“I am a teacher and use my voice all the time. How can I look after my voice?”
Voice Care Tips for Teachers
(And everyone who uses their voice!)
It is vital that teachers look after their voices properly. A voice problem can have significant repercussions for teachers, both in their professional and personal lives. Voice difficulties can cause sick leave, speech and language therapy management, and surgical intervention, which can prove costly (Mattiske et al 1998). Severe voice problems can also result in a teacher permanently leaving the profession (Mattiske et al 1998). Here are some tips that teachers can incorporate into their daily working life to prevent voice problems.
Teachers and other professionals who use their voice on a regular basis and for prolonged periods are at a higher risk of voice problems at some point in their career. Voice problems can be because the person uses their voice a lot, and also because of poor voice care.
Speech and language therapists help adults with voice problems and can recommend ways to take care of your voice. You can avoid long term damage to your voice by following recommendations in voice care, and by attending a speech and language therapist when your voice problems persist.
You should contact your GP for a referral to an Ear Nose and Throat Specialist (ENT) and Speech and Language Therapist, if you experience prolonged and recurring hoarseness in the absence of a cold or throat infection and a persistent change in the pitch or quality of your voice.
Vocal problems can be caused by the following:
- Stress: Stress can result in increased muscle tension in the shoulders and the neck. This in turn has a negative effect on the voice quality.
- Irritation: Smoking irritates the vocal cords. As the smoke is inhaled, the particles stick to the vocal cords and dry them out and cause irritation.
- Dehydration: Substances such as caffeine, alcohol and some medications can dry out your throat.
- Throat clearing and coughing: We do this when there is a foreign substance in our throat; however when we cough or throat clear we are hitting out vocal cords off each other which can cause damage if done regularly.
It is important for professional voice users to:
Before teaching, stretch and relax your facial muscles to release tension from your face and jaw. Try humming, yawning or singing up and down on a scale in the mornings as a warm-up exercise (Stemple 2006). Exercise mindfulness while doing these activities. Mindfulness is the intentional, accepting and non-judgemental focus of one’s attention on the emotions, thoughts and sensations occurring in the present moment (Zgierska et al2009). Think consciously about releasing the tension from the head and neck.
2. Breathe through their stomach or diaphragm:
Shallow upper chest breathing can damage the voice. You may need to practice slower centered breathing using the diaphragm. Feel your rib cage move in and out as you breathe. Again, try think mindfully about the tension you are releasing while breathing in this way.
Breathing is part of the relaxation process. Most of us do not use our full lung capacity – we tend to shallow breathe and just use the top part of our lungs. More effective breathing should be slow and smooth, involving in and out movements of your stomach and not just chest (diaphragmatic breathing).
As you become more relaxed, breathing becomes slower and therefore the body does not need to work as hard and you can feel more rested. Try to develop slow and even breathing and concentrate on breathing out until your lungs are empty and then take a slow steady breath in until your lungs are full. Breathing deeply also helps you to project your voice more effectively.
When your lungs are not full, you push out the words with a small amount of air.
3. Be mindful of their posture:
Teachers should be aware of their posture when speaking and consider how their posture and muscular tension affects their voice. When sitting, sit square on the chair and try not to hunch over. When standing, keep both feet firmly to the ground and stand tall and straight.
4. Get their students attention in different ways:
Where possible, teachers should try not to pitch outside their comfortable range or shout to get the attention of their students. Instead, try using agreed signals using sound, visual and vocal signals (e.g. banging on the table, clapping.) When on yard duty, use a whistle.
5. Cut down on throat clearing:
Instead of throat clearing or coughing, try to sip some water or swallow hard.
6. Give their voice a rest:
Alternate the type of teaching activities you use to allow your voice some rest. Make use of pauses and silences to emphasize their meaning.
Rest your voice at regular intervals during the day.
Try and plan your day if possible so that you are alternating between speaking and quiet activities.
Whispering can strain your voice, try to use a quiet voice instead.
7. Be aware of their working environment:
Teachers need to be aware of acoustics, space and classroom layout and how these can affect their voice (Irish National Teachers’ Organisation 2015). It is essential that teachers should examine how they group their class for various activities. Be aware of background noise in your classroom (e.g. projectors).
Don’t spend a lot of time in dry, dusty or hot classrooms, if at all possible.
Avoid newly painted rooms, air conditioned or heated rooms. Ensure classrooms are well ventilated. Many art rooms will include clay and solvent based glues, which can affect air quality (INTO 2015). If you have to spend time in dry or hot environments or if the weather is particularly hot, try and drink more water. Consider buying a humidifier. Open windows and air out rooms. Sometimes putting a bowl of water on top of a radiator can moisten the air and make it less dry (Irish Association of Speech and Language Therapists 2012). Houseplants can also help.
If possible, walk around the classroom when talking at length, so you are closer to the children further away from the whiteboard. This habit will allow you not to constantly need to project your voice, especially if there is background noise.
8. Keep hydrated:
To keep the vocal cords moist from the inside, make sure that you drink plenty of water. Most research recommends 6 to 8 glasses of water a day. It is also possible to keep yourself hydrated externally. Inhaling or breathing steam helps the voice box stay moist and can be very soothing to irritated vocal cords.
