How teaching affects your vocal cords and best practices for better vocal health
Your vocal cords are delicate, and the act of speaking can be a great strain on them. They’re comprised of two folds within your larynx, which are located at the top of your windpipe. When you speak or sing, these thin elastic bands come closer together and then further apart. The air that passes through this gap causes friction between the folds, which creates vibrations. These vibrations are what we hear in speech or singing (you can actually feel these vibrations if you place your hands on your throat).
Teaching uses our vocal cords in a way that’s unique to teachers: it requires an excessive amount of talking in an environment where there’s often background noise—like a classroom full of students asking questions and clamoring for attention!
This means that teachers have to use their voices more often than other people do just to get their words heard by everyone. So what does this mean for teachers? It means that you’re much more likely than the average person to suffer from vocal cord problems like hoarseness, throat pain, and loss of voice.
Be healthy always for a better voice
Vocal hygiene is important for a teacher. You should get enough sleep, eat healthy and balanced meals, exercise regularly, practice good oral hygiene, avoid bad habits like smoking or drinking alcohol, and maintain a healthy weight.
However, there are times when your voice may sound different than you want. You may be speaking loudly all day long. Or perhaps you are just feeling under the weather with symptoms of a cold or allergies. In this case, maybe you have developed laryngitis (a red throat caused by inflammation). Maybe your throat feels dry from breathing too dry air (like in an airplane). Maybe you feel it hurts when you talk because the vocal cords are swollen.
Adjust your speaking volume
The first thing you need to do is adjust your speaking volume. We’ve all had the experience of getting yelled at by someone in a position of authority and feeling helpless. Don’t be that person—don’t let your students feel that way.
You don’t need to shout, but it’s important to speak loud enough so everyone can hear you. Be aware of the acoustics in your classroom or auditorium when adjusting your volume, as certain environments will affect how far your voice travels.
If possible, use a microphone to amplify your voice and make sure people can hear you clearly. If you don’t have access to one, ask attendees to raise their hands if they can’t hear you well.
If you’re starting to lose your voice, try speaking more softly until it returns to normal (unless you’re practicing for a performance where shouting would be part of the act). If this happens often and you suspect something more serious is going on, we recommend consulting with a voice expert / medical professional for further advice.
In general, make sure that whatever volume level makes sense for your throat is what comes out of it naturally during teaching sessions.
Humidify the air in your workspace
Humidify the air in your workspace. A humidifier or vaporizer can help, especially during cold weather when heating systems dry out the air.
Dry vocal folds vibrate less efficiently. Your voice may sound raspy, and you might feel like you need to clear your throat constantly. Also, dry air can make you feel thirsty.
Drink enough water when you speak
- Hydration is key
Every voice teacher worth their salt will tell you to drink water. That’s because water keeps your vocal cords hydrated. This is important because when they get dried out they can’t vibrate as easily and you lose flexibility and vibrancy in your voice. But there are a few things to remember regarding proper hydration:
- Don’t go overboard on the water. If you drink too much of it at once, you could end up with water overload that doesn’t actually help your voice at all. Instead of downing an entire jug of water before you head onstage, just make sure to sip regularly throughout the day so that your vocal cords stay well hydrated.
- It goes without saying that coffee, tea, and alcohol are not good for your voice. So stick to drinks of room temperature when possible.
- Avoid iced cold beverages in large amounts. They cause the muscles around your vocal cords to tense up and constrict, which makes it harder for them to work properly and puts extra strain on them when you speak or sing.
- The same goes for drinking directly from bottles of any kind—they put unnecessary strain on the delicate muscles surrounding your throat. When possible use a glass instead of drinking straight out of a bottle—a reusable glass one is best if you want something more environmentally friendly than plastic.
Minimize irritants and bad behaviors on your voice
- Coughing or throat-clearing. Both of these behaviors can rob the voice of its ability to vibrate in its optimal range.
- Yelling and screaming. These are very common vocal bad habits, especially among secondary teachers who are dealing with loads of teenage energy every day. Because loud sounds put extra stress on the vocal cords, it’s best to avoid them when possible. If you do need to talk loudly, take a few minutes to rest your voice between periods in order to give it time to recover.
- Laughing and crying. These behaviors tend to be very natural but they also cause extra strain on the cords which can lead to damage over time if done frequently enough!
- Talking when sick with a cold or sore throat (or any other illness). The most common advice given by teachers themselves is: “Just don’t talk all day when ill” although it may seem not practical in the classroom setting.
Stop smoking or using other tobacco products
You can improve your vocal hygiene by stopping smoking or using other tobacco products. Tobacco use is associated with the development of voice disorders through:
- direct contact between smoke and the airway, which can cause inflammation and irritation leading to the throat and laryngeal cancers
- the chemicals in tobacco can act as irritants
If you are a smoker, stopping smoking can be beneficial to your health in numerous ways. The earlier you quit, the more likely it will be that your vocal folds will return to their normal state. Ask your doctor for information on how to quit smoking.
Write down your symptoms and voice problems
- Write down your symptoms and voice problems.
- Include the time of day when the symptoms occur.
- Include any other information that you think might be relevant to your health care provider.
- What were you doing just before the symptoms started? (e.g., presenting to a small group, lecturing to a large audience, singing)
- How long did it take for the symptoms to develop? (e.g., immediately or gradually over a period of hours)
- Take this information with you when you see your health care provider so that you can provide them with valuable information about the problem that will help determine its cause and how best to treat it
Seek professional help – speech therapy and medical consultation
- Seek professional help. Speech therapy and medical consultation can help you resolve voice concerns that may have stemmed from vocal strain brought about by improper use of your voice.
- Speech therapists. These experts are trained to work with children and adults who have problems related to speech, language, voice, swallowing, and fluency. They’re also equipped to assist clients with feeding and oral motor difficulties.
- Medical practitioners specializing in voice disorders. You might need to visit an otolaryngologist or another specialist on the ear, nose, and throat (ENT) if you’re experiencing a serious case of hoarseness that persists over time or if your symptoms don’t respond well to self-care measures.
- The doctor will perform tests including an endoscopy of your vocal cords as well as other imaging procedures like X-ray or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
Checklist for better vocal hygiene – vocal hygiene training
As a teacher, you have a responsibility to take care of your voice. The good news is that taking care of your vocal cords – called “vocal hygiene” – is easy, effective, and not time-consuming. Make sure you incorporate the following tips into your daily routine at school:
- Be well-rested. You are more likely to injure your voice if you are tired.
- Drink enough water spread throughout the entire day.
- Humidify the air around you.
- Avoid caffeine and alcohol as these can dehydrate you and make it harder for your vocal cords to work properly.
- Avoid excessive throat clearing or coughing.
- Avoid yelling whenever possible.
- Have a healthy well-balanced diet.
- Consult a medical professional if you have a medical problem or worsening symptoms.
It’s important to take care of your voice if you use it for a living.
You can’t go around losing your voice every month or so! So what can you do to maintain vocal health? Just follow all the tips mentioned above to protect your voice.
At the end of the day, being a teacher is all about self-care. If you take steps to ensure that your voice is in tip-top shape, you will be able to deliver lessons with more confidence than ever before.
If a problem does arise, remember not to panic—there are plenty of professionals who can help you troubleshoot and work toward a swift recovery.