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John Dabell

I trained as a primary school teacher 25 years ago, starting my career in London and then I taught in a range of schools in the Midlands. In between teaching jobs, I worked as an Ofsted inspector (no hate mail please!), national in-service provider, project...
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Can you imagine what it’s like to teach without a tongue?

For a footballer, it’s all about the feet. For a sculptor, it’s their hands and for the teaching profession, it’s our gobs. Like opera singers, actors and entertainers, we are in the professional cake-hole business, so we need to protect our most valuable asset: our voices.

However, there is another oral asset that goes hand-in-hand with our voices: that is the tongue, writes John Dabell.

I, like many teachers, have lost my voice quite a number of times over the years. The ‘voice’ always manages to fight its way back, but when it goes, it can feel like the end of the world because you just can’t teach. I’ve also lost my tongue! Well, 2/3rds of it, but that’s plenty, believe me! This is something that you don’t get back; once it’s gone, it’s gone. Losing nearly all my tongue has been a devastating blow to my teaching career, but I’ve managed in a fashion.    

Still tongue makes a wise head

Can you imagine what it must be like to teach without a tongue? Of course you can’t; well it’s tough, very tough. It’s hard enough to taste, eat, swallow and drink. One can often choke and saliva production is virtually, non-existent. Yet, the hardest thing of all is the simple act of speaking. When you lose your tongue, your speech then takes a hit and communication is suddenly, a very big issue. You might have a voice, but it can be distorted, slurred and abnormal without a tongue, and for a teacher, that’s not what you want. For teaching, having a tongue is essential.   

You probably haven’t given much thought to your own tongue, but you rely on it for some pretty basic human functions. I certainly didn’t think much about my tongue until, one day several years ago, I started to think about it quite a lot and then I thought about it obsessively.

I was teaching for weeks and weeks with a hoarse voice, and I passed this off as being a little run down, so I did what most of us do: I carried on. Every day at school, it got harder and I kept convincing myself that I had a lingering, stubborn virus that was just slow to pass. My voice was husky and my throat was sore. Then, my tongue started to enlarge and developed a couple of white patches: I decided that it was time to see the doctor. My GP referred me to a specialist and two weeks later, I was diagnosed with tongue cancer and neck cancer.

Hold one’s tongue?

My message is simple: don’t keep calm and don’t carry on. As teachers we tend to be the world’s worst at carrying on when we are feeling rough. Don’t. If your voice and/or your tongue is not 100%, then don’t delay. Don’t pass it off as ‘just a cold’ or ‘just a virus’, get it checked out and fast. Forget the guilt-ridden Bradford scale: if you need time off, take it because it could save your life.   

Image: Shutterstock

My voice and my tongue I took for granted for the whole of my teaching career until I was diagnosed. If I got laryngitis, tonsillitis or a cold I took these as occupational hazards. I knew when I entered into the profession that teaching was a job with a high risk of developing vocal problems and I knew that classrooms were full of coughs and sneezes which would be hard to dodge.

Sharp tongue

The voice is the major tool in classroom instruction and is often used for long periods of time and in noisy environments. The tongue is vital for articulatory of speech. It is agile and quick, it can produce more than 90 words a minute and uses more than 20 different movements. You need your tongue for pronouncing the consonants ‘t’, ‘d’, ‘l’ and the rolling ‘r’. When you pronounce the letter ‘k’, the tongue is slightly narrowed at the back and when you say ‘s’, the tip of the tongue moves backwards. My tongue doesn’t do any of those things, because the bit of tongue I have left doesn’t actually move anymore. In fact, I have a graft in my mouth from my arm that’s tethered to my mouth, just to keep the remains of my tongue in place and to trick my brain into thinking there is something there.

However, the body is remarkable and I can still speak and I can still teach. That’s not to say it’s easy, it certainly isn’t. There are times when children and adults don’t tune in to what I might have said. And there are times when I have encountered prejudice and discrimination along the way too. Special needs for teachers aren’t really given the same priority as they are for children.  

Set tongues wagging

The tongue is a good indicator of your overall health. Its colour and shape provide insights into possible illnesses that may otherwise go undetected. ‘Carrying on’ means that things can soon progress to an advanced stage, so open wide and check carefully. Inspect your mouth on a regular basis and check the sides, top and bottom and look for anything unusual – a healthy tongue should be pink.

Some of the symptoms of oral cancer to be aware of include:  

  •         Difficulty swallowing or chewing
  •         Frequent swallowing or coughing to clear the throat
  •         An ulcer or sore in your mouth or tongue that won’t go away
  •         A lump in your mouth
  •         An unexplained lump in your neck
  •         Persistent tongue and/or jaw pain
  •         White or red patch on the gums, tongue, tonsil, or lining of the mouth
  •         A lump or thickening in the inside of the mouth
  •         Sore throat or a feeling that something is caught in the throat
  •         Difficulty moving the jaw or tongue
  •         Bleeding or numbness in the mouth
  •         Hoarse, raw or raspy voice
  •         A change in pitch
  •         Speaking hurts and the voice sounds weak
  •         Speaking makes you tired
  •         Unexplained weight loss

Through our voice and tongue we communicate, educate, instruct and inspire students, so we need to look after them both. Cadbury once insured the tongue of one of their chocolate tasters for £1 million. Then, there was a coffee taster for Costa Coffee who had his tongue insured for £10 million. As teachers, our tongues and voices have value beyond these figures, so shouldn’t we insure them too? I wish I had.  

Bite your tongue?

Cancer Research UK has reported that the incidence of oral cancer in the UK has increased by about 68 percent in the past two decades. You just don’t ignore those figures. Oral cancer is frightening, but it is a highly preventable disease and very treatable, if caught early. 

For more information about oral cancer take a look here.

3 thoughts on “Gobsmacked!

  1. Thank you very much for sharing your story…I’m sure it might save a life. Until reading your article I never gave the importance of my tongue a second thought – I will now!

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