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Teachers Put Their Voices at Risk in the Classroom, Study Says


Teachers are 32 times more likely to experience voice problems than are other professionals, Science Daily writes today, and the risk may be even higher for female teachers than it is for males.

The blog reports on results from a study by the National Center for Voice and Speech, the findings of which were scheduled to be presented this month in San Antonio at a meeting of the Acoustical Society of America.

As part of the study, Eric Hunter, the center's deputy director, and his colleagues equipped teachers for 14 days with a voice dosimeter, a device that captures voicing characteristics such as pitch and loudness rather than actual speech.

The authiors found that female teachers used their voices about 10 percent more than males—and talked louder—when teaching.

Making matters worse, the female teachers were also less likely to give their overworked. voices a rest a home. They talked 7 percent more than the male teachers at home.

My guess? Most of these teachers were probably busy mothers as well.


As a music educator, I'm always looking for ways to save my voice in the classroom. Singing and talking loudly over 40 plus students isn't vocally responsible. I try to find physical cues to send to the class, so they know what I need from them without talking over them. When I lost my voice due to illness, it really forced me to look at my practices, and find an alternate way to communicating with my class. Hand signs, piano sounds, and gestures all came to my aid to help me recover. I found it also heightened the students' awareness of their environment.

I am a specialist voice educator. Educating people about how we human beings speak and sing to express ourselves as we 'connect' (or disconnect) with our fellow human beings is what I do for a living.

I worked for 12 years in a medical center setting with my speech pathologist colleague, Carol Klitzke, and a big number of Ear-Nose-Throat doctors. [Fairview Voice Center, Fairview Rehabilitation Services, University of Minnesota Medical Center, Fairview]. During my career, voice scientists around the world have become friends or acquaintances of mine, including many of those at the National Center for Voice and Speech (NCVS).]

So I've worked with people who use their voices extensively and vigorously in their careers (e.g., teachers, clergy, actors, professors) and 'leisure time' pursuits (e.g., school and community theatre, choir performers, garage bands).

I help teachers learn about the active parts of themselves that produce their voices...AND how extensive and vigorous voice use affects the source of their vocal sound----their vocal cords and the voice-box (larynx) muscles that 'operate' them while breath-air is flowing between them.

When vocal cords vibrate to create the sound of our voices, breath-air flows between the two closed vocal cords and that ongoing breathflow sends high-speed ripple-waves over the cords' surfaces. With each ripple-wave, the two cords collide into each other to make sound waves. The louder we talk (or sing) the greater the force of each and every collision.

With more talking over time, the greater and greater the number of vocal cord collisions. With stronger (louder) talking, the vocal cords collide into each other with higher impact stress. AND, those ripple-waves that travel over the vocal cord tissue surfaces produce a shear stress on those tissues.

[In three minutes of steady talk time, female vocal cords may experience from 30,000 to 40,000 impact and shear stresses. Male vocal cords may experience from 15,000 to 22,500 impact and shear stresses. You do the math.]

When teachers' vocal folds endure enough higher-force collisions, their immune systems start signaling reactions that produce swelling and stiffness of the vocal cords. Typically, swelling means that teachers' brains will make their vocal cords collide with increasing force in order to overcome their greater mass/size/weight and get the expected voice output. More swelling and/or chronic swelling then happens.

Results? Hoarseness, lowered pitch range, eventual reduced volume, soreness in the larynx area, various other vocal cord dysfunctions, AND... vocal cord pathologies can emerge in a vain attempt to protect the vocal cord tissues.

Pathologies? The common ones are vocal cord nodules, polyps, cysts, hemorrhages (broken capillaries bleed into the vocal folds), but there are quite a few others. Throw in a cold, flu, allergies, etc., and the problems multiply.

