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.

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.”

moving forward

After Confederate flag dispute at Colorado football game, schools pledge to bring students together

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High students.

Acknowledging “we may never have a conclusive picture of what happened,” two Colorado school districts sought to move past a controversy over whether a Confederate flag was displayed at a football game and open a conversation between the two school communities.

The principal of Manual High, Nick Dawkins, wrote in a community letter over the weekend that the visiting Weld Central High School team “displayed a Confederate flag during the first quarter of the (Friday night) game, offending many members of the Manual community.”

Officials from Denver Public Schools and Weld County School District Re-3J released a joint letter Tuesday saying that based “on what we have learned to date, however, the Weld Central team did not display the Confederate flag.” At the same time, it said, multiple Manual eyewitnesses “reported seeing spectators who attempted to bring a Confederate flag into the game and clothing with flag images.”

Going forward, students from the two schools — one rural and one urban — will participate in a student leadership exchange that has student leaders visit each other’s schools and communities to “share ideas and perspectives,” the letter says.

“At a time in our country when so many are divided, we want our students instead to come together, share ideas and learn together,” says the letter, which is signed by the principals of both schools and the superintendents of both school districts.

The alleged incident took place at a time when issues of race, social injustice, politics and sports are colliding in the United States, making for tough conversations, including in classrooms.

Weld Central’s mascot is a Rebel. Manual, whose mascot is the Thunderbolts, is located in one of Denver’s historically African-American neighborhoods.

Dawkins in his initial community letter also said “the tension created by the flag led to conflict on and off the playing field,” and that three Manual players were injured, including one who went to the hospital with a leg injury. He also said some Manual players reported that Weld Central players “taunted them with racial slurs.”

Weld Central officials vehemently denied that their team displayed the flag. In addition, they said in their own community letter they had “no evidence at this point that any of our student athletes displayed racially motivated inappropriate behavior.”

They said district officials “do not condone any form of racism,” including the Confederate flag.

Weld Central fans told the Greeley Tribune that they didn’t see any Confederate flag.

Read the full text below.