It is almost the end of another school term. You’ve planned, taught, assessed, evaluated, reported, fed back, fed forward…You’ve barely had time to catch your breath but, when you eventually do, an ominous tickle suggests a sore throat and hoarse voice are imminent. Not what you need to see in the holidays.
Germs and ailments can spread like wildfire in a snotty, sneezy school environment. Yet often, and unbeknownst to many of us, that scratchy throat and husky voice are nothing to do with viral infection. What you are suffering from, more often than not, is actually the result of vocal fatigue. Something that is easily avoided through an understanding of effective voice production and vocal care.
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As teachers, our most important tool is our voice. We speak, rightly or wrongly, for large parts of the day. We use our voice to build excitement, generate engagement and manage behaviour. Our voice, or rather the effective use of our voice, beyond the mere communication of information, brings emotional colour to our classroom. Yet, despite the impact the teacher’s voice has on effective classroom practice, too few of us know how to support it properly.
Fact: teachers are eight times more likely to suffer voice problems than any other profession, according to a report from the National Education Union.
The resulting working days lost cost over £15 million per year in the UK (RNID, 2008, cited in National Education Union, 2019). The cost in terms of continuity of provision for our pupils – immeasurable. Yet, despite this, a General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS) report looking at the provision of voice care education found our initial teacher education lacking. We were not adequately supporting new teachers with their understanding of voice care and effective use of voice in the classroom. The same report set out recommendations for schools, including the advice that headteachers and staff explore staff development opportunities relating to care of the voice (GTCS, Voice and the Teaching Profession, 2003).
Yet, in the decade following the report, I never came across voice-related career-long professional learning opportunities in any of the schools I worked in (although I did work with a number of teachers who regularly suffered voice problems).
I joined the University of Dundee as a lecturer in initial teacher education in 2015 and since then have supported both students and staff with effective use of voice. For our student teachers, vocal issues are often related to a lack of vocal variety, poor audibility and the knock-on impact this has on their classroom presence. The teaching staff I work with are confident and experienced, yet they all come seeking help with vocal fatigue because, although they have few concerns about being heard, they are not supporting their voices properly.
I was an actress in a previous life, and I draw on many of the voice techniques I learned during my drama training to support my students and colleagues. While practical workshops are ideal for learning about care, maintenance and effective use of the voice, financial and time constraints mean this isn’t always the most realistic option. I recently consulted with the Edinburgh-based echo3education on a new online course – Use and Care of Voice for Teachers. It develops understanding of how the voice is produced and takes teachers through a series of simple exercises they can do to nurture voices that are healthy and impactful.
The positive news is, avoiding vocal fatigue is actually a simple thing. The adoption of a few good habits can improve both vocal health and use of voice, so that not only are teachers healthier but pupils are more likely to be engaged. Some of my top tips include:
Reflect on your breathing. Are you utilising your full lung capacity and "breathing from your belly"? Breathing is of fundamental importance to voice control and bad breathing habits are one of the major causes of vocal fatigue.
Ensure you have good posture – feet hip-width apart, spine in natural alignment, shoulders and neck loose and tension free, head well-supported. If sitting, avoid crossing your legs.
Get into the habit of a daily vocal warm-up – this will do wonders for your articulation and projection.
Vary pitch, pace and volume for vocal variety that will engage your listener. Asking a "critical friend" to observe you teaching can be a really valuable exercise in terms of gaining feedback on the impact your voice is having in the classroom.
Don’t forget the power of non-verbal communication. The teacher’s voice should never dominate in the classroom.
Sip water regularly while speaking.
Rest your voice at intervals throughout the day. If you are suffering from vocal fatigue, the best medicine is complete vocal rest.
If the issue is ongoing, seek medical advice.
In short, the voice is a teacher’s most important tool – so it’s worth investing in.
Nikki Doig is a lecturer in education at the University of Dundee. This is a version of a piece that originally appeared on the General Teaching Council for Scotland website.