The impact of Covid-19 on teachers' voice


by Louise Bingham – Speech and Language Therapist
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A teacher’s voice is their most important tool; for engaging and motivating pupils, delivering important information clearly, supporting social and emotional development, and managing behaviour.

Due to the nature of the job, and a lack of training of how to look after the voice, teachers are at a considerably greater risk for voice difficulties. Many teachers experience periods of discomfort, hoarseness and vocal fatigue, which in severe cases can result in voice disorder. Common factors contributing to voice difficulties are speaking for long periods of time when tired or stressed, ineffective projection and breathing techniques, and vocal strain from teaching against background noise.

Like any other part of the body that we regularly use, our voice needs to be looked after, so that we can rely on it to continue to work in the way that we need it to. Many factors during the Covid-19 pandemic are likely to have caused or contributed to voice difficulties for many teachers.

Prolonged Talking

Whether delivering live remote teaching or recording lessons, teachers have been using their voices throughout the pandemic in a very different way. It has not been possible to achieve the same back and forth interaction during live delivery of remote lessons, as within face-to-face lessons. This can often mean that teachers are doing more of the talking than they would have. Supporting a range of different pupils has also meant increased time preparing, delivering, and recording lessons, meaning that teachers are likely to have been talking for longer periods of time.

Social Distancing and Face Masks

Social distancing rules in place such as spacing of desks and use of screens may mean that teachers need to project their voices more in order to be heard and understood. Having windows open to provide ventilation can result in increased background noise and a need to compete with this. Children are likely to find it more difficult to understand teachers wearing face masks, as the voice sounds more muffled and they are not able to use lip reading clues.

Posture

When using electronic devices, we are all guilty of adopting ‘tech neck’ posture, where the head juts forward of our shoulders and droops down. This is especially true when sitting for long periods of time, slumped in front of a laptop or phone. During the pandemic, we have all spent increasing amounts of time in this position for communicating with friends and family, and for attending meetings and training. This has been particularly true for teachers in delivering learning for pupils remotely. As the head juts forward and down, additional pressure is placed on the spine, resulting in the muscles of the neck tightening to compensate. Not only can this result in pain in the back, neck and shoulders, but it leads to increased tension in the throat and more effort needed to produce voice.

Pushing through Problems

If you are experiencing difficulties with your voice; it sounds a bit hoarse, you have some discomfort in your throat, or you lose your voice at points during the day, it is very tempting to push on and continue to use the voice in the same way. However, if the voice is pushed to work, we can develop an unhealthy pattern of straining the voice too hard to get it to work, causing further irritation.

Strategies to look after your voice:

  • No athlete would attempt to perform without warming up, and as vocal athletes, teachers need to warm up their voice. First, make sure that you feel relaxed as muscular tension can lead to inefficient voice production. Start with shoulder shrugs and neck rolls to loosen up the neck and shoulders. Then move onto the face by tightening and relaxing muscles to release tension, for example by exaggerated yawning and smiling. Gently yawning and exhaling with a sigh can help to relax the voice.
  • Use amplification within the classroom so that you don’t need to strain your voice in order to be heard. Think about the key messages you want to deliver and use visuals and gestures to back up this information, so that children are not relying only on your talking. Try to ensure the general level of noise in the classroom is kept low, to reduce what you are competing against!
  • Make sure that you drink enough water to keep hydrated, as the vocal folds are covered in mucus to help them keep working effectively. Drinking too much caffeine or alcohol, and smoking, all dry out the vocal folds and mean that they cannot work as effectively.
  • Making sure that we get enough exercise and sleep helps our body and our voice to be able to work at their best. Take time to relax and look after yourself; complete activities in your spare time that you enjoy. Use relaxation techniques, mindfulness, exercise, and breathing techniques to relax the body, and the voice.
  • Think about how you position your laptop, tablet or phone when speaking, especially for prolonged periods of time, to support your posture. If you can, set yourself up so you can stand and talk. If you are sitting, imagine a piece of string attached to the crown of your head that is pulling upwards, to create a long free neck. Try to sit with the shoulders directly over the hips, increasing lung capacity and breath support for voice.
  • Resting the voice is the best way to speed up its recovery. If you know that you are going to be speaking for long chunks of time, try and space these out with time for voice rest in between. Identify time in the evenings or at weekends when you can have complete voice rest. If your voice is tired, avoid shouting, screaming, singing and whispering as these put additional strain on the voice.

If you are experiencing difficulties with your voice that go on for longer than three weeks, we would advise that you speak to your GP about these difficulties. In very rare cases, a voice disorder can be the first sign of something more serious, so it is important to get this checked out. In most cases you may just need some help to identify factors that are affecting your voice and support to get back to a healthy pattern of using the voice.

Look out for more information about the impact of the pandemic for teacher’s voice in the Link Magazine issue 20, landing in primary schools in May.