Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, face masks have been a primary tool for preventing infection spread. In classrooms, however, they’ve created barriers to authentic interactions because of muffled speech and sounds that can lead to an overall “dehumanizing” effect.
Despite difficulties with masks, teachers can still engage students and build rapport. While some of the following strategies have gained attention through mask-wearing experiences, teachers can also look forward to applying them in unmasked, postpandemic settings.
Making Eye Contact
People perceive messages primarily through facial expressions, more so than gestures, posture, or other body language. When wearing a mask over half of one’s face, communication through eye contact becomes even more important. Keeping in mind students’ social and emotional states and cultural backgrounds, teachers can meet them eye to eye in an inviting way. This includes ongoing visual contact with students throughout a lesson, while avoiding lengthy stare downs that may evoke additional stress.
Eye contact involves the entire facial region around the eyes. For example, raising eyebrows can convey curiosity and enthusiasm, while a furrowed brow often results from deeper thought. Teachers can help students learn how to read behaviors and show appropriate expressions. Specifically, call their attention to “happy crinkles” formed around the eyes when smiling. A similar concept is the “smize,” a term that supermodel Tyra Banks has used to describe smiling with your eyes. Whether on a fashion runway or in school, awareness of such nuance can improve interactions.
Amplifying Your Actions
In addition to subtle cues, teachers may need to exhibit other actions more generously. At times, both vocal and visual behaviors require amplification for clearer communication. Educators can follow the example of health professionals, who learned to be more deliberate in their interactions with children during the SARS outbreak in the early 2000s. Methods include exaggerated head nodding and eyebrow movements, even “overdoing it” to supplement or magnify one’s spoken message.
In some cases, masked teachers might have to explicitly state that they are smiling, laughing, or pausing to reflect. For example, I’ve occasionally caught myself lost in thought about a student’s remark or question, and then noticed a class full of bewildered looks in return. I pause to explain that nothing is wrong with what the student said; in fact, it’s a noteworthy idea that deserves further contemplation.
It also helps to write (or display) the information on a whiteboard (or screen) so that everyone can give it additional review. This is another opportunity for sharing and comparing cultural norms and perspectives. Other actions for supporting students are gesturing with open arms and palms, counting with fingers, and kneeling or sitting at desk level.
Fine-Tuning Your Voice and Watching Your Tempo
How one’s voice carries when they are masked depends on several factors, such as classroom environment, the person speaking, mask material, and more. Part of the issue is that mask wearing can distort the speaker’s own perception of their vocal volume. One solution for talking louder is using a headset microphone, which reduces vocal fatigue. Vocal clarity also depends on intonation, enunciation, and speed. Take care to not rush when talking, and allow time for your students to comprehend what has been said.
Tempo relates to appropriate use of wait time, or think time, the period of silence after someone speaks. Whether this moment follows a teacher’s question (wait time I) or a student’s comment (wait time II), waiting just 3–5 seconds can encourage more student conversation, reflection, and speculation. Effective wait time also results in the teacher talking less, which has added personal restorative benefits such as more energy, composure, and happiness by the day’s end.
Asking Quality Questions and Offering Reflective Responses
When teachers do speak, it’s important to make every word count. This has been true long before widespread mask use. However, it’s crucial to speak even more purposefully through covered faces.
Meaningful questions are essential for guiding discussions and avoiding excessive lecture. Challenge yourself to go beyond prompts that require a mere “yes” or “no,” or similar one-word answers. These allow students to simply guess or regurgitate trivial nuggets. Instead, make it a habit to start with open-ended phrases: “How could...?” “Why might...?” “What if...?” “In what ways...?” Such questions are more effective in drawing out students’ ideas (assessment). They also align with higher levels on Bloom’s taxonomy of learning—application, analysis, synthesis, evaluation.
Like questions, how a teacher responds to students can shape expectations and interactions. Be careful with overusing praise, which loses impact and actually undermines student autonomy. Alternative responses with better results are using students’ ideas or asking them to elaborate. The latter strategy is often helpful when the student’s initial comment is brief. Rather than paraphrasing or interpreting for the student, the teacher can invite them to clarify their thoughts.
The question starters above are also useful for responding to students. Additional examples include “What do you mean by...?” “For what reasons...?” “How did you...?” and “Tell me more about...” All of these responses communicate interest in and valuing of students’ contributions without resorting to teacher-centered praise or paraphrasing.
Teaching and Modeling With Purpose
Masked or unmasked, effective teachers demonstrate nonverbal and verbal behaviors that invite students in the learning process and are essential for engaged classrooms. Teachers can apply these behaviors in purposeful ways, along with planned thought-provoking questions and responses that ask for elaboration, reflection, and further investigation.
Regardless of how long face mask usage continues, the teaching techniques above will apply to classrooms beyond the pandemic. Furthermore, teachers can model a positive attitude and proactive approach to dealing with challenging circumstances. When I taught high school chemistry, wearing goggles was a frequent requirement. This safety routine was also a common annoyance for many students. Goggles can be uncomfortable, encumbering, and in some conditions overly cautious. Sound familiar?
I don’t enjoy wearing goggles, but I do wear them in the science lab to be safe. Equally important, it shows students how short-term discomfort is reasonable for the long-term well-being of others. We found ways to make it fun, too, with silly jokes as reminders to “keep those goggles on.” Additionally, there were “break zones” located a safe distance from the lab area where individuals could remove eyewear and rest for a moment.
As with wearing goggles in the science classroom, masked teachers can practice patience, consideration, and creativity in whatever field they teach. Even in uncertain times, teachers have the opportunity to offer flexibility, grace, and empathy for students and colleagues. In applying the strategies above, we not only engage our students in learning but also invite them to grow in these enduring virtues.