CINCINNATI—Chelsea Schmalenberg has a special interest in counseling teachers on their voice health. She spent four years teaching seventh- and eighth-grade math and language arts, both in Cincinnati and Toledo.
Now a UC Health speech-language pathologist, the condition she has dubbed "teacher’s voice” is one she sees frequently.
"In a month’s time, we probably see five to six teachers who need speech therapy or even surgery to correct vocal problems,” she says. "Usually their symptoms have been going on for months. They may start out experiencing hoarseness or vocal fatigue at the end of the day. Then, many get laryngitis around winter break, and then lose and regain their voice throughout the school year.”
Schmalenberg says it’s understandable how teachers can experience vocal problems: not only are they talking for hours at a time, but they also have to be heard over a busy classroom.
"If they are not using their breath support to project their voice out over a classroom, they’re usually talking from their throat and overworking their voice,” she says.
Such strain can cause lesions (or bumps on the vocal cords) like nodules, polyps or cysts. Acid reflux can also harm the larynx. In severe cases, teachers can hemorrhage, or bleed into their vocal cords.
Treatment includes voice therapy and vocal rest to reduce swelling and, for some patients, surgery to remove cysts or polyps. Speech pathologists like Schmalenberg can help teachers relearn healthy voice.
But prevention is key. To avoid these problems, Schmalenberg urges teachers to take care of their voice as any singer or professional speaker would.
- Warming up: "Every morning either on the drive in or before students arrive, perform a few warm-up exercises,” says Schmalenberg. "You can buzz your lips (like blowing a raspberry), make a buzzy woo sound through a straw or hum up and down scales.”
- Take a vocal nap: "During your planning period, or any time during the day, rest your voice for 15-minute segments.”
- Hydrate and support: "Drink plenty of water throughout the day and don’t talk when you’re out of breath. "
- Get some assistance: "If your classroom has microphones, use them. If you’re trying to get students’ attention, don’t yell. Use a bell or other type of noisemaker.”
- Call your doctor: "If you experience hoarseness lasting for more than three weeks, see an otolaryngologist or voice specialist.”