Walking my school hallways and seeing the familiar faces of students has always been a highlight of my day. Prior to the pandemic, I would ‘collect’ those smiles, “hellos” and fist bumps in the same way that Sonic the Hedgehog collects rings. A walk from one end of my school to another is a guaranteed ‘level up’ EVERY time I make the journey. In fact, on days that aren’t going so well, I’d intentionally walk the halls to cheer myself up. You see, the power of making connections with my students has never been lost on me.
As I write this blog post I am about to start a new semester with a new cohort of students, and a significant portion of my teaching will be spent teaching through Zoom calls. Teaching in a pandemic has certainly provided teachers and students with challenges, some of which continue to be difficult to overcome. I am acutely aware of these challenges and have adapted my teaching accordingly. I have slowed the pace of my instruction, refined my assignments to be less onerous and more meaningful, and I have embraced the challenge of teaching health education to high school students in a hybrid environment (currently 25% students in the building, 75% students online).
I have NEVER insisted on a student turning their camera on in any of my lessons, and there are many reasons why I still maintain that this is the right thing to do. However, I have seen ‘Zoom fatigue’ set in with even my most interactive online students and my voice is taking up a larger percentage of our lessons together. An increasing number of students are comfortable with their camera off and their microphones permanently on mute, and I have to admit, after all of the emotional energy that I’ve poured into last semester’s class, the thought of starting all over again is filling me with anxiety. For that reason, I have a plea to students:
Dear Students, please consider turning your screen on in our lessons.
Teaching is all about building connections and I only have one semester with you to find ways in which to bring my content to life, tailor it to your needs, and then give you opportunities to engage in that material alone, and with others so that you can take it with you on your journey. Those that know me know that my teaching ethos is that “In health, it’s not just about getting an ‘A’ in class, it’s about getting an ‘A’ in life”. I no longer teach the short game, hoping for a successful semester. I focus on the long game, aiming for a successful lifetime. Can you get an ‘A’ in my class without turning on your camera? Yes. But will you be able to truly engage in my class, the materials, and the experience without the camera on? I don’t think so.
My teaching has always been shaped by the students in the room with me. Each class period gets an entirely different experience based on the dynamic of those present. The more we are able to engage, hear each other’s voices, learn from each other’s life experiences, the more we get out of our time together. If the old adage “Out of sight, out of mind” has any truth in it, if I don’t hear you, or can’t see you, I fear that you won’t feel like you are a part of the class and will feel isolated (at a time when we are all feeling more isolated than ever before).
I have this uncanny ability to remember my students, almost all of them from my 25 years of teaching. If I don’t see your face, and only hear your voice, it will be harder for me to remember you. It was Chinese philosopher Confucius who stated “I hear and I forget, I see and I remember“. Our ability to recognize and remember is less effective with sound than it is with sight. (link) YOU make MY experience more memorable when you turn on your camera.
There’s theory to back me up on my desire (but not insistence) that you turn on your camera. When we make eye contact with someone, levels of oxytocin in our brain are boosted. Oxytocin is known as the ‘feel-good hormone’, it is the chemical in our brain that boosts social bonding – it literally makes us feel closer to each other. Additionally, when our oxytocin levels rise, levels of the stress hormone cortisol are reduced. So eye contact makes us feel good AND less stressed. If, like me, you could do with less stress in your life, please consider turning your camera on.
Attuned eye contact, compassionate eye contact, helps mitigate the effects of stress on the brain and the body and brings us closer to one another, a healing force in and of itself.Meg Van Deusen
At a time when perhaps we are feeling less connected with others due to the constraints of the pandemic, I have shared this 3 minute TED talk with students. In it, Robert Reffkin shares five ‘old-fashioned’ ways to create stronger connections, and his fifth suggestion suggests that keeping your camera on is beneficial. He says “Turn the video on. I would always recommend a videoconference over a phone call. Because that’s when you can see the real personality come out. When you’re on video, you’re forced to be present. It’s almost a forcing mechanism to be in the moment.”
I want your time with me to be as engaging and as personalized as possible. I want us to connect in a way that our time together, the lessons learned, and the conversations that we have live on long after our semester in class. I want to know that after you earned that ‘A’ in class, you went on to earn the ‘A’ in life that you deserve.
I’ll finish with another quote from the TED talk above. It concludes by saying that “Nobody succeeds alone. The more you can take time to develop genuine, authentic relationships, the more you’re going to be able to realize your dreams. You’re going to be able to take big risks and know that there’s a network of people to cheer you on and to support your efforts.”
I want to be a part of your network of people to cheer you on and support your efforts. For that reason, please consider keeping your camera on.
If you like this post, you might also want to check out ‘This Is Not Your Parents’ Health Class”.