Other tips for maintaining hydration:
Always keep bottles of water handy and sip throughout the day. Try keeping one or two in the car, and one or two in the classroom.
Set yourself and your students goals. Aim to drink together at certain times of the day.
Run hot water into a sink or basin and inhale the steam. You can also boil water, pour it into a sink, and breathe the steam (important to take care with hot water).
Run a washcloth under hot water, wring it out, and hold it over your mouth and nose, and breathe in.
Avoid consuming excessive amounts of caffeine. Coffee, tea, and most soft drinks contain caffeine. Caffeine is often considered a dehydrating agent with detrimental effects on the quality of voice of persons ingesting it (Akhtar et al 2011). This has led many healthcare professionals to give advice against the use of caffeine. Many SLTs would recommend to limit these drinks to one drink a day or to avoid them altogether, although the research behind this is controversial and inconclusive. According to Maughan and Griffin (2003):
- Large doses of caffeine (above 250 mg) have an acute diuretic or dehydrating action.
- Single caffeine doses at the levels found in commonly consumed beverages have little or no diuretic action
- Regular caffeine users become habituated to the effects of caffeine, diminishing its actions.
Some research also claims that the dehydrating effect even varies across time in the same person (Akhtar et al 1999).
9) Warm up your voice
Just like we warm up our muscles before playing sport, we need to gently stretch the muscles that we use to create voice before talking for long periods of time.
Try sliding your voice up and down a scale using a sound such as “mmmm”. Gentle humming and yawning with voice are also useful for warming up your voice.
Monitor medication effects on your voice & some medications such as antihistamines and inhalers tend to dry vocal tissue. Rinsing the mouth with water after using an inhaler can help.We do not recommend that you alter the medication that you are on unless it is in consultation with your doctor.
- Ease dry throat – gargle with salt water (1 teaspoon salt to 250mls lukewarm water).
- Breathe through your nose and avoid mouth breathing.
- Avoid mouthwashes that are alcohol based.
- Avoid throat lozenges containing menthol and glycerine.
- Avoid smoking and excessive use of alcohol & tobacco and alcohol are harsh irritants and they cause dehydration, redness and swelling of the vocal cords. A combination of smoking and alcohol greatly increases the risk of vocal distress. Try to avoid second hand smoke. Everything you inhale passes your vocal cords.
When to Seek Professional Advice (INTO 2015):
Seek medical advice if you experience any of the following:
- Regular and/or unexplained voice loss.
- A change in voice quality (e.g. hoarseness or croakiness) for more than 10 days.
- A weak or tired sounding voice.
- A voice and/or throat that feels consistently painful or sore or as if there is a lump in the throat.
- Frequent throat clearing.
- Loss of vocal power or ability to project your voice.
If the problem persists, you should make an appointment with your GP and discuss whether referral to an Ear Neck and Throat (ENT) consultant or laryngologist would be appropriate.
An ENT will most likely assess the problem by passing a scope inside their throat to determine what has gone wrong (IASLT 2012). Following the consultation with the ENT, a referral to a Speech and Language Therapist may be deemed appropriate
Useful Resources Include:
- ‘More Care for your Voice’: Available from Voice Care Network UK.
- Learning to look after your voice involves keeping a lot of new habits! A great new book for developing new habits: ‘Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives’, written by Gretchen Rubin.
- INTO information on Voice care for teachers: http://www.into.ie/NI/Teachers/TeacherHealth/VoiceCare/
- ASTI voice care: http://www.asti.ie/payand-conditions/conditions-of-work/healthand-safety/voice-care/
Akhtar, S., Wood, G., Rubin, J.S., O’Flynn, P.E. and Ratcliffe, P. (1999) ‘Effect of caffeine on the vocal folds: a pilot study,’ The Journal of Laryngology & Otology, 113, pp. 341-345.
Irish Association of Speech and Language Therapists (IASLT). (2012) Information and Expert Advice on Voice Disorders. Available at: http://www.iaslt.ie/newFront/Documents/PublicInformation/Voice/Voice-Disorders-Expert-Advice-Information-Document.pdf [Accessed 5 June 2015].
Irish National Teachers’ Organisation. (2015) Voice Care, Available at: http://www.into.ie/NI/Teachers/TeacherHealthandWellbeing/VoiceCare/ [Accessed 5 June 2015].
Mattiske, J. A., Oates, J. M. and Greenwood, K. M. (1998) ‘Vocal problems among teachers: a review of prevalence, causes, prevention, and treatment’, Journal of Voice, 12(4), pp. 489-499.
Maughan, R. J. and Griffin, J. (2003) ‘Caffeine ingestion and fluid balance: a review’, Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics, 16(6), pp. 411-420.
Stemple, J. (2006) Voice therapy: Clinical studies. Clifton Park, NJ: Delmar Learning.
Zgierska, A., Rabago, D., Chawla, N., Kushner, K., Koehler, R. and Marlatt, A. (2009) ‘Mindfulness meditation for substance use disorders: a systematic review,’ Substance Abuse, 30 (4), pp. 266&94.
If you have any questions about any of the above, please don’t hesitate to contact us.
Voice Care Checklist
If you answer Yes to any of the following, contact you GP to discuss if you need to see an ENT. Following a consultation with the ENT, you can contact us if the feel it is appropriate.