Riva Capellari

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Teaching: An Occupation Vocal Hazard

Growing up, the first day of school was always the day after Labor Day. Nowadays, August is back to school month. As parents busily get their children ready for school, teachers also prepare for their return to the classroom. Unfortunately, most teachers fail to “prep” their voices. After a long much needed vocal rest over the summer, teachers need to get back into vocal shape before taking on their regular teaching schedule.

Why is this important? Teachers are occupational voice users, i.e., they could not do their job without full use of their voice. They speak, on the average, 1800 times an hour (more than 1 million vibration cycles per day), twice as much as most other professionals. Data tells us that though teachers make up only 4% of the workforce, they comprise 20% of those that show up at clinics with voice problems. They are 32 times more likely to suffer vocal difficulties than people in other professions. And female teachers fare worse than their male counterparts. They tend to speak louder, higher and 10% more than male teachers. Laryngologists and ENT’s see many teachers during what they call the “Autumn vocal meltdown”. Dust from heating ductwork, the diminishing benefits of summer rest and the appearance of cold viruses contribute to this seasonal phenomenon.
Additionally, teachers must deal with environmental obstacles. Old schools have noisy heating and cooling systems, poor acoustics (concrete walls and hard floors reflect sound causing conflicting echos), and buzzing lights. The high pitch of children’s voices, noise from the halls and the streets, ear infections in young children and increasing levels of hearing loss among students (15% of 6-19 year olds have signs of hearing loss) make it even more difficult for teachers to be heard. Research has shown that students learn best when the teacher’s voice is at least 15dB above the ambient noise in the classroom. Young children especially, need to hear every word as their language skills are not yet equipped to “fill in the blanks”. Although the standard decibel measurement for an empty classroom is 35dB, most measure around 50dB. This means that teachers need to speak around 65dB to 70dB. For comparison, the dB level in a factory is approximately 70dB.
But one of the biggest problems is the failure of our educational system to train teachers how to use their voices effectively and efficiently and to maintain their vocal health throughout their teaching careers.
Why should this concern administrators? Across the U.S. it costs school districts approximately $2.5 billion a year in medical expenses and substitute pay when teachers miss because of a vocal problem. Intensive vocal use, inadequate recovery time, and the high incidence of respiratory illness (from viruses, chalk dust, fumes from art or chemistry supplies, etc) result in absences that cost money.
What to do? Read on…

How Noisy Is It?
Making changes to your teaching environment may not be easy or much in your control. Talk with your administrator about these issues and see if, for instance, acoustical tiles can be placed on the ceiling. With school systems scarce on money these days, it may be difficult to get these things accomplished so teachers need to be creative in reducing the noise level in their rooms. Some suggestions: putting fabric over the walls to absorb sound and tennis balls on chairs’ feet to muffle their scraping noise.

Vocal Training and Voice Care*
This is one area where teachers have the most control. Acquiring knowledge and training about proper vocal production will direct attention to proper body alignment which will for allow full diaphragmatic breathing. As breath is the generator that fuels the vocal engine, good, constant airflow is necessary to produce healthy, strong sounds that can be heard above the noise in and around the classroom. Learning to use resonance to project the voice without strain or force counteracts the need to raise pitch or volume.
As professional voice users, teachers should warm up their voices every day before they start their teaching. Humming, sirens, lip and tongue trills and articulation exercises are easy and beneficial in getting the voice and breath on track for the day. Teachers also need to schedule in vocal breaks – more dialogue vs. monologue, student presentations, showing videos, any activity that does not require the teacher to talk, even if just for a short period of time. In addition, teachers should monitor their vocal use after their teaching day is over.
And just as important, is maintaining overall health. Proper rest and nutrition are just as essential to a healthy voice as they are to a healthy body. Smoking, too much caffeine or alcohol can be detrimental to both.
*Voice Classes begin in September. See for details!!

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