Could a teacher's voice problem affect student achievement?
The purpose of this blog post is two fold: 1) to advocate for teachers 2) to provide some suggestions to ease their vocal problem. Keep in mind that any vocal problem that lasts more than a week should be evaluated by a medical professional. Voice therapy might provide some help in maintaining a healthy voice and these suggestions in no way are meant to be a substitute for a thorough evaluation by a voice team.
It is not an uncommon occurrence for me to be contacted by teachers. Often this happens after October, or just before spring break. Some of their complaints include the following:
By 9:30 am, I feel like I have so much tension in my neck/throat. I have to work so hard.
By the end of the day, I can’t talk without a lot of effort.
By the end of the day, I’m hoarse!
By lunch time, I’m hoarse and then it gets better during lunch.
By the end of the week, I’m sounding so much deeper.
I can’t sing anymore!
These problems often stem from having to project a voice in a room with less than advantageous acoustics. Eventually a toll is exacted on a teacher in the form of vocal problems which can range from changes in the voice to increased effort when using the voice and even laryngitis. Voice problems are a health hazard that teachers, all across America must deal with every day. Why? In many schools, classrooms are not designed with teacher-student communication in mind. It is a distraction at the least when a teacher cannot speak, has problems speaking, or speaks and cannot be heard. At times, if necessary the teacher might need to stay out of the classroom placing the charge of teaching into the hands of a substitute, who may or may not be a specialist in teaching youngsters. This wastes precious time and money resources in the educational system. Behavioral and Brain Sciences(Vol. 1). (n.d.). doi:10.1177/2372732214548677
Here in Hawaii the problem can be aggravated by schools that are designed to have the windows open. This causes the ambient noise level to rise with the sounds of traffic, students out at recess, lawn mowers, and yes, the ever present feral chickens. When room-cooling systems are available, they are usually fans or window air conditioning units which are selected for economic reasons, and with no consideration of competitive sound levels.
The problem is wide spread, and is being researched by the vocology community around the world. A 2015 article published in The Journal of Voice found that 33% of teachers in New Zealand reported voice problems. What is most interesting in this study is that the authors included the data from studies from as far back as 1993, collected from geographic locations including, North America, South America, Europe, and Australia. Most of the data were gathered by self administered questionnaire, and 4 out of 11 had very similar definitions of vocal problems. All but one had a definition of “voice problem.” Out of these 11 studies the average of reported vocal problems, through out a teacher’s career, ranged from 31 to 63 percent of subjects Journal of Voice (Vol. 29). (Issue 5, pp645,e1-645.e13).
While this information may be overwhelming there are some proactive techniques teachers, or any other speaker, can do to maintain vocal quality. Here are five methods to improve your ability to sustain a healthy voice throughout the day.
The vocal system can be looked at in three parts: respiration, phonation, and resonation. When we place a high demand in on the vocal system it becomes imperative that all three subsystems are used efficiently for peak performance.
1. Maintain good vocal hygiene:
This is a fancy way of saying maintain your instrument. The keys to maintaining your instrument include:
BEWARE THE WHITEBOARD TWIST! This is the position where your body is faces the whiteboard, but your head is turned to address your students. This is a horrible position for your poor vocal folds-- even with your tongue sticking out(see above)!
Rather turn your body to face your audience as the teacher below does . (photo credit above unknown, below Masterpics)
3. Articulate the ends of your sentences:
Really! This can be a way to slow down your speech and increase your listeners comprehension, which may reduce the for repetitions.
4. Make sure your voice resonates in your head:
A voice with forward resonance is less likely to cause the feeling of unease in the throat.
If you have never felt this sound while you are speaking, try humming easily. Once you feel the hum somewhere in your face, or the hard part of the roof of your mouth, open your mouth and say 'ee'. Hopefully the sound still vibrates in your head somewhere. This is the tone that allows a speaker to sound louder than she actually is at times. It also promotes healthy vibrations in the vocal folds. Journal of Voice, Volume 21 , Issue 4 , 415 - 425
Many teachers, and other speakers, are known for not stopping to take a breath. This is actually a very unhealthy behavior. As you run out of air, your vocal folds and accessory muscles tend to squeeze together to try to make use of a lower supply of air. Squeezing then turns into muscle fatigue. Stopping to take a catch breath gives your voice a chance to produce a healthier tone.
If you try these techniques but still find your voice is suffering, it might be time to look at:
Yes, I am suggesting therapy by a speech-language pathologist(SLP) who has good voice training. An objective therapist may be able to help you find ways to alleviate your vocal problems.
School in-service addressing voice—This may be something that an outside SLP does rather than the school’s overworked SLP. Sometimes the school SLP might not has not studied the intricacies of voice dynamics since grad school.
Again, if you find that you suffer from changes in your voice that are chronic or bothersome, it is important to seek medical attention to determine if they don’t stem from a physiological condition. The good news is that therapy, increased vocal hygiene, and, in some cases, amplification are manageable techniques for increasing the teacher’s satisfaction with his or her voice. If you need more help or information please reach out using the contact link, emailing at firstname.lastname@example.org, sending a message on our FaceBook page HIspeechstudio or sending us a tweet @hispeechstudio.
Trissa DiBenedetto WAlter
Is a singer, voice teacher, speech language pathologist, and certified vocologist