How to Save Your Voice: Vocal Hygiene for Teachers
Originally published in TEACH Magazine, July/August 2016 Issue
By Martha Beach
You’ve probably experienced some bouts of hoarseness, whether you’ve corralled a group of students on a field trip or experienced a scratchy throat during cold season. But imagine pushing your voice so much that you lose it entirely: you can’t quickly ask students to turn to page 34, you’re unable to sufficiently get their attention in a noisy room, and it’s pretty much impossible to explain any topic at length.
As an educator, “taking care of your voice is everything,” says Jane Schultz-Janzen, a music teacher in Kitchener-Waterloo, ON. “If you lose your voice, you lose your ability to teach.” Thankfully, there are plenty of steps you can take to help keep your voice healthy and prevent damage and voice loss.
“When we see teachers, we give them as much education as we can in vocal hygiene,” says Carla Di Gironimo, director of speech-language pathology and standards at Speech-Language and Audiology Canada in Ottawa. She also worked as a clinician for 20 years in Montreal.
Teachers fall into the category of professional voice users. “They have a lot of voice use, but more specifically poor voice use,” Di Gironimo says. “Sometimes it’s just a lack of knowledge about how to properly use your voice.” Over use or misuse can lead to phono trauma, she explains. Trauma can present in the very common form of basic vocal fatigue or swelling of vocal cords.
Di Gironimo has seen many teachers with basic problems of that nature. If left unchecked, simple trauma can escalate to something more serious like vocal nodules (growths that form on the cords, common with singers, but also in teachers), polyps (blister-like legions), or contact ulcers (caused by the cords hitting together, like an ill-fitting shoe rubbing over and over).
Such serious problems seem rare, but can happen. In May 2006, Janzen was speaking to her class after a choir competition. “I started to announce and my voice just stopped,” she says. She tried to continue but couldn’t even whisper. “My thoughts were absolute panic: What about my job? Have I lost my voice forever?” she remembers wondering. “I had totally lost control. I lost my life overnight.”
Janzen’s extreme experience started as a commonplace flu in May 2005 and, left unchecked, escalated to the terrible climax of complete voice loss. Janzen pushed herself to go back to work even though her voice felt weakened. It got lower, huskier, breathy, and more difficult to project. (“A baritone or low tenor range,” specifies the music teacher.) Despite several trips to the doctor, it continued to deteriorate over the next few months.
“I found I was repeating myself and I didn’t have the same control in the room,” Janzen recalls. “I’d be physically exhausted by Thursday. Total body exhaustion and a lot of tightness in my neck.” She took to showing movies on Friday or taking the day off to rest and recuperate.
Resting the voice during evenings and weekends is important, and even during recess and lunch if possible, suggests Di Gironimo. You can also ask students to play games (educational ones of course!) or do group work to avoid too much talking.
But adequate rest is just one part of vocal hygiene. Good hydration is another biggie: drink lots of water, but also use a humidifier if a classroom is dry. Always do your best to be face-to-face with the person you’re addressing. Cross the classroom instead of talking over the students, walk across the soccer field to give game advice, or ask students to come up to your desk to chat away from the noisy group.
And a tricky, but essential part of vocal hygiene is reducing background noise. “I know that’s hard in a classroom, but maybe use a tool to get attention without your voice,” Di Gironimo suggests. Try clapping, using a bell, or flicking the lights. “Then once you have everyone’s attention, you can speak at a normal level.”
After you have those other aspects of vocal hygiene working together, you should focus on breathing. “If you aren’t breathing, you tense up,” Di Gironimo explains, thus straining the vocal cords which need to be relaxed in order to create sound. So, slow down your words to improve breath flow and reduce strain on the vocal cords.
There is also a list of things not to do: do not clear your throat (harsh forced breath to clear phlegm) since this causes the cords to clack together and can further damage them. No yelling, cheering, or screaming either. “Especially for Phys Ed. teachers this is important,” says Di Gironimo. Voice problems are also common amongst music, kindergarten, tech, and language teachers.
“Get a megaphone or some sort of amplification,” Di Gironimo suggests. On the other end, you don’t want to whisper for prolonged periods of time either. “Just as speaking too loudly is a strain, so is whispering. You have to find something in the middle.”
Without good vocal hygiene, strain, fatigue, and damage are very real possibilities for educators and it will impact more than teaching. Janzen lost the ability to communicate easily with her young son and her friends. She is, by her admission, a chatty and very social person. “I’m usually the first one to host a party! But that was down the tube. I learned to sit and listen but it was lonely,” Janzen recalls. “It was really impacting my whole life. I wouldn’t even commit to anything on the weekend like church choir on Sunday.”
In retrospect, Janzen recognized there were warning signs of vocal strain. If you are experiencing vocal fatigue (a tired or weak voice, a husky quality), if you have difficulty changing your vocal range and getting to a higher or lower register, if you are experiencing tightness in the neck and throat, or if your voice has a breathy quality, you may have some vocal strain and potential damage.
If you have concerns about your voice, it’s best to speak to your doctor who may refer to you an ear, nose, and throat specialist. Often, the ENT can perform a scope that looks at your vocal folds. From there, they can diagnose and potentially send you to a speech-language pathologist.
“They provide counselling, direct therapy, or exercises,” Di Gironimo explains. Information helps you practice vocal hygiene in the future. Exercises help relax muscles and reduce strain. “If you have a lot of tension on the vocal area, it can be painful,” she says. “It’s just like using your legs every day, except it’s small muscles in the throat and neck.” So you need to stretch, rest, rehydrate. “We stretch before we exercise, but we don’t think to stretch our vocal cords.”
As a result of complete voice loss, Janzen finally saw a specialist. She found out she had been struggling with polyps that formed from the strain of using her weakened voice after her bout of the flu. Over time, a simple weakness escalated into a terrible situation. The polyp ruptured and she lost the ability to make any sounds. Janzen’s extreme case required surgery and therapy.
She focused on her rehabilitation exercises and made nearly a full recovery. But her vocal habits are very different now. She rests her voice often during lunch, recess, evenings, and weekends. She is very conscious of how long and how often she talks to her students. She uses a personal portable amplifier while she is teaching and she does exercises to help relax muscles and practice proper breathing.
Speech comes so naturally that we give it little thought. So practicing vocal hygiene may be a total change in routine, habit, and lifestyle. “It’s hard to do, to change all of this,” concedes Di Gironimo. “You want to change your habits so you can continue teaching because you can permanently damage your vocal cords if you don’t deal with an issue early on.”
Both Di Gironimo and Janzen mention the need for proper vocal hygiene instruction in teacher’s college, maybe a half credit or a workshop. “Even just a three-hour lecture would be enough,” Di Gironimo notes.
If you’ve already got some bad habits, poor vocal hygiene, or even some damage, not all hope is lost. “It’s never too late,” according to Di Gironimo. “Having the knowledge and making a change is always worthwhile.” Start hydrating, resting, breathing, and speaking quietly today to help your voice tomorrow.
Martha Beach is a graduate of Ryerson University’s journalism program. Currently, she is a freelance writer and factchecker in Toronto.