22nd October 2004 at 01:00
Did you know?

* Teachers talk for around 60 per cent of their working day

* One patient in nine at voice clinics is a teacher

* Every year, a small number are forced to leave the profession after suffering permanent damage to their vocal cords

* Those most at risk include primary, PE and modern languages teachers

* Twenty per cent of teachers have had to take time off work because of voice problems compared with a national average of 4 per cent

* A study of 50 NQTs about to start work found that not one of them had a voice of "professional user standard"

* Not surprisingly, half of the sample group lost their voice at some point during their first year in the classroom

The voice is a fundamental tool of the teaching trade. It is used to communicate information, hold attention and keep order. There are few other professions that place such high demands on it, so it is not surprising that many teachers experience problems. For most, that means the occasional sore throat after a particularly hard day in the classroom but, for some, it means serious damage to the vocal cords that can threaten a career.

Learning to use your voice more effectively will help keep it healthy - and could make you a better teacher.

Statistics that speak loud and clear

Two separate surveys of UK voice clinics, both carried out in the past four years, found that at least one in nine patients was a teacher; in Scotland, the figure was one in five. According to Voice Care Network UK, which conducted one of the studies, teachers are eight times more likely to suffer from voice problems than other professions. Other research published in the Journal of Voice in 1998 found that a fifth of all teachers experienced a problem with their voice during the teaching year. Another study reported in the same issue found that the same proportion of teachers, 20 per cent, had taken time off because of voice problems at some point in their career, compared with just 4 per cent of non-teachers.

Finally, doctoral research by Dr Stephanie Martin at Greenwich University in 2003, which involved monitoring the voices of a group of newly qualified teachers during their first three terms in teaching, found that 50 per cent lost their voice at some point during that year.

Tool of the trade

Why are teachers vulnerable? Because some shout a lot, most talk a lot, and all face situations where they have to make themselves heard above background noise. It's estimated that, on average, teachers talk for around 60 per cent of lesson time. Using your voice all day needn't be a problem, as long as you are using it correctly. This is where the problems start.

Whereas actors at drama school will work on their voice every day, a teacher at training college will be lucky to get a morning's lecture on the subject. "Teacher trainers are starting to take voice care more seriously," says Roz Comins, co-ordinator of Voice Care Network (VCN), "but restrictions on time and money mean instruction is still at a minimal level. And teachers who qualified more than a few years ago are unlikely to have had any voice training." In short, many teachers' voices just aren't equipped to cope. Dr Martin's research examined 50 NQTs, before they went out into the classroom. It found that 46 per cent had vocal qualities that gave cause for "some concern", while not one was starting their teaching career with a voice of "professional user quality".

Pitfalls of the profession

Another reason teachers are at risk of damaging their voice is the stress of the job. Any physical tension in the body is likely to have a negative impact. The classic confrontational posture - with the jaw jutting forward - is a trademark of many teachers, and is particularly bad for the voice.

Other problems reported by speech therapists include teachers talking in too low a register to try to sound "authoritative" - and even a primary teacher who talked through a fixed smile all day because she wanted to "seem friendly".

Lesley Hendy, former lecturer in drama and education at Cambridge University and now a freelance voice tutor, insists all teachers need to be careful, but says those most at risk include primary teachers, because the noise above which they need to be heard is usually at a higher pitch than that in other settings, PE teachers, who contend with echoing sports halls and windy playing fields, and, surprisingly, modern languages teachers.

"Our research at Cambridge found that foreign languages tend to have more high-register vowel sounds than English," says Ms Hendy. "It's easy for a non-native speaker to get trapped in this higher register, and that leads to problems."

Breathe easy

The first step to improving your use of your voice is to understand how it works. Speech is produced when breath passes over your vocal cords, causing them to vibrate. The sound is amplified by the resonating cavities in your chest, mouth and head. Then your lips, teeth and tongue shape the sound into recognisable words. It's a natural, instinctive process. So what can go wrong? Well, almost anything. "The whole body is involved in speaking; it's not just the mouth," says Roz Comins. "Problems can come from any combination of factors."

