I am officially starting my 6th week of online teaching through Zoom. Every day, I boot up my laptop, launch my Zoom meeting, and smile at the names of students that appear on my screen in empty black boxes. If I am lucky, and I mean really lucky, I get few students smiling back at me with their cameras on.
Usually it is the same five or six kids that have their camera on, and to be perfectly honest, those are the kids I feel like I know the best. Any teacher will tell you now, it is hard to build a personal connection to someone you’ve never seen; it’s hard to attach the things you know about a student when you have no visual in your head to attach it to.
The toughest part of starring into the black boxes on my screen is the lack of feedback. In the classroom, I am always able to instantly monitor my students’ progress: who’s done, who’s stuck, who’s distracted. But online, that feedback loop is gone. Instead, I find myself asking students to give me a thumbs up when they are finished or type in the chat to answer a question.
Don’t get me wrong- my kids are participating. My favorite thing last week was when I had students turn on their annotation tools and identify parts of speech in some practice sentences I wrote. 26 students all circling, underlining, and writing on the same slide at once; it’s the kind of controlled chaos that I live for in the classroom. My students are still showing me their learning, even online.
With all this said, you might be surprised to hear that I do not mandate my students turn their cameras on. It’s a tricky topic, but my reasoning comes down to two concerns: privacy and anxiety.
Every day, I have high school students doing it all. At some point, I call on a student only to be met with that black screen and silence. Like a good teacher, I give wait time before I try again, and then I see the chat pop up: “Sorry Miss P. I’m watching my sister.” I’ve had a student give a presentation while also trying to troubleshoot with their little brother. I’ve conferenced with students only to have them apologize because there is a dog barking in the background that needs a walk. So I smile at those names in boxes because I want my students to see me in my crazy classroom, even if they would rather not show off their homes to the class.
The other reason is the heightened anxiety that comes with turning your camera on, or even un-muting your microphone to speak. There is also the stress of being judged on their appearance, their home, and their rooms. I feel like all of these anxieties are only heightened because classes have not gotten to know each other as much as they usually would in person. Luckily, we can still give students a chance to participate through the chat, reactions, annotations, breakout rooms, and non-verbal feedback; all ways to be present in class.
Teachers are asking for grace in this challenging time, so let’s make sure we extend this same courtesy to our students. Ask them to turn on their videos; encourage them to smile and say hello when the meeting starts, but know that the student whose camera is off might be working way harder than you know.