Do I need an amplification system?
Do I need it? Tired of struggling to be heard? So are many teachers. Some have found a solution in amplification systems. Teachers - particularly those who are naturally soft-spoken - face a daily struggle to crank up the volume. In trying to do so, teachers may overtax structures not meant for this daily burden. Raising the voice once in a while is probably not harmful, but a constant, unnatural vocal pattern may be destructive over the long haul. So how can an amplification system help? Put simply, a voice amplification system is an artificial way to reduce the distance between the student and the teacher. The result: the teacher can speak at a comfortable volume yet be heard in noisy environments.
Another benefit: amplification systems equalize sound. Thus, the teacher's voice is distributed equally to each student.
Dueling systems: In broad terms, there are two categories of amplification systems: portable, which are attached to the teacher; and wireless systems built into the classroom.
A few pros and cons between systems:
- A portable system travels with the teacher (classroom, playground, etc.);
- Portable are less expensive than wireless systems;
- Portable systems - although lightweight - must be worn;
- Teachers must remember to charge a portable pack / keep fresh batteries handy;
- A wireless system installation requires permission to alter the classroom;
- Schools can elect to alter all classrooms simultaneously, making the project more economical and possibly preventing other teacher's voice problems;
Will I squeak and squeal? Here's the feedback on feedback. It's caused when sounds coming out of the speaker get recycled through the microphone, creating a disagreeable, high-pitched noise. To prevent feedback, make sure the original sound (your voice) only goes through the amplification system once.
- Use only as much amplification as needed.
- Keep the microphone away from the speaker equipment. For body-worn systems, keep the speaker pointing outward or possibly even a bit downward. With built-in systems, avoid walking in front of the speaker.
- Keep the microphone close to the lips. Manufacturers recommend placing head-mounted mics a mere 1/4-inch away from the lower lip.
Who will pay for it? With the limited salaries of teachers, even a portable amplification system may be out of reach. Suggestions for financial assistance include:
- Contact vendors. Mention that you are a teacher. One vendor reported that he gives his deepest discount to school teachers.
- Involve your doctor, and ask for a prescription for a "Voice Prosthesis." Your insurance policies may cover prosthetic devices.
- Ask your parent/teacher organization to help raise money to supply amplification systems for the entire school.
- Seek sponsors. A local civic organization or business may find this to be an excellent way to help the community.
- Educate your school board and administrators. Wages for just two days of substitute teaching will pay for a portable system.
Nuts, bolts, woofers and tweeters of amplification
An amplification system requires just a few basic parts:
1. Microphone to pick up the sound of your voice (and if the mic is wireless, a receiver is also needed);
2. Amplifier that increases the level of sound;
3. Speaker to distribute the louder sound to the surrounding area; and
4. Power sources to keep the system running.
These components come in a variety of different forms. The ideal unit for you depends upon your particular preferences and needs.
All about mics: A microphone that keeps the hands free to do other tasks (like write on the blackboard) usually works best. Another priority: many teachers say they'd prefer NOT to be confined to a podium. You will probably prefer a microphone worn on the body. Dozens of models are available, and manufacturers are constantly creating lighter, more comfortable units.
Considerations for decision-making:
- Lightweight models may be more comfortable, but less durable.
- Head-mounted mics pick up the voice well but may interfere with glasses or hair styles or may be uncomfortable for people sensitive to pressure on the head.
- Lapel or lavalier mics may be more comfortable for daily wear but tend to pick up more body noises — such as swallowing or tummy growls — compared to a mic worn near the mouth.
Project the voice: Once a teacher's voice signal is captured by the microphone — or the microphone and its receiver in a wireless system — it is made louder (amplified) and distributed by the system's amplifiers and speakers. Your choice of systems relates to practical matters. Technology has created systems small enough that the amplifier and speaker can be worn like a fanny pack around the teacher's waist. Other more powerful systems are the size be carried much like a laptop computer. Portable amplification systems are designed to be primarily used by one person, and thus, the teacher will probably have at least some influence in the selection.
If entire classrooms are altered to accommodate a wireless system, however, the school system's facilities managers must be involved, as these systems require alterations to classrooms.
Take time for a vocal stress-buster
A virtual voice-saver for elementary teachers: Do you read fiction aloud to your class each day? Ask residents at local retirement centers, members of churches, or members of civic organizations to volunteer to read to the children. Often, people are more willing to volunteer their time if they have predictable, limited and occasional tasks.
For example, perhaps a local business would allow 20 of its employees to each take 15-20 minutes one day per month to read to your class after lunch. This is a small contribution for each person, but the teachers gain a much-needed "vocal nap."
Use yawns: Recreate that relaxed feeling you get after awakening from a refreshing nap. Open your mouth wide and yawn. Let some air escape. Your throat feels open and easy. Open your mouth wide and yawn again. Sigh a little as you release the air. Yawn again, this time making a full-blown sigh on your exhalation.
