Personal impact for teaching professionals in independent schools is a powerful tool.
In these times of over zealous Health and Safety legislation, it is surprising that the vocal health of teachers isn’t taken that seriously. Yet vocal damage or strain is an occupational hazard for teaching staff: for some it is permanent damage; for colleagues it could mean covering for a sick colleague and for senior management dealing with the operational nightmare of having an employee who is regularly ill.
Vocal skills – and body language, are not covered in depth within teaching training courses: young teachers I have spoken to were given a 1 hour lecture with 350 students in it! Yet using the voice and body language in a positive, effective way, is a powerful tool for classroom management and communicating with pupils, but also for developing relationships with parents. Making an impact with one’s voice or physical presence is a valuable way of creating an upbeat, effective learning environment in the classroom. Through good posture, use of the voice and body language teachers are creating positive role models for pupils by speaking, engaging and listening to conversations.
The voice can be used like an instrument: varying the speed of speech; varying the pitch and volume as well as having good diction make it easier for students to listen to a teacher. Varying teaching activities; for example listening to student conversations and not constantly speaking is a good way to maintain vocal stamina and avoid vocal tiredness or strain. A teacher that is able to project his voice rather than constantly shout: and potentially strain the voice, is going to be more engaging to a young person, than one that students subconsciously switch off to.
In addition to the voice, having an awareness of body language or non-verbal communication, is useful in teaching students to listen and to be part of a conversation. Good open yet relaxed posture helps develop a rapport between a teacher and pupils. By keeping shoulders down; relaxing the neck and jaw; being aware of the tension in one’s face all contribute to creating a two way communication flow between the teacher and students. When one’s posture is relaxed, the voice becomes freer; it is easier to speak and more interesting for students to listen to. But if one’s posture is ‘closed’ (shoulders are up, neck is strained, jaw tense and closed upper chest), the voice is constrained and the non-verbal messages being sent to pupils are negative. (Why should they want to listen to a teacher that stands like that?)
Occasionally individuals do strain their voices, even if they have taken care of their voices. They might raise their voice on one occasion and strain the vocal folds; or they continue teaching when they have a throat infection, which in time leads to the voice being strained. Of course, not speaking is the best treatment for vocal strain, but this is not always practical – even if it is a serious vocal strain, and many teachers are reluctant to take time off.
My advice would always take a day off to rest the voice. If the symptoms continue to persist, see a GP or Pharmacist who will subscribe a drug. If the symptoms continue to persist, I would recommend asking the GP to refer you to a specialist or speech therapist. There could be a vocal damage or the way the voice being used is causing the damage.
Here are my top tips to using the voice effectively in the classroom.
- Drink plenty of water. (Tea and coffee is also permissible, but mainly water please).
- Pace yourself; see if you can vary the volume of your speaking and get the students to speak too.
- Only raise your voice if it is absolutely necessary.
- Be very careful if you have a cold or sore throat; plan your lessons around this; possibly getting pupils to do more speaking.
- Don’t smoke!
- Challenge yourself to speak more quietly but to project your voice from your abdomen.
- Listen carefully to your pupils; use eye contact to engage them and face the person to show you are listening to them.
- Breathe deeply from your abdomen making sure your shoulders are down and your upper chest area is open.
- Learn to project your voice in a healthy effective way; placing your voice correctly and supporting the breath with your abdominal muscles.
- When you speak ‘smile’ with your eyes; this lifts the voice making it easier to project.
- Be aware of your posture; shoulders down and back; neck and jaw relaxed.
- Face your pupils when you speak to them, and listen to them.