Teaching with Masks

What is lost?

Around the country teachers have returned to the classroom or are preparing to do so.  Inexplicably, in some places, parents have protested mask wearing in school. It seems such a simple thing to do, since being in-person remains a valuable part of teaching and learning, and always will.  Last year, many of the same parents were protesting schools teaching remotely.  If this one thing can bring teachers and students together again… what’s the big deal?

But there is no doubt that wearing a mask does limit the facial expressions that teachers can pick up from their students, and this has always been a way that teachers have adjusted their teaching in a particular class, and to pick up on cues from a particular student who wants to share something, or needs a little extra help.

At my University, the current rule is that vaccination is required (with exceptions).  The vaccination rate on campus is in excess of 95%.  Mask wearing is also required, even if vaccinated, by everyone, except when a teacher is teaching or a student is speaking at the front of the room.  This all seems prudent to me.  But the masks do get in the way – it is not quite the same.  I have been trying to articulate how it is different.

For starters, I am pretty proud of the fact that I have – nearly every year – memorized by student’s names by the third class.  That’s always my goal.  Sometimes I beat it, and most times I meet it.  

But this year, with most of their faces covered, I find that I can’t do it.  I am getting there, but I am at class 7, and I still haven’t quite gotten everyone.  It is frustrating, and I don’t like it.  I once had a boss who taught me that “there’s nothing more important to a person than their name.”  So I always try to respect that truth.

I am taking off my mask to teach, but I am also vaccinated and getting tested about once per week.  It helps me to not cover my face – not only for speaking, but for communicating through my voice and facial expressions.  I keep a mask on for travel to and from the classroom, and to speak with students after class. For those of you who are teaching full classes through a mask, what is lost for you?  If students cannot adequately hear what you are saying, this is obviously a problem.  I have found that some people have a timbre of voice that does not go through a mask well, and others are using masks that seem to block more of their voice than a different one might.

Because of the proximity of teacher and student in office hours, most of my colleagues are conducting office hours over Zoom, and I am also doing this.  The advantages of this approach are twofold.  First, it is more convenient for the student, because they don’t have to find their way to your office, and hope no one is there first.  Second, at least we can both take our masks off and see each other’s faces, which now almost feels like a luxury.  How very odd. But the “Brady Bunch” screen does put a distance between us.

When I taught a hybrid class of working professionals three years ago – well before Covid – I conducted office hours over Zoom.  It worked well there, because those students were incredibly busy, and it was a tremendous convenience to them.  Indeed, they might not have even been able to take advantage of office hours at all if I did not offer them over Zoom.

But with my current students, that is generally not the case.  They are in the building much of the day, and if I offered office hours in person, they would – without the threat of Covid – probably come to see me. So it feels like something is missing from the lack of regular interactions that have in the past taken place in my office.  This year’s students, or last year’s dropping by to check in.  I find I miss that interaction very much.  

I have long been an advocate of our not going back to “normal” when Covid recedes.  There is so much we have learned in these last 18 months that we can leverage to the benefit of our students.  I am fine with offering office hours over Zoom – that works well most of the time.  But I think I would also offer them in person, if I could.  Once again, I land on the hybrid approach.

Being able to see each other’s faces in class again will feel like a luxury.  But let’s not forget how precious in-person class time is, preserve it however we can, and hope for better, hybrid, times in the near future.

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Letters of Recommendation

This week my recommendation is the TV show on Netflix called “The Chair.” Sandra Oh stars as the newly elected chair of an English Department at a well-respected University. Any teacher, at any level, will find the show funny, and anyone who has gone to college will as well. Only one season so far, and only six episodes, so a “quick binge,” but worth the time.

Q of the Week

This week the Q of the Week is a Quote from Sandra Oh’s character in The Chair. When talking about the near melt-down of the department soon after she takes over, she says:

I feel like someone handed me a ticking time-bomb because they wanted to make sure a woman was holding it when it explodes.