The “touch up my appearance” filter on Zoom is set to the highest blur and I enter the meeting room with an easy click. As a graduate student and teacher, I’m only known to my students from the collarbones up, so everything within the camera frame is appropriate, clean, and gives off that put-together vibe. Meanwhile, all around me, millions of other teachers are doing the same, creating in-home classrooms that are virtual stages with costumes, props and seemingly inexhaustible enthusiasm. Turning on a camera, on the surface, takes very little effort. But there’s a lot going on off screen. Students and teachers are lonely, isolated, depressed. We’re still performing our roles but it’s getting harder. Much of the connection that came with teaching and learning has been lost, and we’re feeling it every day.
I began my career teaching middle school in a windowless classroom in south Los Angeles where I wore slacks, heels and blouses. I’d stand at the door each morning greeting the students, sometimes giving a high five or an elbow bump. The hum of chatter filled the room as they caught up with each other from the weekend’s events, or asked if they did last night’s homework. During a lesson, it was easy to see students’ reactions—if they were paying attention, confused, or engaged—and I could adjust on the spot as needed. It was multi-sensory—kids in their seats, clicking their pens, passing back papers, turning pages of books, sinking into bean bag chairs in the book nook. Later in my career, as I moved districts and technology became more accessible, I had to contend with the sly texting in their laps, though they’d pretend to be on task. My syllabus had a no-technology policy and it wasn’t perfect, but it helped.
I performed then too. I’d smile wider, make my movements more exaggerated, and even talk in a camp song voice. I put on bright dresses. I decorated my classroom to make it as cozy, welcoming, and cute as I could manage. This is to say, I spent a lot of my own time and money to create a place that I wanted to be in when I was at work. But that place was outside where I actually lived. The classroom was a stage, and it felt like one, an actual stage and not my own home.
Now, students are even more easily distracted. They are likely to have several tabs open, if not also their phone or tablets. In the time of TikTok, attention spans have waned. And admittedly, mine has too. It takes much more effort for me to concentrate over Zoom as I think about all my piled-up work than it ever did standing in front of a class. These days everything seems urgent. But what is worse is that in order to feel like I’m engaging my students, I must become an entertainer. In other words, we teachers are now competing against fun filters, stunt videos and the funny memes that are constantly uploaded and refreshed with a quick pull-down of a thumb. I look at my own computer screen, and the majority of the little squares where faces should be are blank, microphones muted, with no way for me to tell if a student is even present, let alone comprehending the lesson. Stopping to ask for any questions is met with awkward silence and my own nervous laughter. I feel like a comedian whose joke just fell flat.
For students, there is the loneliness of not being acknowledged. A few weeks ago, in lieu of the weekly quiz, I created a check-in for my college freshman students to tell me how they were doing as people. Some had been displaced from the Florida hurricane, were living in hotels without electricity and completing homework on their phone. Others were taking on extra shifts at work to support their families. Some had tested positive for COVID-19, or had a parent in the hospital, or were paying out of pocket for school because there was some glitch with their FAFSA, or their internet was slow. Almost every student mentioned feeling burned out, living the same day over and over again.
The truth is, I don’t know how to address my student’s depression because I’m currently in the muck of it too. In their check ins, all I can comment is that they are doing great, or link them to a campus-based virtual mental health resource (though there’s a long waitlist for an appointment), and give them a 10/10, an easy A during an incredibly trying year. I’m not a trained therapist and my university certainly has not provided tools with which to handle my own emotions, let alone the emotions of 17 or 18 year olds in freshman English. I can cut a lot of slack, extend deadlines or excuse assignments. But I also have to balance that with getting them to walk away feeling that they actually learned something.
I’m still figuring out how to connect with my students these days, despite the multiple platforms and devices on which to virtually connect. To connect on a deeper, more meaningful level, for me, has always happened in the spaces in between lessons, in searching for common ground like a shared favorite TV show. I don’t have the mental bandwidth to sit down and take notes about my students or create a custom file on each of them when I’m barely taking care of things in my own life. This semester I feel like a bad teacher, disconnected and struggling.
When 9/11 happened, my high school English teacher stopped our normal routine, rolled in a TV set, and turned it on. We watched together and discussed together and sat in silence together. I hold on to that moment because that day my teacher showed himself first as a human, and second as an entertainer or teacher. It was like the curtain was pulled back and we understood that we were all there, collectively experiencing this historical moment. What stayed with me was not what he said—I can’t remember—but that moment we stepped out of our bubble and balanced between childhood and adulthood. In that physical space during that class period, we grieved together and somehow acknowledged that we were all scared, sad and shocked.
I’m not saying we should rush back to the classrooms no matter what. For me, virtual learning helps me feel safe and less exposed. But right now, as everyone is trying to be positive and put a brave face on things, it is important not to overlook the costs, to both students and teachers, of our current situation. We’ve lost our community. Let’s at least hold on to our humanity.