I can’t count the number of times I lost my voice as a classroom teacher. Sometimes it was due to viruses and colds (I got strep throat a million times during my first few years of teaching), but mostly, it was due to talking all. day. long. The only thing that helped was sipping constantly on water, but I still found myself with a sort throat on an almost daily basis. And even now, I know that a day of doing professional development is almost certainly going to mean a dry and irritated throat.
Voice Yourself in the Classroom is a book that I wish I’d read years ago. Author Valerie Bastien is a school teacher, singer, and vocal coach who is passionate about helping teachers project their voices and maintain their speaking voices. I’ve invited her to the blog to share some helpful info with us.
Valerie, there are so many areas of professional development for teachers to focus on. Why should they learn more about the voice?
Thanks so much, Angela, for your interest in teaching and the speaking voice! That is an excellent question. On average, teachers do approximately 2 hours of voicing for 8 hours of work. Vocal health plays an extremely important role in the way we approach our work. Sometimes we struggle to be heard over the class and raise our voice unnecessary resulting in vocal fatigue. The classroom environment is also particularly vulnerable to the cold and flu virus. This can in turn affect our mental health and overall wellbeing. The teacher’s vocal tone is detrimental in his/her ability to communicate effectively during teaching or while resolving student conflicts. A beautiful voice helps creating a positive learning setting for students to maximize their academic potential.
How does your passion for the voice fit in with your teaching philosophy?
I’m a musician at heart and an educator by choice! I’ve always loved singing and studying music as thought me a lot about myself, perseverance, discipline, overcoming fears, stress management, organization, social skills, imagination and setting goals. Many of the skills I have learned as a singer are transferable to learning in general. We are all talented in our own unique ways. Hard work and determination is the key to success! I love the science of vocal production and sharing my knowledge with other teachers and students inspires me and brings me joy. I feel blessed to teach elementary school during the day and vocals evenings and weekends. I get the best of both worlds
What kind of voice should teachers strive to have in the classroom?
A voice that is kind, positive and assertive when required. I teach how to find one’s natural dynamic voice. It generally sits in the middle of one’s range (on a pitch that is not too high and not too low), it is clear (without breathyness or rasp) and pleasant to the ear. It projects effortlessly at an appropriate volume. It feels relaxed and comfortable.
What happens when teachers raise or strain their voices too often?
Persistent vocal misuse can result in laryngitis, nodules, polyps, contact ulcers, etc… I think that suffering from vocal fatigue is also exhausting mentally and greatly affects one’s moods, self-esteem, confidence and therefore the ability to perform at our best. In the long term, vocal strain can change the way one sounds during speech and negatively influence how he or she is perceived by the audience.
Sometimes it feels like the only way to get students’ attention is to raise our voices above the level of noise in the classroom. What should we do in those situations?
Classroom management will increase a teacher’s ability to practice positive vocal habits. A strategy that has been very useful in my classroom is to practice the Silence Diet. It is very important to wait until the entire class is completely silent before addressing students. Try to use clapping or other non-vocal cues to alert your class to stop talking now. To maintain silence in my classroom, we practice what it looks and feels like to be quiet and respectful. I refer to it as the Silence Diet. We take a few minutes every day to sit properly at our desk or on the carpet to practice stilling the body. I set my timer at 1 minute and pause it every time someone moves. By doing this, students learn self-control and how to focus their energy on themselves. It’s amazing to see how it helps students settle down after a fun activity or coming back from recess. When I teach or during student presentations, everybody follows the Silence Diet without the need of setting a timer of course. The classroom is peaceful. It’s fantastic!
What about the times when it’s absolutely necessary to yell? Are there safer ways to project our voices?
Yes, definitely. First, it is important to take a big enough breath to power the voice. Then engage the diaphragm to support the voice and send it to its natural resonators: the chest and head. As stated earlier, the natural dynamic speaking voice is generally in someone’s middle range, not too high or low. My advice is to make a list of the top 10 sentences you use in your classroom and practice them over and over. Pay special attention to your posture, slowing down your speech and enunciating in order to free your vocal instrument of tensions. Never try to push your voice. If you feel a slight irritation after raising your voice, stop, breathe and realign yourself.
Often teachers lose their voices after picking up cold and flu viruses at school. What are some ways we can protect ourselves and stay healthy?
Washing hands with hot water and soap and keeping them off the face remains the most effective way to prevent getting sick. To reinforce your immune system, I recommend a low alkaline diet which means avoiding sweets and caffeine mostly. Eating lots of green vegetables and fresh homemade meals also contribute to keeping the body’s acidity level low.
It’s pretty common knowledge that smoke, alcohol, and caffeine are bad for our voices, and drinking water is good for them. Are there any tips for taking care of our voices that we might not know about?
As you mentioned, keeping oneself hydrated is ideal. Drinking five to six bottles of water is the recommended daily amount. Gargling water will also hydrate vocal cords very quickly. Sleeping with a humidifier is helpful to some people as well. One of the best advice I have ever heard is: if you “feel” your voice, you’re doing something wrong. Being able to recognize when irritation happens is the first step to correcting bad habits. As soon as discomfort occurs in the throat, take a break to breathe and realign yourself.
Where can teachers find exercises to help them strengthen and project their voices, or warm up their voices before starting the day?
In order to instill correct vocal habits, it is important to practice diaphragmatic breathing, how to engage your support, vocal placement and enunciation consistently. A suggestion would be to plan between 10 to 20 minutes daily to warm-up the voice before class in the morning or during lunch time. My book Voice Yourself in the Classroom gathers multiple vocal exercises to help teachers develop their natural dynamic speaking voice independently. I have also included lesson plans to integrate learning about vocal technique in the classroom. This can be done as part of a music or drama class, oral language or for personal development purposes. You can find out more about classroom management ideas such as the Silence Diet, how to fight the cold and flu virus and allergies, and how to maintain vocal health in my book. My website www.VoiceYourselfInTheClassroom.com is also an excellent source of information and free vocal tips. Finally, I am also available for private consultations for further guidance.
Want to learn more? I highly recommend Valerie’s book Voice Yourself in the Classroom for any teachers who struggle with losing their voices or frequently have sore throats after teaching all day. In the book, Valerie shares practical strategies in a highly relatable tone, just like she’s done here. It’s a fantastic resource!