Hoarse for courses

College lecturer Donny Gluckstein, a member of Scottish teaching union EIS, lost his voice - but he's now back at work and campaigning for voice-friendly work practices.

I lost my voice in March after three weeks of 35 hours per week teaching. Filling in for absent colleagues and an - ironically entitled - "intensive health and safety course" made me hoarse to the point where even speaking gently was painful. After 22 voluble years in a Scottish FE College this was an unsettling experience and I had no prior knowledge to draw on.

A visit to the GP confirmed that I was "aphonic" due to work-related overuse of the voice rather than an infection. My doctor advised resting my larynx, an appointment with Ear, Nose and Throat, and he wrote me a sick note. Whether foolishly over-committed to the students, or just foolish, I had asked to be signed as fit for attending work, even if not for full-scale teaching.

Brandishing the note I went to management and (using the phraseology of the Disability Discrimination Act) asked for "reasonable adjustments" to be made to help me soldier on. Being a union health and safety rep (and health and safety lecturer) and getting advice from the EIS health and safety official was very useful.

Management was immediately helpful and gave what I asked for - a radio mike and a laptop with projector and screen. This assisted in the short term, but it was not long before my voice was too weak for the radio mike to pick up and amplify. Then began a three month period of monk-like silence.

Armed with an array of miniature portable white boards, dry wipe markers and a 75wpm typing speed I carried on teaching. Some students even preferred the new technique of "chalk without talk." They could just copy down notes without thinking for themselves. But it was exhausting, as well as risking RSI, and home life was seriously disrupted.

A key problem was that everyone prescribed rest, yet after three months there was no improvement, and that crucial appointment for a voice specialist at Ear, Nose and Throat appointment had still not come through. The GP thought it might take up to a year. In desperation, being opposed to private medicine in principle, I asked management to fix me up with a private appointment via their occupational health service. They accepted.

So a one year wait became three weeks, and then I got an ENT cancellation anyway, so principles were preserved after all.

Now everything changed. The consultant was the first person to actually look at my larynx and duly pronounced. There was no permanent damage and instead of rest what I needed was exercise under the expert care of a speech therapist.

Progress was rapid, and now every day begins with a warm up like an opera singer, breathing from the diaphragm and resonating like a tuning fork to the immortal words "many men mine malachite in the Maine"!

However, a full recovery takes longer and so the "reasonable adjustments" continue. I have the laptop-projector-screen set up permanently in one room which is now the only place I teach in. There are no more "intensive'" classes timetabled. Classes are evenly spread over the week to avoid long periods of unbroken teaching.

Our safety committee discussed voice care and management is already liaising with other local further education colleges with a view to providing staff development about this. I have contacted various Scottish teacher training institutions to find out their provision. One teacher training college even asked me for advice on how to get voice training up and running.

So the lesson is - don't suffer in silence. There is a duty of care and a lot that can be done for the most valuable tool in the teacher's toolbox - their voice.

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