Speaking Up

How teachers are like opera singers: everything depends on a clear voice

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier/Chalkbeat TN
Second-grade teacher Katelyn Woodard uses a wireless microphone and amplifier to project her voice during class on Jan. 13, 2015, at Cornerstone Preparatory School in Memphis.

When Memphis teacher Katelyn Woodard first noticed her voice was hoarse in 2013, she assumed the condition was temporary.

After all, it was only weeks into her school year at Cornerstone Preparatory School, and the second-grade teacher knew that the early weeks usually are the most vocally challenging.

“I did not go to a doctor for a while because I was trying to convince myself that it would go away,” she recalled.

But by December, when a friend threw her a karaoke birthday party and she could not participate, Woodard realized her vocal condition was serious. “That’s when it really hit me that this is real,” she said.

Woodard is not alone among educators.

“When we think of professional voice users, people always think of singers, actors or entertainers. But teachers are high on that list,” said Kimberly Vinson, an assistant professor of otolaryngology at Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s Bill Wilkerson Center in Nashville.

Teachers spend hours each day talking, often using a loud, projected voice. As with singers, actors or professional speakers, the voice is a critical tool for teachers. The difference, however, is that most teachers have received little to no training about how to use or care for their voices. In fact, many teachers assume that a hoarse or tired voice is normal—and certainly not something to complain about.

“When you look at all the most common voice disorders, teachers have more voice problems than any other profession,” said Amanda Gillespie, an assistant professor of otolaryngology at the University of Pittsburgh. “A lot of teachers think hoarseness is part of their job. But hoarseness is never normal.”

Occupational hazard

Research indicates that teachers are at high risk for voice disorders.

How teachers can care for their voices
• Before the school day starts, do a vocal warm-up, such as buzzing your lips. See video below
• Hydrate! Drink lots of water and, if your classroom or house is dry, use a humidifier.
• Don’t talk over students who are not listening.
• Remember that hoarseness is not normal. If you are regularly hoarse by the end of the day or week, see a doctor, ideally a laryngologist or voice specialist.
• Listen to your voice. If your voice is tired, try to take a break. Don’t try to power through.
• Get adequate sleep.
• Avoid germs that can cause viruses. Wash your hands frequently.
• Notice sudden changes in your voice. A sudden change can signal a serious vocal health issue.

A teacher’s intense day-to-day schedule can be taxing on the voice. Speech therapists recommend vocal breaks—stretches of quiet—throughout the day. But even when they’re not providing classroom instruction, teachers often are using their voices—for instance, for bus or lunch duty.

Especially in winter, schools can be a haven for dry air, which can dry out vocal folds and put strain on the voice. And the demands of daily instructional schedules can make it challenging for teachers to stay hydrated by drinking enough water.

One study showed that teachers were more likely to miss work due to voice problems than were other professionals.

Female teachers are more likely to develop problems than their male counterparts, due partly to human physiology. Their vocal cords hit each other twice as many times per second, which means they’re more likely to develop calluses or other problems.

Some educational specialty areas or environments also can tax the voice—for instance, physical education, music, drama or chemistry, where loud equipment or large rooms may make it harder for teachers to be heard.

Student behavior is another factor. “A lot of vocal health has to do with classroom management,” said Juliana Litts, an instructor and vocal therapist at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. “I understand that you teach a bunch of first-graders and they’re rowdy, but you can’t talk over them.”

But students also suffer when a teacher’s voice is injured. When lessons are presented with a hoarse or raspy voice, students may find it harder to process the information, according to a yet-unpublished study from researchers at Towson University.

“You’d hope it’d make teachers and administrators sit up and say, ‘Hey, we should really pay attention,’” said Gillespie.

How schools can help
• Arrange a teacher workshop or training session on vocal health.
• Provide amplification equipment for teachers, especially in classrooms that have significant ambient noise such as music and physical education.
• Create schedules that allow breaks for teachers to rest their voices, ideally spread throughout the day.

Despite the risks, teachers receive little training on vocal health.

“Nobody tells teachers, ‘OK, so this is a really good way to use your voice in your classroom.’ So teachers go by how they’ve always talked. And a lot of times that gets them into trouble,” Litts said.

By the time Litts sees a teacher for vocal therapy, that teacher often has reached the point where he or she is basically unable to teach. Some teachers wait so long to seek help that they need surgery, she said, while others enter administration or leave the profession altogether.

Equipping teachers

After realizing that her vocal issues weren’t going away, Woodard was at first disheartened. The strain was affecting her both professionally and personally. “My voice is incredibly important to me in many ways,” she said. “I sing at my church, I sing a lot in my life. And I teach, and my voice is my most valuable tool as a teacher.”

At her elementary school, Woodard had used her voice to instruct her students but also to captivate them with humorous voices or songs. On some days, though, it had become physically painful just to talk. “What I remember as a teacher is going through stages of fear, down to stages of what almost felt like grief,” she said.

Her vocation at risk, Woodard saw several doctors. One diagnosed partial vocal paralysis; another identified vocal nodules, which is a more temporary condition caused by growths on both vocal cords. “It’s incredibly difficult to find anyone who knows anything about serious voice issues,” she said. “And it’s hard to get your insurance to help you find the right people and help you get the things you need to get better.”

A rest from teaching the following summer helped. This school year, Woodard is using a microphone and amplifier system, which she said has allowed her voice to stay stronger over the course of the week. A local vocal therapist is working with her, too.

Juliana Litts, a vocal therapist, demonstrates morning exercises teachers can do to warm up their voices. If you’re self-conscious, she says, do them in your car or a private area.

“It’s clear that it’s strain-related, so they believe that therapy will be really helpful,” Woodard said. “But it’s going to take a lot of effort. I’m going to have to work consistently to train how I use [my voice] in my day-to-day life.”

As for other educators struggling with vocal health, a little knowledge and preparation can go a long way toward identifying symptoms and addressing the condition.

“If you start having trouble with your voice, we always recommend a vocal evaluation,” Vinson said. “A lot of time it’s nothing serious; it’s simply getting them into healthy practices.”

Teachers, have you experienced vocal strain? Tell us about your remedies/best practices in the comments below.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”