Expert Perspectives

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.

Teachers are 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.

Studies have 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.

Classrooms can 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 Hearing Loss

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.

Beyond that, 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.

And if 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 innovative solutions.

Hearing aid 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.

In addition, 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.

About the Author

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.