In my work, I show teachers how to:

1. monitor the extent of voice use time,

(2) talk strongly (and/or sing) with just the necessary larynx muscle work so that talking feels easy, more 'open,' and 'effortless' so that they get even more volume from their voices (I swear that's true),

(3) regulate their voice use by following some voice-saving suggestions (Christine mentioned some good ones in the previous post:

(A) "physical cues to send to the class...without talking over them..." such as, "...hand signs...and gestures...." Christine used piano sounds to signal attention; other teachers could use a bell or a chime and rehearse the routine with the students, then be 'religiously' consistent with follow-through for at least six weeks! "I found it also heightened the students' awareness of their environment."

(B) After attention happens, if anyone begins talking while you are, just:

(a) stop talking immediately,
(b) become very still except for your eyeballs,
(c) eyeballs move over the class making brief eye contact with a variety of students (not necessarily with the talkers),
(d) [here's the most important and most difficult one to master] do all the above with a simple pleasant look on your face. Whenever silence and attention resume, say nothing about what just happened, just say or do something interesting

[What I've just described is NOT effective in all situations (nothing 'works' in ALL situations), but it's a good start for saving teachers' voices]

But wait! What teachers' voices sound like to their students affects for good or ill their effectiveness as teachers.

'Tone of voice' is a major influence on the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of teachers' nonverbal communications, and nonverbal communications are a core influence on teacher effectiveness (actually, on effectiveness in any profession).

Tones of voice that can be described as firm and clear but 'unstressed,' are hallmarks of effective, voice-delivered, nonverbal communications.

Problem is: Nonverbal communications almost always happen automatically, outside of conscious awareness.

The point? Vocal cord swelling-stiffening, pain, pathologies, and larynx muscle fatigue prevent firm and clear voice qualities (tones of voice). The brains of human beings who are called teachers can learn how to speak (and sing) with efficient and expressive skill.

Hope this helps.

Leon Thurman
Leon Thurman Voice Center
Minneapolis, Minnesota

Internet resources:

The Voice Academy
www.voiceacademy.org (specifically for all teachers; created by the National Center for Voice and Speech)

The VoiceCare Network
www.voicecarenetwork.org (summer courses for music educators, choral conductors, speech teachers, theater directors, singing teachers, speech pathologists)

Two points:

First, when I was teaching full time, I always started the school year with my voice for about two weeks. Then I lost it, for a while. I was just not able to talk as much as I had to talk.

Second, now that I am a more mature educator, even though I am no longer teaching full time, I recognize that the best way to get students to be quiet is not by talking over them. Instead it is by speaking quietly and using your body within the midst of the students to get attention.

Andrew Pass

Sound advice from previous comments.

The two techniques that work best for me are lowering my voice or being silent. The plus to the silence is that other students will nudge the talkers to be quiet. Then I just go back to my lesson. With the lowered voice, I'm not only easing the strain on my vocal cords, but I'm lowering the general noise level in the class. (I got the lowered-voice advice from a nightclub singer who refused to sing loudly over noisy patrons:-)

This article on voice problems really hit home for me as a teacher. I have always had what I considered to be a really strong voice. I like to sing and have never had trouble being heard. I taught English as a Second Language, and as part of my instruction we did lots of singing and chants to practice correct word order and pronunciation. One day, I woke up with very sore vocal cords. The sound of my voice was not affected but it was painful to speak. As the day went on, it would become so painful that I just couldn't talk any more. I have no idea what I did to my voice, but it literally took me a year to get better. I went to many doctors and nobody ever gave me what I would consider an accurate diagnosis. One said I had acid reflux, one said I just needed to rest my voice. One said that I needed to adjust the way I speak. One gave me steroids. I had to quit teaching due to the severity of the problem because despite my effots to reduce my talking or talk in a calm, relaxed manner, the pain continued. After a year, my vocal cords finally recovered and I can talk and sing now without pain, but I had to learn the lesson the hard way. I truly caution teachers to pay attention to the suggestions on a previous post in order to be conscientious of how one is using the voice. I feel like my quality of life suffered greatly for a whole year due to this. (I couldn't talk to family members or do my job because beyond about five minutes of talking, it was just too painful.) I feared that I would never get better, but little by little things improved. The whole ordeal took me by surprise because I had never had any problems with my voice prior to that event.

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