One common failing is poor breathing. "The breath powers the voice," explains Ms Hendy. "Trying to speak without proper breath support is like trying to drive a car without petrol in the tank." Snatching shallow breaths into your mouth or chest is a common side-effect of a hectic lifestyle, but doing this involves the weak muscles around your neck rather than the strong muscles in the abdomen, and this puts pressure on your vocal cords.

Correct breathing, using your diaphragm, takes the pressure off your neck and shoulders, and gives power to the voice. It's important, too, that the air has a clear passage from the lungs to the larynx, which is where good posture is important. A slumped spine, hunched shoulders or a pushed-out neck could all cause tension and block the flow of air. A gentle massage of the neck and shoulders from time to time will help to relax muscles, but the way we breathe and stand are ingrained habits and it may take time and patience to change things.

Don't put up

Serious problems with your voice don't come out of the blue. They're the result of prolonged misuse over weeks, months or years. And your body will provide you with plenty of warning along the way, if only you're prepared to take note. The classic distress signals are hoarseness and sore throats, especially first thing in the morning, or a feeling that the voice is "scratchy" and taking a long time to warm up. Perhaps you notice that your voice is getting stuck in a particular register, with less range than usual. Listen out, too, for any involuntary swoops or squeaks. If you sound like a teenager with a breaking voice, it may be because your voice is breaking in an altogether less happy sense.

But many teachers ignore the warning signs. "Too many assume a sore throat goes with the territory," says Annabel Bosanquet, a speech and language therapist in London. "Teachers tend to worry about letting people down, so they struggle on regardless. That's when you risk serious damage to your voice."

I shut up!

If your voice is hoarse or croaky, by far the best thing to do is to give it a rest. And that means complete rest; whispering may seem a good idea but it's about the worst thing you can do. If you're struggling, take time off. An athlete who pulls a hamstring simply has to be patient, and it's the same for teachers with a sore voice. If you can't bring yourself to stay home, you may find that a class responds charitably if you explain the problem. Set them some work and practise a little amateur sign language. At the very least, try to build some quiet lessons into your timetable, and avoid unnecessary chatter in the staffroom. And when you do find yourself having to speak, ensure that you make an extra effort to talk properly, with good breath support. If a few days' rest doesn't help, or if the problem recurs frequently, visit your GP, who will probably refer you to an ear, nose and throat specialist.

If problems are dealt with early, changing a few habits should be enough to restore your voice to full health. However, prolonged abuse of the vocal cords can lead to "nodules" - growths on the cords - which may require surgery.

Healthy hints

As with looking after other parts of your body, there are general dos and don'ts when it comes to voice care. For example, eating spicy foods late at night can cause a condition known as acid reflux, which damages the vocal cords. And eating too many dairy products can increase the amount of saliva you produce, bad for your voice, and not good either for those at the front of the class. Be careful, too, that you don't make a nervous habit of clearing your throat. This makes the vocal cords clash together and causes wear and tear over time. And just as a sportsman takes time to warm up his muscles before serious action, try to get in the habit of warming up your vocal cords in the morning with some gentle humming or a sing-song in the shower.

Most teachers do much less talking in the holidays, so at the start of a new term, it's important to be extra careful, and try to ease yourself into the swing of things. "And it's not just about what you do in school," says Lesley Hendy."If at the end of the day you go to a smoky pub, drink lots of alcohol and talk above loud music all night, your voice won't be in good shape the next day." Finally, remember that being in good general health will strengthen your voice. Being unfit and often out of breath will affect your voice, as will any viral throat infections you pick up.

Acoustics and aspidistras

Voice problems sometimes have their roots in the room where you teach.

