How Teachers Can Tackle Noise and Hearing Loss
Schools can be noisier than many think, but for those who struggle to hear, technology can help teachers communicate better and live healthier lives.
communicators. But they can’t communicate what they need to in the
classroom if they can’t hear what students say. And schools can be
noisy places. Not rock concert noisy, but noisy enough to make
communication a challenge and potentially impact teachers’ hearing.
Not to mention, with many schools reopening with mask requirements to
help ward off Covid-19, hearing and communicating among teachers and
students is even harder — with or without the extra noise.
shown that noise in classrooms can top 85 decibels, which is the
threshold above which prolonged exposure — like an entire school
day — can lead to hearing loss. (For reference, a normal conversation
occurs at roughly 60 to 70 decibels.) In a frequently cited study,
researchers found that 94 percent of teachers they surveyed said
their classrooms were too loud and 65 percent complained of hearing
issues, including tinnitus, which is that ringing in the ears
commonly caused by noise.
also be acoustically challenging spaces, with hard surfaces (tile
floors, walls, whiteboards, chalkboards, etc.) that create excessive
reverberance and add to noise levels. Experts often focus their study
of noise in classrooms on its effects on students, but the same
science applies to teachers. A 2020 report
in the American Journal of Audiology looked at the
relationship between classroom acoustic standards and the ability of
students with hearing impairment to understand speech. In short, the
less reverberation (resonant noise) in a classroom, the easier it is
to hear what people — teachers and students — are saying.
Noise — whether
direct or reverberant — can affect teachers’ hearing, and by
affecting their hearing, it can make their job of communication more
difficult. But there are ways to hear better in the classroom.
The Impact of
Whether caused by
classroom noise itself or one of the myriad other daily sources of
excessive noise, teachers suffering from hearing loss face challenges
most others don’t deal with. It’s one thing to have trouble
hearing friends in a noisy restaurant — frustrating, no doubt, and
potentially exhausting, but limited to social engagements. It’s
another when your job is to educate a room full of students — to hear
and understand whether they’re grasping the subject matter — when
the environment either causes hearing loss or exacerbates a loss they
may not have known they suffered.
According to the
CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics, more than 37 million
individuals aged 18 and over report some trouble hearing. And there
have been studies
over the years in the hearing care field that indicate teachers
report hearing problems at a higher rate than workers overall.
Moreover, by some estimates, more than a quarter of teachers suspect
they have a hearing problem but haven’t done anything about it.
In fact, noise
doesn’t just cause hearing loss; it can reveal it. It’s
important to understand that noise-induced hearing loss isn’t
always the same as losing one’s hearing. Audiologists like me have
come to understand something called “hidden hearing loss,” which
is characterized by difficulty hearing in noisy environments, like
classrooms, but doesn’t show up through traditional diagnosis,
including audiograms. Like traditionally diagnosed noise-induced
hearing loss, hidden hearing loss is especially hard on communication
because it impacts sound frequencies that are common in speech. Both
make hearing voices more challenging, especially in spaces where
ambient sound or reverberant noise compete to be heard.
No matter the
nature or extent of a teacher’s hearing loss, it not only impacts
their ability to teach effectively, but it also affects their life
outside the classroom. Whether they struggle to hear because of an
audiological condition or an acoustically unfriendly classroom space,
the effort a teacher expends to hear can cause fatigue, frustration,
or a lack of concentration. Studies have shown that such effects can
cause people who struggle to hear to withdraw socially, which can
negatively impact mental health.
How to Hear
Better in the Classroom
So, what can
teachers do? The easiest thing may be to attack the problem of
acoustics first and begin to suppress the reverberance that
contributes to a classroom’s overall noisiness. Until school
districts design spaces with fewer hard surfaces or loud HVAC
systems, teachers can take the initiative of dampening classroom
noise through absorbent surfaces. The American
Speech-Language-Hearing Association recommends
laying rugs and carpets, hanging curtain or blinds, and using soft
materials like felt of corkboards on the walls. Paying attention to
acoustics can help lower noise levels that contribute to hearing loss
while improving conditions for those who already suffer.
teachers themselves need to recognize their own hearing challenges
and address them accordingly. When they’re exhausted at the end of
the day, yes, much of that may be the result of the job’s rigors,
they should also consider that straining to hear effectively could
also be a contributor. Recognizing higher-than-optimal noise levels
in a classroom, teachers should have their hearing checked regularly.
noise-induced hearing loss — or even suspected hidden hearing
loss — becomes a factor, there is new hearing technology that can
help. Even teachers that suffer from tinnitus can seek relief through
technology now exists that can dramatically improve a teacher’s
ability to hear and communicate in virtually any setting, from the
classroom to the teachers’ lounge, to a restaurant at the end of a
busy day. My company recently created a hearing aid technology
platform we call Augmented Xperience that integrates two
microprocessors into stylish, discreet hearing aids for handling
speech and background noise separately. This kind of split processing
in hearing aids makes it so hearing loss sufferers can listen and
communicate more effectively in all environments — noisy, quiet, or
normal. They can hear more clearly what a student is saying while
suppressing classroom noise that might otherwise get in the way.
we’ve created a Face Mask Mode for our hearing aids, which wearers
control through a smartphone app to compensate for muffled speech
cause by face masks. And most of our hearing products also include
what is called notch therapy technology for helping suppress
tinnitus. Notch therapy identifies the wearer’s unique tinnitus
frequency and creates a frequency notch in their hearing aids that
ultimately offsets and silences the tinnitus, helping them
communicate better, but also alleviating the effects of excessive
noise that might hinder their daily lives.
Classrooms can be
noisy places. It’s important that teachers and school
administrators recognize the situation shouldn’t just be a fact of
life in education. Noise disrupts the learning-teaching process and,
in fact, can adversely affect the health and wellbeing of the very
teachers entrusted with bringing knowledge and order to classrooms.
By treating the noise itself, and by taking care of their hearing
health through exams and properly fitted hearing aids designed to
actually work in noise, teachers can be the effective communicators
we’re all incredibly thankful for.
Brian Taylor is a Doctor of Audiology and Senior Director of
Audiology for Signia. He is also the editor of Audiology Practices, a
quarterly journal of the Academy of Doctors of Audiology,
editor-at-large for Hearing Health and Technology Matters and adjunct
instructor at the University of Wisconsin. Dr. Taylor has authored
several peer reviewed articles and textbooks and is a highly sought
out lecturer. Brian has nearly 30 years of experience as both a
clinician, business manager and university instructor. His most
recent textbook, Relationship-Centered Consultation Skills for
Audiologists, was published in July 2021.