A few weeks ago, there was a lot of talk over on EduTwitter about the importance of the voice in teaching. Not the metaphorical one, the literal one; your actual voice box. Having lost the use of my own voice box for 3 years, I probably know the importance of this more than anyone. But I see so many teachers making dangerous choices with their voice, and sometimes I want to scream “no voice, no job”. I mean, I don’t, because screaming is bad for the old voice box, and the small but significant fact that I literally can’t, but internally I definitely am.
My own voice loss was complicated. For various trauma related reasons, I lost the ability to use my vocal chords at all. Although the root cause was a traumatic event in my teens, and I had to work through that, I still also had to learn how to use my voice again. In hindsight, although I could have done without the trauma in the first place, I feel really lucky to have had such expert, professional voice care that I feel teachers just don’t get, but absolutely need. So, if you’re interested in caring for your voice, here’s my top tips for keeping it healthy in a job that places so much demand on it.
1. If your voice is struggling, avoid the following: dairy (produces all kinds of mucusy crap, technical term, in your throat which is likely to compound the issue), spicy foods (even if they feel like they sooth it!), caffeine (I know!), alcohol (I know! But you’ll survive without it). Also, clearing your throat by trying to hack up throat gunk (another technical term) is also going to add further strain. Instead, you’ve got to swallow it down. It’s gross, but it’s literally why stomach acid is thing. All of these irritate the voice further, putting you at risk of more problems.
2. If you have a cold, the worst thing you can do is push through it. Sometimes, I see teachers whispering to counteract this. Big mistake. The actual worst thing you can do. Avoid. Instead, keep it hydrated with warm water.
3. Speaking of colds, cough sweets, throat sprays and cough medicines are the Devil’s work for your voice. They make it worse. If I could destroy something forever, I’d destroy these. They’re dangerous. Just don’t.
4. Your voice needs warm ups just like any other muscle in your body. When I was re learning to use mine, I had to moo like a cow. There are plenty of people who can attest to how good I am at being a cow. But aside from that, mooing or doing a Z hum can help keep your voice healthy.
5. Breathing is vital. That sounds pretty obvious – like, we’d be dead if we weren’t. But it’s about how you breathe. Pre speech therapy, it didn’t occur to me that there was a right way to breathe. There is – and it should be coming from your stomach. If your chest is rising, you’re doing it wrong. Place your hand just above your belly button – that’s where it should rise and fall, not your chest. This is probably the thing I come back to most. I’ll always have a vocal weakness – I can’t shout, and if I have any form of negative emotion, it manifests in my voice box, and I feel the bits in my throat trying to take over. It’s taken me literally years to be able to do public speaking. A combination of nerves, imposter syndrome and my screwed up voice box means it’s significantly harder for me to project and be heard. But stomach breathing is an absolute must for me in being able to do it with relative ease now.
Now, I’m far from a professional speech therapist, and I don’t want anyone to think I’m giving medical advice here. I’m not. I’m just trying to offer some pearls of wisdom on things that I come back to, time and time again, when my voice is struggling. I’m always going to have a vocal weakness – I’ve accepted that. If you’re worried about your voice, get straight to a GP. Get some proper medical advice on it. There’s a plethora of things it could be – I’ve been tested for pretty much all of them! Don’t delay it or just think that it’ll be fine.
When your voice is your job, it pays the bills. Look after it and treat it with care and respect. It’s the most powerful thing you have.