5 Ways to Protect Your Voice in the Classroom

Your voice is your most powerful teaching tool, and these simple tips can help you preserve your vocal health.

Teacher Instructing Students in Lab

by NEA Member Benefits

Key takeaways

  • 20% of teachers report missing work due to a voice issue, and one in 10 teachers are forced out of the profession due to voice constraints.
  • Most voice problems are easily fixed.
  • From resting your voice to staying hydrated, use these tips to preserve your voice.

Educators use their voices all day long, often in classrooms with poor acoustics and stagnant air. It’s part of the job. In fact, teachers have among the highest vocal demands of any profession. All of that talking, cheerleading, throat clearing and even whispering takes a toll.

“I lost my voice a lot in the beginning of my career because I felt like I had to compete with 20 kids,” says Christina Le, Lietz Elementary School in San Jose, California.

According to the American Academy of Otolaryngologists, Le is not alone. More than half of all teachers develop a voice disorder during their lifetime, 20% report missing work due to a voice issue, and one in 10 teachers are forced out of the profession due to voice constraints. To make matters worse, studies suggest students don’t learn as well when their teacher has a raspy voice.

“Human beings learn best with a pure auditory signal,” explains Steven Sims, M.D., director of the Chicago Institute for Voice Care. “When a teacher has nodules or swelling on the vocal cords, or when their voices are hoarse, students don’t perceive that signal as well, so they miss a portion of what the teacher is saying”—and that impacts learning.

The good news: Voice problems don’t have to be an unavoidable occupational hazard—and when they do occur, most are easily fixed. If you smoke, stop (it increases the risk of laryngeal cancer and causes inflammation and polyps of the vocal cords that make the voice husky, hoarse and weak). Then implement the following voice-preserving tips:

1. Drink up. Moisture helps lubricate the vocal cords, but that doesn’t mean you should chug 32 ounces of water before class begins. “The goal is to keep your body well hydrated by sipping water throughout the day, so the mucus you make is thin and protective of the vocal cords,” explains Michael Pitman, M.D., director of the Center for Vocal Health in the Department of Otolaryngology at the New York Eye & Ear Infirmary. Eight, 8-ounce glasses is a good minimum target. Just skip (or limit!) coffee, tea, soda, alcohol and other dehydrating drinks. And go easy on the milk if you notice your mucus thickens after a tall, cold glass.

2. Get steamy. Using a humidifier at night, or a personal steamer in the classroom, can be very helpful, especially if you live in a dry climate. “The winter months can be particularly drying,” suggests Pitman. Not only is the air dry and cold but most classrooms also have radiator heat, which is even more drying.

3. Take vocal naps. Try to rest your voice in 15-minute increments a few times throughout the day. Use a bell (instead of your voice) to get students’ attention. And let your students do the talking with group exercises and student discussion. Even better, consider using a voice amplification system, particularly if you’re routinely forced to raise your voice in class.

4. Watch the throat clearing. Clearing your throat is like slamming your vocal cords together with high velocity impact—and that causes problems. “When you clear your throat with a lot of force, it creates irritation, which makes you clear your throat,” says Sims. The only way to break that cycle is Le’s strategy: Take sips of water throughout the day to clear mucus and minimize the need for throat clearing and coughing. Still need a good hack? Try a softer, gentler clearing after taking a few sips of water.

5. See a specialist. Anyone who uses their voice for their job should have a baseline exam to ensure their vocal cords are healthy and identify potential risk factors before real problems develop, advises Pitman, particularly since most people don’t know how to take care of their voice. An annual exam can help educators learn how to protect their voice while also addressing factors like reflux, allergies and over-the-counter medications that may be drying out their vocal cords. Plus, a skilled voice therapist can provide voice-saving tips and techniques to help prevent vocal problems before they begin.

Still hoarse? You may be suffering from a chronic underlying condition, like reflux, allergies or post-nasal drip, explains Sims. Rather than let the condition fester and get worse, seek help at the earliest indication. A few of the more obvious warning signs:

  • A hoarse or raspy voice that lasts for more than three weeks
  • Coughing up blood
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • A lump in the neck
  • Voice loss or severe changes in vocal tone and sound
  • Pain when speaking or swallowing

A note to pass along to administrators: Inviting a specialist to speak during annual teacher orientation—before the school year begins—may help educators sidestep vocal problems Also, consider taking part in World Voice Day. Visit world-voice-day.org for details.