Looking after your voice?


When I started teaching, I thought all you needed to be a good teacher is good presentation skills and a loud commanding voice. Obviously, I believed I had both, and I assumed that was enough as the most effective teachers I came across had both. A teacher’s voice is among his/her most important assets. I learned that the hard way.

I used to constantly raise my voice at the beginning of my teaching career. I raised my voice to get the students’ attention. I raised my voice to tell a student off. I raised my voice to ask them to be quiet. I raised my voice to explain and teach concepts. I went by just raising my voice for a good couple of years. After a full day of raising my voice, I’d feel really tired and exhausted, and the last thing I could do is socialize with friends, as that too requires that I use my voice. It didn’t take long before I started to feel pain while speaking, and I developed very serious voice problems.

I couldn’t be more grateful for these voice problems, as they drove me to seriously revise my classroom management procedures and my classroom engagement techniques. I jumped online and browsed many websites about preserving your teacher voice. I believe they have not just helped my voice heal and become stronger, but they also made me a better teacher.

I will share a few of the tips and tricks I learned:

1- Breathe, breathe, breathe…: sounds like common sense, but in actual fact it isn’t. We tend to breathe shallower shorter breaths when we get anxious, and a noisy classroom can definitely make a teacher more anxious. Practice deep breathing and maybe some meditation techniques when you are free. Pretty soon, these techniques will become internalized and you’ll use them unconsciously. Deep breathing before reacting to a situation will also help you calm down and think clearly.
2- Warm-up your voice: there are plenty of vocal warm-ups that actors and singers use before putting on a show. Your voice is like a muscle, the more warmed up it is before a workout (i.e. teaching), the better it will perform and the lower the chances of straining. Here is an example of a website with good vocal warm-ups.
3- Silence…: sometimes when classes got noisy, I used to try to raise my voice over the students’. But I discovered a simple technique through reading and professional learning: SILENCE! When the students are noisy and not attentive, just stand there silently and use body language that expresses disapproval (I tend to cross my arms). It requires a lot of patience, but I noticed most high-school students catch on and realize that you need them to be quiet so you can resume. Also, try to keep your voice level as low as possible, so that the students have to actually pay attention to be able to hear you.
4- Use a variety of non-verbal signals: there are many examples of these online and in many books written about classroom management. Bring a small bell into class maybe, and ring it three times and wait, then two times and wait, until finally the class is quiet. Some teachers raise their hands up in the air, and everyone is expected to follow until they are all quiet. Some teachers put their hands on top of their heads, then touch their ears, noses and so on until all students start copying and return their attention to the teacher. There is also the infamous ‘noise-o-meter‘ to teach students to self-regulate the noise-level. These are just a few examples I came across. Of course, you will need to teach the students those procedures so they understand what is expected of them.
5- Use short and simple vocal cues to signal class: of course, there is the infamous “Stop… Look… Listen…”. Teachers often use this cue/signal with appropriate gestures, such as pointing at your eyes when saying “look” etc… Another one that I use often, especially when students are working in groups and get very loud, and I need to gather their attention back to me (I found this one in ‘The Effective Teacher’s Guide‘) Raise your hand and count off each finger saying, calmly but assertively:

  1. Stop what you are doing
  2. Mouth is quiet
  3. Look at your teacher
  4. Hands are still
  5. Listen for directions

These signals have the advantage of telling students how to behave or what is expected of them, as opposed to telling them not to do something.
6- Using the whiteboard: I often use the whiteboard to show recognition of positive behavior, or as a gentle reminder of what is expected. If I assign a certain task in class, I write two columns on the board: ‘students who appear to be on-task’ and ‘students who appear to be off-task’. Obviously, students want to get their name up on the former column, rather than the latter. Students who end up on the latter column know that this is their warning, and that consequences will follow if the behavior is not self-corrected. Obviously, this strategy needs to be updated regularly, as some students might end up on the ‘on-task’ list and then slack off. Positive rewards can also be put in place for students who are on-task for the whole lesson, though I do not necessarily like material incentives and prefer rewards like free-time or a choice of a game to play at the start of the next lesson.
7- Get students to teach: whenever I can, I try to ask students to research certain topics or concepts and then teach them to the rest of the class. Additionally, when some students are struggling with a certain concept, while some students have fully grasped it, make use of peer-tutoring and get them to teach the struggling ones.
8- Eat and drink the right stuff: I conducted a short informal survey at the school I work in, and most teachers barely drank any water during the school day! Water is very important for looking after your voice. Additionally, these teachers mostly had coffee or tea to keep them awake during the day. Caffeinated beverages dehydrate the body, coupled with insufficient water intake, and teaching all day, that’s a recipe for a strained voice. My reading has also made me realize that excessive intake of dairy products produces a lot of mucus and contributes to voice problems.

Of course, all of these tips and tricks are ones I learned from my reading, research and personal experience. I hope you find them useful! Please feel free to leave comments, as well as more tips and suggestions!

Additional reading:
Keeping Your Voice Healthy
Voice Care
How to look after your voice

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