The numbers don't lie

Selected statistics about teachers and voice:

  • Teachers are about 4% of the U.S. workforce, yet are almost 20% of the patient load in voice centers.
  • Teachers spend an average of 49.3 hours per week on teaching duties.
  • Nearly 15% of students (ages 6-19) show signs of hearing loss.
  • Teachers are almost twice as likely as other professionals to be concerned that voice problems will impact their future employment.
  • According to a recent study, 76% of people with voice problems report that the disorder will adversely affect their future job functions.
  • In a study comparing teachers to non-teachers, about 20% of teachers (but only 4% of non-teachers) said they've missed work due a voice problem.
  • When those with voice disorders were surveyed, about two-thirds reported depression.
  • Voice disorders caused by abuse and overuse are the most common, but also the most preventable, types of voice problems.

Why are teachers vocally vulnerable?

These things we know:

1. Teachers simply use their voices more each day than most other professionals. Of course, there are gaps in teachers' speech while they are listening, writing on the chalkboard or eating lunch. Cumulatively, though, in a seven-hour work day, teachers speak about one hour.

2. Teachers get little recovery time. Teachers typically work five days a week, with only two-day weekends to rest. Personal and sick days are few and far between.

3. They are constantly exposed to students with sniffles and sore throats. Viruses and other upper respiratory episodes usually wreak havoc on the voice.

4. More children are hard of hearing as compared to previous generations, probably due to damage from loud music and other noise. Teachers find themselves constantly cranking up their vocal volume so their students can hear them.

5. Environmental conditions are less than ideal. In particular, chemistry, art and industrial education teachers are exposed to irritating fumes. Chalk dust, dusty ventilation systems, low humidity, or molds can all contribute to vocal tissue irritation and difficulty voicing.

6. Many classrooms have poor acoustics. Reflections from hard-surfaced walls and floors, high ceilings and noisy heating and cooling systems create background noise for teachers' voices to constantly battle.

7. About 75 percent of all teachers are female. Since women usually speak at a higher pitch, their vocal folds collide more times each day than those of men. Thus, women may be more prone to certain voice problems such as nodules.

These factors we suspect:

8. It is true that because of less language experience (as compared to adults), children must be able to hear their teachers' voices well over background noise in order to learn. Likely sensing this, teachers tend to raise their vocal volume — perhaps more than necessary or in a compensatory way. Many teachers' vocal systems just can't take that high daily vocal burden.

9. Teachers haven't been taught healthy ways of speaking. Knowledge of optimal voice use from disciplines such as speech-language pathology hasn't crossed over to the field of education. When teachers have a voice problem, they may be unsure how to seek help.

10. Their unique work cycle may let teachers procrastinate about finding medical help for their voice problems. Teachers likely start the school year with well-rested voices, but as the year progresses, periodic problems with vocal fatigue, pain or illness may occur. Perhaps when teachers have reached a desperation point, summer has arrived, and teachers again have a three-month recovery period.

What do teachers' voice problems cost?

Drs. Katherine Verdolini and Lorraine Ramig, researchers in voice science, crunched those numbers...

Using conservative estimates: Consider there are 5,168,000 U.S. teachers, and about 40% experience voice problems. That means 2,067,200 teachers have hoarseness, fatigue, or other voice difficulties.

Of that group, only 15% actually seek treatment. Thus, 310,080 teachers get medical care.

If treatment costs $4,713 per teacher for surgery or therapy, the total medical bill is $1,461,407,040.

But, that's not all. Substitute teachers must be hired to replace the teachers with voice problems.

If each teacher with a voice problem (2,067,200) misses 3 days per year, and substitute teachers conservatively cost $60 per day, the annual cost for substitutes is $372,096,000.

So, medical costs of $1,461,407,040 + substitute teacher costs of $372,096,000 + pharmacy and insurance expenses = cost to the U.S. of $2.5 billion dollars each year.