First, there's the question of acoustics. A cavernous, echoing classroom is likely to have you pushing your voice. There may be nothing you can do, but think about how you organise the room. Is it possible, for example, to set the desks up in such a way as to bring your audience closer? Central heating is another potential source of problems. The voice works best in a moist, well-ventilated room, but many modern classrooms are hot, dry and stuffy. Most people are more sensitive to temperature than moisture; we know if a room is too hot or too cold, but can't always tell if it's too dry. But it's possible to buy gadgets that measure moisture and it may be worth persuading your school to invest in one. A good way of increasing moisture in a room is to have a few leafy plants dotted around. Opening a window will also help beat dehydration, as will having a glass of water to hand. Keeping the voice well watered is important; and most experts recommend drinking a couple of litres a day. Water at room temperature is best, and regular sipping is better than downing a large glass twice a day.

Be aware that caffeine has a dehydrating effect, so too many cups of coffee won't do your voice any favours.

Speaking up for yourself

Voice care is an important health and safety issue. Every year a small number of teachers are forced out of the profession because of permanent damage to their voice. The teaching unions claim voice problems are a "foreseeable risk" and that employers have a duty to take "reasonable care". So if, for example, you find yourself teaching in a classroom next to the school canteen and constantly having to make yourself heard above the noise, don't be afraid to raise your concerns. "Teachers shouldn't be too reticent," says David Brierley, solicitor for the Professional Association of Teachers. "It's easy to think that problems with your voice must be connected to your own failings, but that's often not the case. It's in a school's interest to take the issue seriously because, if teachers can't talk, they can't work."

In February 2002, a report published by the General Teaching Council for Scotland, Voice and the Teaching Profession, recommended that schools make more use of voice specialists to deliver in-service training days and advice to individuals.

But the Voice Care Network warns that many UK schools are still unwilling to allocate sufficient time or money to voice training. "The VCN was established to help teachers, and we're still committed to helping teachers," says Roz Comins. "But more and more we find ourselves working with private companies, such as call centres, because they are the ones prepared to invest the appropriate resources."

Schools that do take the plunge are rarely disappointed. King Henry VIII school in Coventry, for example, booked a day's workshop for all its staff, and followed up with another day for those who wanted it. "The initial idea came from the staff," says director of studies Roger Howes," and everyone got a lot out of it. But I can see that this is probably the sort of thing we need to have every year or so, not just as a one-off."

Turning the volume up. And down. And up again Keeping your voice in good working order is only the first step to making best use of it. Teachers want to be listened to, and having an interesting voice is almost as important as having interesting things to say. The way you use your voice will affect everything from how classes behave to how much they remember of what you tell them.

Some teachers fall into the trap of sounding like a caricature of a teacher, adopting the safe, dull voice of authority figure. Others believe talking loudly is the key to holding attention, when, in fact, children switch off if they feel they are being "talked at" rather than "talked to".

"When I go into schools to take workshops, the most common thing teachers say is, 'I want to be able to shout'," says Lesley Hendy. "But the real skill of vocal delivery is modulating pause, pace, pitch and power, and you can do that only if you have control of the basics, such as breathing and posture."

In any case, a relaxed, well-produced voice will automatically have more "colour" than one that is pushed or strained. And while it is quite possible to learn to "project" or "enlarge" the voice, it's also true that clear articulation is sometimes more important than volume when it comes to being heard clearly and easily.

Finding your voice

Discovering the full potential of your voice can be a lifetime's journey.

But even a few simple vocal exercises every day can soon bring about noticeable improvements. There are a growing number of voice books on the market, though most experts insist there's no substitute for personal instruction - at least to get you started.

And if you're enjoying your teaching, you're less likely to experience problems. A relaxed, confident teacher often has a healthy voice, and a strong, healthy voice will add to a sense of happiness and wellbeing. "You can't divide up the mind and the body," says Annabel Bosanquet. "The voice will reflect how someone is feeling. There's nothing more distressing and tiring than having to work for a prolonged period with your voice not functioning correctly."

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