Cameras Off

Rachel Perugini Current Affairs, Life in the Classroom, Web/Tech

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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.


I am originally from Pennsylvania where I earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Shippensburg University. In 2012, I moved to Arizona to teach on the Navajo Reservation; I liked the state so much I decided to stay. I taught language arts, reading, and journalism for three years at Many Farms High School. During that time, I earned a master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction for Reading. In 2015, I moved to Flagstaff where I currently teach 10th and 11th grade English. I have been an avid reader all my life, so I love that my job gives me that chance to read amazing books with my students all day long.

Comments 4

  1. Nate Rios

    Thanks for caring about the kids who can so easily slip through the cracks. Virtual teaching is a delicate dance but, with some patience and understanding, we can begin to see our seeds grow. Good work!

  2. James King

    This is a good reminder for many of us. Sometimes my lesson is going right along, and if we were in person, it would be so smooth to say “and what do you think about that, Jimmy?” and if Jimmy is confused or flustered, we know in real time. But across the digital divide there’s any number of reasons why Jimmy is unresponsive, and it may have nothing to do with confusion or needing assistance.

    This is a good reminder for us all to give the benefit of the doubt, give grace, and keep showing up for our students and doing our best, and hoping for the best in return.

  3. Leah Clark

    I totally agree with you! I do not force kids to turn on their cameras. For many students, the bandwidth cannot support it. For many other students, there is the chaos of everyday life that I certainly wouldn’t; want kids to see in my own house. Family members including their own children and animals are often in the house while they are trying to pay attention, learn, and participate. So, I use my chatbox like crazy to check for understanding, ice breakers, and questions. The kids are now trained to send emails after class or come to a tutoring session for extra help. It’s important to remember that for many of us including the kids, this isn’t normal. We can’t expect normal. Great post!

  4. Kyle Bragg

    Great post, Rachel! I completely agree with giving students grace during this tough time. There are also other ways to interact and/or assess students, even without video on (using the chat, talking out loud, apps like Jamboard, Edpuzzle, etc.).

    I appreciate you acknowledging that this is challenging on many, and we may have to adjust some of our teaching practices to meet the unique needs of our students right now.

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