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Women teachers use their voices more than their male counterparts, and they're more likely to find themselves going hoarse, especially at the start of the school year, experts said.
Image: JoNel Aleccia
By JoNel Aleccia Health writer
msnbc.com
updated 9/23/2011 8:33:17 AM ET 2011-09-23T12:33:17

By the end of her first day of school this month, Theresa Simon’s voice was already starting to go.

“You can hear a little bit of rasp,” said the 48-year-old teacher at Cecelia Snyder Middle School in Bensalem, Pa.

But the frog in her throat now is nothing compared to what Simon used to suffer every fall when she was among scores of teachers who find themselves going hoarse after heading back to the classroom.

“Probably by the middle of the week, by the end of the week, I would lose my voice, just from usage,” said Simon, a 23-year veteran who teaches seventh- and eighth-graders. “The acoustics in the classrooms are not that good and when you’ve got a class of 30 kids, you’ve got to reach the ones in the back.”

Simon’s story is nothing new to voice and speech experts, who say they see an influx of scratchy-voiced teachers seeking help every autumn. Teachers make up about 16 percent of the 37 million people in the United States who are dubbed "occupational voice users," which includes air traffic controllers, emergency dispatchers and telephone customer service representatives, said Eric J. Hunter, deputy executive director of the National Center for Voice and Speech.

On average, teachers are more than twice as likely as non-teachers to have voice problems and about three times more likely to see a doctor about the issue, he added.

“It’s in the first three weeks of school,” said Hunter, an associate adjunct professor in the departments of bioengineering and surgery at the University of Utah.

“What’s hard with teachers is that as their voice starts to go, the primary tool of their trade isn’t effective.”

The problem is especially acute in female teachers, who use their voices about 10 percent more than males when teaching, and about 7 percent more when not teaching, Hunter found. Women have smaller larynxes, or voice boxes, and their vocal cords vibrate more quickly. That, along with other physical factors, may contribute to the strain, Hunter said.

But sheer demand is also a factor, especially for teachers of younger kids, said Dr. Joseph Spiegel, co-director of the Voice and Swallowing Center at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia.

“The younger the children, the more they’re having to use their voices for crowd control,” said Spiegel, who says teachers make up about 20 percent of his clients in the fall.

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That was certainly true for Lauren Roberts, 30, a teacher at Chews Elementary School in Blackwood, N.J., who transferred from small special education classes to large fourth-grade classes. Soon after, she found herself nearly speechless by the end of every work week, with a raspy voice, sore throat and aching neck muscles.

“I’m not a yeller,” said Roberts, who just started her ninth year of teaching. “But when you talk in front of a larger group, you have to project your voice a lot more.”

For Roberts and Simon, the solution turned out to be surgery, performed by Spiegel, to remove nodules and polyps they’d developed on their vocal cords. They also had to learn new ways to pamper their voices. Simon says she used a portable microphone to boost her volume and now makes sure to warm up her voice in the shower before heading to class.

Roberts says her voice is much better now, post surgery, but she makes sure to monitor it carefully — and to warn her colleagues about this occupational hazard.

“Whenever there’s a teacher with a raspy voice or who has a sore throat, I always say, remember what happened to me,” she said. “Without my voice, I couldn’t do my job.”

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