Esther Meek once made an offhand comment I have always remembered. She said, “You can’t look into a human face and not be changed.” I think of this remark whenever I step through the door of the school where I work and simultaneously tug my mask up over my nose and mouth. Everything I believe about teaching leads me to say that a teacher’s face is his most important tool. A shift in expression can inspire, challenge, encourage, confront, or change a student. With half of my face covered, connecting with my students requires exponentially more effort. They can’t read my expression and I can’t gauge their reactions.
I have to remind myself that, even without masks, students rarely reveal what they’re thinking. In some ways, that’s the whole challenge of teaching: startling the student out of “I don’t care” into “But what about…?” I’d rather see a thicket of outraged faces than rows of listless blanks. The masks only make it more difficult. On the other hand, I’ve found that, in certain situations, I can use the anonymity my own mask provides to my advantage. Discipline, for example, is much easier when the offender can’t read your expression and projects his own guilt onto the judge. I may as well wear a mirror to reflect the student’s own conscience-stricken face back to him. But discipline is only one part of what a teacher does. The kind of change that goes down to the bones needs face-to-face interaction.
The other anti-COVID steps taken by schools in my area have revealed the arbitrariness of all scholastic practices. For example, the administration at my school has encouraged us to take the students outside occasionally to give them some fresh air and a break from their face coverings. This being Alabama, the weather isn’t always pleasant, but when it is, I catch myself thinking, “Why don’t we do this more often? Why teach seven subjects back to back with every student sitting at a desk?” I know that there are other schooling systems that are way ahead of me in this area (Charlotte Mason, Montessori, homeschooling). I simply mean that the pandemic has put up for discussion many things that were previously off the table.
It’s amazing to see how cleverly the students have adapted. Since the water fountains have been turned off to reduce the spread of germs, every student brings a water bottle. Students are not allowed to play games that involve physical contact, so they play kickball, using discarded masks as bases. I have noted before the level of creativity inspired by the coronavirus. In some ways, responding to such a bizarre September is an education in itself.