It's the most vital tool of your trade. But too many teachers fail to take proper care of it. Janet Murray tells you how
The voice is an under-rated tool of the teaching trade. As with actors and singers, the voice is in constant use, but teachers are very rarely recognised as professional voice-users. Many simply accept sore throats and husky tones as an occupational hazard. But failure to look after it could lead to lasting damage.
Teachers have to use their voice almost all day, whether speaking to the whole class, small groups or individuals. But it's not just the amount of talking the job demands that puts a strain on it, it is also the quick changes in volume. Many teachers regularly switch from talking at a normal level to shouting across the classroom in a split second and this can wreak havoc with the vocal chords.
The Voice Care Network, a charitable organisation set up more than 10 years ago to protect teachers' most valuable asset, handle more than 500 enquiries each year. Their speech therapists and voice trainers deal with voice problems from a variety of professions including call-centre employees, lawyers, preachers and actors. A recent survey conducted at 36 out of their 100 clinics, revealed that an average of 12 per cent of their voice patients were teachers - rising to 35 per cent in some areas.
"The muscles of the voice are affected by stress and emotion," says Roz Comins, co-ordinator of Voice Care Network. "Teaching is a very stressful and, at times, very frustrating job, so you can imagine the impact on the voice."
Ms Comins believes that lack of knowledge about voice care can lead to bad habits - or unknowing misuse, as she refers to it - of the voice. This includes throat-clearing, which bashes the vocal cords together; failure to lubricate the throat and mouth; talking too quickly, leading to inadequate breathing which causes tension in the chest; and speaking or singing in too high or deep a pitch.
Lorena Woodfine teaches science at Tividale high school and community college in the West Midlands. Despite only being in her second year of teaching, recurrent laryngitis has already caused her to lose her voice on four occasions. During her first year, she missed several months of school, meaning she has only just been able to qualify as a teacher. "As a classically trained singer, I knew I had a very high voice," she explains.
"But I had no idea what would happen when I got in to the classroom. My voice is very light and my classes tend to be quite lively, so I find myself pushing my voice higher to be heard over the noise, which just makes things worse."
By the second term of her teaching practice, Ms Woodfine asked her GP to refer her to a speech therapist and was put on an 18-month waiting list to see a consultant. The consultant confirmed the need for speech therapy, but it could be another 18 months before a therapist is available. "It's frustrating," she says. "As soon as my voice goes, I have to stay at home.
I can't teach without it, which means my students fall behind, which is worrying with exam classes."
In the short term, Ms Woodfine attempts to manage her voice problems using tips she learned in her singing training. When her voice is beginning to waver, she drinks lots of water and avoids sugary foods and dairy products - thought to make thick and sticky phlegm which interferes with the vocal cords.
At the University of Sussex School of Education, all trainees during their induction fortnight are offered two sessions on voice and self-presentation, run by voice specialist Ann Thomas. For trainees who would like further help, there is a series of voluntary drop-in workshops.
"Teachers are very bad at seeing themselves as professional voice-users," says Ms Thomas. "They are often so emotionally involved in the job that they feel they have to push themselves to the limit."
James Williams, PGCE programme convener at Sussex, agrees. He believes voice skills are an essential, but often neglected part of teacher training. "Teaching is about communication, and the voice is the main tool of communication," he says. "Not training teachers about voice skills is like training a surgeon how to do the operation without telling them about the instruments to use. Trainees need to know what the signs of vocal stress are and where and when to seek help and advice, before there is any permanent damage."
How can teachers recognise the signs of vocal stress? According to Ms Comins of the Voice Care Network, a persistent tickly cough, hoarseness, tenderness in the throat or a noticeable change in vocal quality are early warning signs that should not be ignored. To avoid vocal stress, teachers need to learn how to save their voice, making use of non-verbal signals and silence to gain students' attention. Not only does this save the voice, says Ms Thomas, it has more impact. "The message is simple - if there's no voice, there's no job," she says.
To find out more about Voice Care Network, visit www.voicecare.org.uk or call 01926 864 000
Tips from the stars
Doon Mackichan, actress and comedian, says: "I always warm up with yoga to make sure my shoulders and neck aren't tense. The 'lion' position is best for this. Yawning and humming are also good warm-up exercises. If my voice is feeling croaky, I give it a steam for 10 minutes, followed by 10 minutes of silence. I avoid anaesthetic chemical sprays and dairy products when using my voice a lot, as these can potentially wreck the vocal chords. I'd advise any professional voice-user to invest in half a dozen good singing lessons as this helps you learn about the resonance of your particular voice and how to avoid misuse."
DISPENSING SOUND ADVICE
Avoidl Smoking and smoky atmospheres
* Hot, dry air
* Chemical fumes - make sure the classroom is well ventilated
* Extreme and sudden changesin temperature l Hot spicy foods l Very hot drinks
* Milk and dairy products - thick phlegm interferes with the chords
* Eating late at night - this can cause acid reflux. Acid from the stomach rushes back up through the oesophagus and spills over onto the larynx. This irritates the vocal folds and creates inflammation, causing the vocal folds to vibrate unevenly
* Medications, such as antihistamines, that have a drying effect Do
* Keep plants in the classroom, with water around the base to help combat dry air
* Wear a scarf around the neck and mouth when going out into the cold, particularly in the morning
* Rest the voice whenever possible
* Get a good night's sleep