Education: Silenced by classroom abuse: Voice loss is driving teachers to early retirement. Julia Hagedorn reports

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The Independent Online
It was only when Anne Long, then a primary schoolteacher, lost her voice for 12 days and was told that she was in danger of becoming permanently mute that she took six months off work. Four of those were needed simply to build up her voice again. Even now, if she has to talk at any volume she has to take frequent five- minute pauses.

Mrs Long, now headteacher of Birchgrove Primary School, Cardiff, is one of a number of teachers who irreparably damage their voices by continuing to talk loudly to their classes when they should really be at home nursing laryngitis. From 1969 to 1983, Mrs Long taught through increasingly severe bouts of laryngitis, even taking an amplifier into school with her on several occasions, until she finally sought medical advice. When she returned to the classroom it was to teach small groups, but she could not, she says, have carried on for long. She was on the point of taking early retirement on health grounds when her present headship came up and she was successful.

Many other teachers, the teacher unions say, have been less fortunate, and voice loss is an increasingly common reason for taking invalidity benefit or early retirement.

Nor is croaking at a class through a sore throat the only way teachers damage their voices. Being under stress, having discipline problems with a class or simply not knowing how to breathe correctly can send teachers to the speech therapist - if they are lucky enough to recognise that they have a problem.

In a survey last year by the British Voice Association of 40 voice clinics, over 300 teachers were receiving treatment for damaged voices, referred by hospitals' ENT departments.

Rosemary Bond, a teacher

at Burnham Copse Junior School, Tadley, Hampshire, was one of these. She had got into the habit of constantly clearing her throat, sounding as though she were out of breath, but it was only when people began to mistake her voice on the phone and she could no longer sing in assembly that she went to her GP. Last year she had an operation to remove a nodule on the left- hand side of her vocal chords and was then referred to a speech therapist, where she discovered she was straining her voice by using her lungs incorrectly.

'It was partly to do with discipline,' she says. 'In the past 10 years children have been less disciplined and one does get irritated and shout. The year of my operation I had had a terrible class with lots of problems.

'I just wish the speech therapist had lectured on these matters when I was at college. If only I had known sooner about voice use and abuse, about tense muscles and how to project my voice.'

Roz Comins, voice care project director at the British Voice Association, has been running workshops for teachers in Coventry since 1987, and is lobbying for courses on voice care at all teacher training institutions. She says that 90 per cent of the teachers who come to her have had no help in looking after their voices. The voice is as important for teachers, she points out, as for actors and opera singers.

Sussex University is one of a small number of institutions already including voice care in their teacher training courses. All students have two sessions on voice care and self presentation in their first term run by a visiting tutor, Anne Thomas. Students with difficulties are followed up individually and Ms Thomas runs a drop-in surgery for those who experience problems during teaching practice.

As well as breathing and relaxation exercises, students are given hints on how to manage in a noisy classroom. For instance, if you listen to chaos, Ms Thomas says, it is made up of highs and lows: a teacher should always wait for a low and never attempt to top pupils' noise. They also need to learn that they can be authoritative without shouting.

(Photograph omitted)

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