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The Sick Teacher’s Survival Guide Part 1

by Sarah Hruska-Olson Olson.Sarah@MacPhail.org

DSC07522“Enter if you dare,” said the sign on the classroom door to one of my Early Childhood Music teaching sites. Although the sign was actually part of a Halloween display, it can really be a bit scary to enter this toddler room when there are multiple notices on the door about possible exposure to everything from pneumonia to pink eye. 

As fond as I am of the inhabitants, I admit that I sometimes feel a bit of trepidation as I go through the door. The full time teachers at this site stay healthy most of the time by washing their hands frequently and cleaning toys and surfaces with a water and bleach solution. 

Preventative measures such as hand washing and keeping instruments and props sanitized and clean have helped me cut down on my exposure to germs. I also find that eating well, exercising, and getting enough sleep are excellent preventative measures.  However, cold viruses and other illnesses are an inevitable part of the job for me and for most of my MacPhail ECM and school partnership colleagues. Proximity to airborne droplets containing viruses can be impossible to avoid in some circumstances no matter how healthy and proactive we are.  

Most of us take a day or two away from work when we become sick, but we may return to work struggling with our singing and speaking voices.  In some cases it may be two or three weeks before we feel fully vocally healthy again. As we enter cold and flu season, here is some very helpful advice from MacPhail faculty members on how to care for ourselves once we have gotten sick, particularly when our voices are affected.     

Speech language pathologist, Jennifer Sylvester has knowledgeable advice on treatment and behaviors:

 “As a Speech language pathologist, I have experience in working with a lot of voice professional who are struggling with voice disorders, and pretty much the same strategies apply when illness affects the voice. "

The key things are:

Maintain topical and systemic hydration:

  •  Systemic hydration; 8-10 glasses a day to maintain the body's hydration.  The vocal folds must be wet and slippery to vibrate.  This is so important!
  • Avoid 'vapor action' cough drops and antihistamines - they are actually drying
  • Sucking on candy or gum helps keep salivary glands stimulated which can be helpful in maintaining topical hydration
  • Keep environment humid. Even in a classroom, personal humidifiers can be used, or boil a hot pot when no kids are in the room (don't keep hot water in the room once kids are in)
  • Nasal irrigation- yucky for some, but VERY beneficial.  Either a nettipot or a syringe to rinse nasal passage.  A mixture of 1 tsp baking soda and 1 tsp kosher salt to a quart of water can be used.  This thins mucus preventing throat clearing as a result of post nasal drip and pulls the fluid out of swollen membranes to reduce swelling (2x daily)
  • DO use dextromethorphan or guaifenesin to suppress a cough


  • Reduce talking to only when necessary (only use your voice when getting paid!)
  • Reduce volume of speech
  • Avoid coughing or throat clearing
  • Vocalize (warm up voice) prior to using the voice with familiar, easy exercises that promote forward resonance

Photo credit: Warren B via flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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