.   Keep off the evil 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.

15.   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.

 

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 offers vocal advice, coaching, and consultancy to individuals and schools and can be contacted through simplyinset@gmx.com or calling +44 7767 858360