Can you hear me at the back?

21st January 2011 at 00:00
Quite frankly, no

"Right, class. Quiet - cough - QUIET! Croak."

Vocal training is not a mandatory part of initial teacher training, but it should be: teachers use their voices for more hours in the day than actors and singers, yet we barely notice that voice until it starts to hurt.

Vocal training coughs outside the door of the white paper, The Importance of Teaching, but only gets close to a mention. The document sees "the teacher as our society's most valuable asset" and wants us to "interact successfully in the classroom". "Managing poor behaviour" and "a significant strengthening of teachers' authority in the classroom" point to one thing: learn how to use your voice. After all, what good are "empathy, communication and resilience" if you keep losing your voice?

A 2008 survey by the RNID found that in primary schools, more than 70,000 teaching days a year were lost to vocal strain, costing around #163;15 million. "Add secondary school teachers, at today's supply teaching costs, and the figure is much higher," says Dr Lesley Hendy, a former trustee of the Voice Care Network (VCN). Vocal training costs a fraction of this.

Teachers tend to ignore early warning signs, such as hoarseness and persistent sore throats. Yvonne Morley, voice teacher, communications skills coach and a trustee of the VCN, sometimes shadows a teacher at a school to diagnose and treat vocal problems. "Typically, this is someone dedicated, stressed and tired, who does not rest their voice the whole day. Two or three minutes can make a big difference, but there is always someone needing something. Then there's the "Can-you-hear-me-at-the-back?" chin: slightly forward and raised, very bad for the voice."

Treatment can save a career. Dr Hendy treated a newly qualified teacher who had nodules on her vocal chords. "She was in a tough school and shouting in a high, firm voice. The vocal chords bashed together very hard and fast, forming nodules. We re-positioned her voice so the note came through another part of the vocal folds. Now she breathes properly, without throat-squeeze, and her class loves listening to her."

Dr Hendy believes teachers need to find their "centred neutral" voice, the middle note of your range and "neutral" emotionally, like when you're on the phone saying "Hm ... mm," while listening. That is lower than the high, bossy tone we use with 9X, yet we need to use it more. With training, we can learn subtleties such as "warm tone, lower pitch" and the magic it works on others.

The VCN runs Inset days and can help schools and teachers find a good voice coach. Their website has useful advice on vocal health. Correct posture, proper breathing and frequent sips of still water prevent problems, but caffeine and medicated lozenges dry the voice. The voice is like an amazing musical instrument that we were never trained to play. "Help the teacher to become someone that people want to listen to," says Ms Morley.

Catherine Paver is a part-time English teacher and writer.

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