Teaching puts big strain on voices

Devan Dugan (center), a fifth-grade teacher at Nantucket Elementary School in Crofton, Md., says, 'I haven't had laryngitis in three years.' Here, she is wearing the transmitter for a voice-enhancement system teachers are using so students can hear withou

BALTIMORE -- Ann De Lacy took voice lessons in college, sang in her church choir and could easily, unlike many Americans, belt out the national anthem. But these days you won't find her singing to her grandkids.

The problem isn't her hobby but her former job: De Lacy was a classroom teacher for 33 years, and the constant talking has made her perpetually hoarse. "Now I can barely talk. It puts so much stress on the voice," said De Lacy, now president of the Howard County Education Association. "You can't not talk when you're a teacher. And it's like we're actresses and actors -- the voice is everything."

The showbiz analogy is apt. Teachers, like professional singers, are vulnerable to severe voice problems, according to a Johns Hopkins throat specialist. Dr. Lee M. Akst, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and director of the Johns Hopkins Voice Center, urges teachers to take voice stress seriously.

"Teachers are a particularly high-risk profession, even more than salespeople or doctors or lawyers," said Akst.

Nearly 58 percent of teachers report voice difficulties some time in their professional lives, twice the incidence of the general population, Akst said. As many as 47 percent of American teachers experience voice problems on any given day, and one in 10 teachers has been forced out of the profession because of them, according to the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery.

Because teachers need to use their voices, often in loud environments for long periods of time, their vocal cords can be damaged. The louder people speak, the more violently their vocal cords collide against each other. Just as dancers and runners get calluses and blisters on their feet, people who talk a lot, and talk loudly, can develop nodules and polyps on their vocal cords. These sometimes go away on their own, but it's hard for teachers to get the rest to make that happen.

"If you're in a classroom of two dozen 8-year-olds, you have little choice but to try to push through," Akst said. "That takes a bad voice and makes it worse."

While not dangerous to personal health, the nodules and polyps can make speech permanently hoarse and painful. Having an inflamed throat also may make it harder to tolerate the colds and flu that are already a professional hazard for anyone working around kids, he said.

"I typically lose my voice once a year, to the point where it's completely gone," said Erika Herman, a third-grade teacher at Hillcrest Elementary School in Catonsville, Md. "Last year, I went to the doctor, and she said ... just rest."

That's something she finds hard to do given "the amount of talking we do through the day, if you're outside at recess or the cafeteria and you have to raise your voice."

Herman said there are days when she tells her class that she's using her "whisper voice," adding, "I don't know how that would fly with middle school and high school kids. Elementary school kids fall into place and feel sorry for you."

One of her teaching colleagues recently spent an entire weekend without talking to get an ailing voice back in shape for the school week.

Akst suggests that anyone with voice problems for more than two or three weeks see a doctor. Surgery is an option to remove scars that limit voice quality. Patients sometimes work with a therapist to learn methods of modulating the voice and breathing strategies -- from the diaphragm, just like singers are taught -- to lessen the strain.

Amplification systems in schools, like the one installed in Nantucket Elementary School in Crofton, Md., when it opened three years ago, also can help. Teachers there wear cordless microphones around their necks. The system helps kids at the back of the classroom hear better and saves the teacher's voice.

"This is a powerful, powerful tool," said Nantucket Principal Diana Strohecker, recalling how weary her voice was when she was a classroom teacher. "There were days where I would literally go home and, really, I couldn't talk."

Teaching strategies that have students doing more of the talking are another solution. In seminars she holds for teachers, Patricia C. Baltzley, acting director of science, technology, engineering and math in Baltimore County, Md., encourages them to use "cooperative learning" strategies, which combine traditional classroom lectures with group and individual activities. The idea is to get students more involved and engaged, but there's also an upside for the teacher's voice.

"The mantra is, we want to move teachers away from being the sage on the stage to the guide on the side,' " Baltzley said.