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Teachers, Especially Women, Are Prone to Vocal Damage, Research Finds

A new study is calling attention to a major occupational hazard for teachers that you may not be aware of: vocal damage.

Teachers, who often speak for long stretches at a time and often have to speak over competing noises (ahem, students), have more than twice the voice problems that people in other professions have —and female teachers have a significantly higher risk than their male counterpoints of developing long-term vocal problems, according to the study, conducted by researchers from Michigan State University and the University of Utah and funded by the National Institutes of Health as part of a larger research project on risk factors for voice problems and gender differences in speech.  

"Female teachers are particularly at risk of developing voice problems, affecting teaching quality and leading to increased teacher absenteeism, increased health care costs, and sometimes even early retirement," said Eric Hunter, a professor at Michigan State and the lead researcher on the study. "Teachers' voice disorders also hamper students' learning, especially for those students with learning or hearing difficulties."

The symptoms of vocal fatigue include hoarseness, vocal tiredness, muscle pains, and lost or cracked notes. This can lead to long-term vocal damage. According to the research, there are gender differences in the laryngeal system and pulmonary usage that make women more prone to voice problems.

More than half of all teachers develop a voice disorder during their lifetime, according to the American Academy of Otolaryngologists. And it can be costly: Teachers' voice injuries alone cost the U.S. economy $2.5 billion per year, a previous report by Harvard Medical School and the Gould Voice Research Center found.

The study's researchers have promoted the use of spirometers, an apparently simple and low-cost tool that could serve as a vocal-fatigue screening device, which would help teachers better prevent and treat voice problems.

The researchers are presenting their findings at the annual conference of the Acoustical Society of America this week. Their next step is to study other underlying risk factors for teachers' vocal problems, like stress, hormonal changes, and aging. 

36headsetB.jpgEducators have been pushing for microphones or other voice- amplification systems in the classroom to spare teachers' voices for years. A 2002 Education Week story on the issue featured one Maryland school district in which teachers had the choice between using small lapel microphones that clip to their clothes or microphones on headsets. Other companies, the story reported, make similar amplication systems and units that use portable speakers. 

The story reported that sound systems in the classroom not only decrease teachers' voice strain, but can also aid in classroom participation, increase students' attention, and even raise student achievement. 

While the trend of microphones in classrooms hasn't exploded in the decade-and-a-half following that article (they are pricey), it seems that the teachers who do start using them don't want to go back to raising their voice to talk in front of a crowded classroom. A 2013 TeachLogic article about California schools that gave their teachers microphones said students were better behaved and teachers were less prone to laryngitis. 

"There are lots of teachers who have not developed problems with their voices, but for some it's a real problem, and some have dropped out of the teaching field because of it," said Ruth Harris, clinical coordinator of the Language, Speech, and Hearing Center at California State University, Northridge, in the article.

For teachers who don't have access to microphones, there are several guides online to preserving your voice in the classroom. The NEA Member Benefits Corporation offers a number of tips, including staying hydrated (and stay away from coffee!), resting your voice in 15-minute increments a few times during the day (by letting your students work and discuss materials in groups), and stop clearing your throat. 

Teachers, are you prone to vocal fatigue? How do you protect your voice? 

Image: Education Week file photo, by James W. Prichard

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