This technique makes voicing feel easy, doesn't it? This is called your easy voice. A yawn-sigh technique is actually a form of voice therapy. (We've only presented a brief sample here.) Yawning helps the speaker drop the larynx, widen airspace between the vocal folds and open up the throat for relaxed voicing.
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 $100 per day, the annual cost for substitutes is $620,160,000.
So, medical costs of $1,461,407,040 + substitute teacher costs of $620,160,000 + pharmacy and insurance expenses = cost to the U.S. of $3 billion dollars each year.
Check it out!
A fictional teacher wants further information and has cornered three experts: a scientist, a vocologist, and a teacher with experience using an amplification system in the classroom.
Would you like to listen in?
Q: But, if the volume of the teacher goes up (with an amplification system), won't the kids get louder still?
A (scientist): Actually, that's a great question. It is probably best not to think of amp systems as weapons in a "war of sounds." Rather, amp systems are a teaching aid for students who are missing many of their teachers' words.
A (vocologist): Many experts call them sound equalization systems. In other words, the teacher's speech is distributed equally to each student in the classroom.
Q: What's the difference between a voice amplification system, a personal amplification system and an assistive listening system?
A (vocologist): Nothing. These terms are basically synonymous.
Q: I've looked at some of the specs on websites, and I'm not sure how to compare the different systems. For example, how much power do I need? What else should I be looking for?
A (scientist): For the average teacher in the average classroom, you probably want to boost your sound level at least 10-15 decibels.
A (teacher): Rather than how MUCH power you need, I'd focus on how you're going to get that power - are you looking for a portable system or a permanent one?
Q: What would you recommend?
A (teacher): Only you can answer that question. Take some time to figure out what you want and how you're going to use it. Then, of course, you need to assess what your resources for paying for the system are. That will really narrow down your search.
A (vocologist): Either way you go, you'll be doing your voice a load of good. Many teachers in my practice say that this one change - using amplification - made a huge difference in their teaching effectiveness and their fatigue at the end of the day.
Q: From a cost standpoint, the portable system seems more attractive. What are the downsides to a portable system?
A (scientist): You have to wear a portable system. While they aren't very heavy, they may bother you - at least for a while. It's also obvious you are using amplification.
A (teacher): You have to remember to re-charge the system every night, because the charge only lasts ten hours or so. Or, if your system uses batteries, keeping spares nearby.
Q: What are the advantages and disadvantages of the wireless system?
A (scientist): It requires permission to change your classroom facility, and that can take time.
A (vocologist): However, you can use that to your advantage. Some schools decide to put amplification into all their classrooms at once, which can be more economical in the long run. Therefore, you've not only solved your own voice problems, but you've prevented other teachers' voice problems as well.
A (teacher): A lot depends upon how mobile you want to be. I'm the drama coach, so it made sense to me to be able to use my system to teach all day, then take it with me to the auditorium for play rehearsals.
Q: OK, I get the technical side of how these work, but how practical are they?
A (teacher): I love my system. I can reach every student in the room — even those sitting in the back. I don't have to repeat as much, and my students' comprehension has increased. I've been able to work it into my instruction in so many ways. For example, students get to use it when they read aloud to the class. It gives even shy kids a boost of confidence. I'd let you take away my textbooks before I gave up my sound system!
A (vocologist): My clients who have them say it takes a few days to get used to them. But I'm surprised how little disruption they report from students. This may be because it's becoming increasing common to see people use microphones: aerobics teachers, clerks in large stores, rock singers….
Q: Are they durable? For example, what would happen if the system fell to the floor?
A (teacher): I've had mine for years. Yes, I've banged it on the door and even dropped it on my desk. I haven't had any problems. These things are very sturdy.
Q: So, do amp systems work best for people who already have voice problems or for those who are trying to prevent voice abuse?
A (vocologist): Both. Ideally, we'd like to see teachers use an amplification system before voice problems occur. But, sometimes teachers may not know they are at vocal risk until they have symptoms. Removing the source of voice problems is often enough to clear up the problem itself.
Q: What about teachers who also coach sports? Can they use it for coaching?
A (scientist): Yes. You will find a portable system especially helpful for coaching outdoor sports. If you are a swimming or diving coach, however, and echoes are the problem, the amplification system may not be all that helpful at the indoor pool. Amplification doesn't solve the problem of reflected sound.
Q: Is there a way to predict if an amplification system would benefit me?
A (scientist): If you're not sure, contact a vendor. They may allow you to try out various systems for a trial period.
A (vocologist): Keep in mind that an amplification system will only boost volume. If you're worried about something else, like an accent, stuttering or mumbling, it won't help you out there.
A (teacher): You only have to think about how many sick days you take — or should have taken — because of a sore throat or other voice problem. And how about your quality of life? It's exhausting teaching with a tired voice.
I just wish these would become as standard as blackboards and books. My system has been more beneficial to me and my students than a lot of the other educational tools at my disposal. If nothing else, each school should have a system or two for teachers to borrow when they are having a "bad voice day."
A (vocologist): Just look at the math: 2 or 3 days of substitute teachers' pay would be enough to purchase a portable amplification system and mic.