Teachers: an at-risk group
Voice care is an issue of major concern to teachers and trainee teachers. The nature of the job, coupled with a frequent lack of voice training, means that teachers are at considerably greater risk than most other groups of employees of experiencing vocal problems at some point in their careers. Statistics from Voice Care UK have shown that teachers are eight times more likely to suffer from voice-related health conditions than other professions. Newly-qualified teachers are at even greater risk, with 50 per cent of NQTs suffering voice loss during their first year in teaching, according to a study carried out by Greenwich University.
A 2008 survey undertaken by the Royal National Institute for the Deaf found that:
- teachers in around 60 per cent of schools complain of vocal problems
- a third of head teachers report that it has caused teachers to have taken time off
- the cost to schools is calculated at around £15 million a year.
Causes of voice problems
Voice is a key resource for teachers. Common contributory factors to the development of voice problems include ineffective projection and breathing techniques, exacerbated by speaking for long periods when tired or stressed, and vocal strain from supervising large groups, sometimes in teaching areas with poor acoustics and/or against loud background noise.
Recognising the signs
Most teachers accept that they will from time to time experience hoarseness or discomfort from upper respiratory infections such as colds and flu.
Teachers should be alert to the signs of vocal difficulties. These may occur at any time and may be due to overuse of the voice, or to infection or illness. As a first step, teachers who experience any of the following symptoms should consult their GP:
- regular and/or unexplained voice loss
- a change in voice quality (eg hoarseness or croakiness) for more than ten days
- a weak and tired sounding voice
- a voice and/or throat that feels consistently painful or as if there is a lump in the throat
- frequent throat clearing
- loss of vocal power or ability to project.
Doctors will usually consider any underlying infection, illness or allergic response and prescribe treatment accordingly. Prolonged and recurring hoarseness in the absence of a cold or throat infection and a persistent change in pitch or quality of voice should, however, be investigated. Where teachers and trainee teachers experience such problems, it is sensible for them to see their GP and ask about specialist help, where appropriate, from a speech and language therapist and/or ear, nose and throat (ENT) consultant.
Advice and assistance should also be made available by employers through the occupational health service. Steps which employers might take to assist could include a voice therapy and also, for example, the provision of voice amplification equipment in appropriate circumstances.
Checklist for using the voice
Here are some points to consider about the way teachers use their voices, possible problems and the way in which their working environment may contribute to these.
Voice and speech patterns
It is important for teachers to:
- warm up their voice at the start of the day
- focus their thoughts and make good use of key words
- consider the effect their voice needs to have on the listener and aim for flexibility to reflect the changing moods they wish to convey
- make use of pauses and silences to emphasise their meaning
- be aware of the symptoms of vocal fatigue and consult their doctor accordingly.
Teachers may find it helpful to:
- practise relaxation techniques to ease whole body tension
- before lessons, stretch and relax their facial muscles to release tension from their face and jaw
- take time to relax and let their voice recover after prolonged speaking, use ‘cooling down’ exercises, and have a warm drink.
Teachers should be aware of their posture when speaking and consider how their postural alignment and degree of muscular tension affect the tone and resonance of their voice. Standing tall will improve breath support.
Shallow ‘upper chest breathing’ can affect the tone and resonance of the voice. Teachers may find it useful to practice slower ‘centred breathing’ using the diaphragm, which will help their vocal quality and also release tension and recharge energy.
It is a useful exercise for teachers to seek to find their optimum or natural pitch by making a sound of agreement in their most relaxed state (‘hm, hm’). The second sound is most likely to be very close to their optimum pitch. Practising speaking flexibly on and around this level can be helpful.
Although this may be hard to achieve, teachers should try not to pitch outside their comfortable range or shout to get attention. Instead, they should try using agreed signals and develop ‘getting attention’ routines using sound, visual and vocal signals.
Self-help for vocal fatigue
It is important to drink water frequently. Drinking six or eight glasses a day will help to keep the larynx moist, especially in hot dry atmospheres. Keeping a glass of water to hand during lessons will help as will a reduction in caffeine intake.
For a mild sore throat, sucking fruit pastilles can help. Strong throat sprays, lozenges etc, which dry the larynx, should be avoided. It is important to rest the voice as much as possible and avoid whispering, as it is stressful for the larynx. Breathing steam rising from hot – but not boiling – water can also be of benefit.
Working environment (acoustics, layout and air quality)
Teachers need to be aware of acoustics, space and classroom layout, and how these can impact upon their voice. They should consider how best to group their class for the task they are undertaking with regard to the acoustics and layout of the room.
Wood, stone, ceramics, pottery, brick, metal and glass all reflect sound, while some large spaces produce echoes. Teachers should aim to speak more slowly with clear pronunciation rather than increasing the volume in such surroundings.
A heavily furnished room with low ceilings and containing many people will absorb sound, meaning that voices have to work much harder, so teachers will need to maintain good posture and articulate words using the front of the mouth.
Dust and fumes or dry atmospheres can affect the voice as well. Poor standards of cleaning, particularly in areas such as art or D&T rooms where particular materials such as clay, solvent-based glues etc are used, can affect air quality. Rooms need to be well ventilated. Humidity can be increased by introducing a few houseplants or by placing bowls of water near radiators.
For more information, please download the full ‘Voice care’ guidance