THE BLOG
09/16/2011 10:14 am ET Updated Nov 16, 2011

Saving the Most Valuable Teaching Tool -- Teachers' Voices

Millions of teachers across the country are preparing lesson plans and stocking up on classroom supplies. Another thing teachers should be focusing on, but often neglect, is their most valuable teaching tool -- their voice.

Teachers have the highest vocal demands of any profession. They are required to talk for many hours a day, often in poor acoustic environments. There are now more students per classroom than ever before. This and increased amounts of misbehavior mean more general stress and more background noise in the classroom, all of which leads to increased vocal strain for the teachers.

As a result, teachers are at great risk for occupational-related voice disorders. In fact, about 58 percent of teachers will develop a voice disorder in their lifetime, compared to 20 percent of people in the general population -- and the prevalence of voice issues among teachers has been increasing over the years.

To make matters worse, it's not just the teachers themselves who are significantly impacted by vocal disorders. A 2004 study suggests that students don't learn as well when their teacher has a raspy voice.

So how can teachers continue to teach at a highly effective level without straining their voices and without developing temporary or permanent voice disorders?

Teachers should think of themselves as vocal athletes, and should give their voices the same care and attention that athletes give their bodies. As with many disorders, prevention is the key to staying healthy. Teachers, you can protect and preserve your voices by:

  • Keeping the vocal cords hydrated by drinking six to eight glasses of water a day.
  • Resting the voice when it's not necessary to use it.
  • Spreading out the vocal demands throughout the day by using quiet work time or group assignments.
  • Using nonvocal cues to gain students' attention, whether that's raising a hand, clapping or ringing a bell.
  • Knowing your voice and paying attention to changes -- when you feel like you're getting hoarse, curtail the use of your voice and share speaking responsibilities with a student or teaching assistant.
  • Performing warm-up and warm-down exercises at the start and end of the day. See here for some suggestions.
  • Steering clear of menthol, eucalyptus and mint lozenges -- they might provide relief in the short term, but are actually damaging to the voice.
  • Using a personal microphone and speaker.
  • Getting examined once a year by an ear, nose and throat physician or a laryngologist to ensure that your vocal folds are healthy -- and to discuss and identify risk factors before real problems develop.

At The Voice and Swallowing Institute at The New York Eye and Ear Infirmary, we specialize in the care of professional voice users -- and teachers are one of our most frequently seen professionals. Our laryngologist and voice therapists work with teachers to uncover the root of their voice problems. Did they have a cold and keep teaching? Have they developed allergies? Has their teaching environment changed or have their vocal demands increased? Has their diet changed and caused acid reflux or do they have a polyp, nodule or growth on their vocal folds?

These are just a few of the factors that can cause vocal changes, and there's usually more than one factor involved. Consulting with a voice expert will help to identify which factors, from the many possibilities, are causing the symptoms. They will then develop a comprehensive, often multifaceted treatment plan to restore and protect the voice.

Some teachers might consider voice problems an unavoidable occupational hazard, but that doesn't have to be the case. Unless you have a cold or laryngitis, it's not normal to have a hoarse voice. Hoarseness that lasts longer than two weeks is never normal and should prompt a visit to a voice specialist before a more serious problem develops. As a teacher, your voice is one of your most important assets, so care for it and don't lose it.

For more information on voice and swallowing health, visit www.voiceandswallowinginstitute.com