Voice Care for Teachers
Teachers are professional voice users. They rely on their voice to do their job, and use their voices much more than many other professionals.
This heavy voice use means that teachers are also prone to voice problems. Some studies have estimated that every year as many as 20% of teachers experience voice problems significant enough to interfere with their daily life and work.
Vocal hygiene strategies
Speech pathologists help prevent certain voice problems by educating members of the public on simple strategies to maximise their vocal health. These strategies are often known as ‘vocal hygiene’ and are safe for regular use:
- Follow any relevant medical advice to look after the health of your vocal system and upper airway:
- Ensure allergies are well-managed: allergies can contribute to voice problems
- Ensure reflux is well-managed: reflux can contribute to voice problems
- Take time off, as needed, when sick. Teachers often face many pressures that prevent, or limit, taking sick leave. Continuing to ‘push through’ and exert the voice when sick with a cold can damage the voice and contribute to longer-term problems.
- Stay hydrated, and continue to drink water throughout the day. You can check a urine colour chart to see if you are staying on track. Limiting caffeine (tea and coffee) and alcohol are important to staying hydrated. I usually recommend drinking a cup of water after every cup of tea/coffee/alcohol to maintain hydration without limiting them completely.
- Don’t smoke. Smoking irritates the voices and can cause a large variety of serious voice problems. It is the leading cause of cancers of the throat.
Teaching strategies for managing voice use
Teachers and school administrators can also implement class- and whole-school practices that promote good vocal health:
- Take frequent vocal rests:
- Make use of any release periods, and advocate with your school that these don’t get filled with other tasks and meetings.
- Ditto for breaks. Minimise voice use, where possible, on duty.
- Plan a mixture of learning activities for students: include group work and partner work where possible and appropriate. These activities require less use of your voice.
- Consider using videos, where possible, during didactic and lecture-style lessons. You may be able to find one already available for your lesson, or record one yourself (it doesn’t have to be tidy or perfect). The audio quality may be clearer and will help you preserve your voice for class discussions and answering questions.
- Audit your daily schedule from the perspective or “voice use” vs “voice rest” and look for opportunities to break up long periods of voice use with other activities.
- Give instructions in both spoken and written form wherever possible, and refer students to the written instructions before answering questions.
- Be conscious of your voice use outside of work: singing, yelling at sports events, and (sometimes) parenting, can also contribute a large vocal load. You may need to prioritise how you use your voice.
- Reduce background noise and avoid talking over the top of noise:
- Use a whistle, clap, bell, buzzer, etc, to gain students’ attention, rather than shouting.
- Set up familiar routines and cues (such as playing a piece of music) to signal changes in activity, to reduce the need to gather students’ attention again and explain the next activity.
- Turn off or mute the TV or radio before speaking. Monitor background noise when talking in the car.
- Schools should monitor noise levels in classrooms and open-plan learning areas. Larger, and shared, learning areas need to be well designed acoustically to manage noise exposure for students, but also to protect teachers’ voices.
- Avoid calling out over large distances:
- Move close to the person/group you are talking to. Don’t call out across the room.
- Use a megaphone or loudspeaker to call out across the playground, hall, or oval.
- Warm up your voice each day. Like warming up before physical exercise, warming up your voice is one of the best ways to prevent vocal injury. Vocal warm-ups don’t need to be long, complicated, or musical.
- There are some tutorials available on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLANJwg5vGk8xwU619DVcA1vKVmEMAwdoC
- One you learn how to do an effective vocal warm up (such as humming), you can do these exercises during any part of your morning routine: while getting ready, in the car, while setting up the classroom, etc.
- Have appropriate behaviour management systems in place to reduce the need to yell or shout. This is important in both the classroom and on the playground. Advocate for effective school-wide behaviour management systems that meet the needs of your students.
- Consider using a personal microphone where possible: this will minimise the need for increased vocal effort, while also conveying your speech more clearly to your students.
- There are many options on the market – shop around for one that meets your needs. A Google search for “voice amplifiers for teachers” yielded multiple comparison articles, and most models cost under $100.
When to seek additional support
The strategies described above are general advice that is safe for members of the public.
Some teachers develop more significant voice problems that require medical attention and/or personalised clinical care. Some indicators of a more significant problem include:
- Hoarseness or reduced voice lasting longer than 2 weeks
- Pain in the throat, or pain when speaking
- Voice problems are getting in the way of doing your job or your daily activities outside of work
If you have any of these signs, you should discuss them with your GP. If your GP agrees that there is a problem, they will likely refer you to an ENT (specialist). Depending on the type of voice problem, you may then be referred to a speech pathologist for voice therapy.
Voice therapy involves specific exercises and strategies to address voice problems and maximise an individual’s vocal health.