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Masked Teaching

Teaching with masks on is going to be hard.

Anyone who has spent hours in a mask knows that it can be uncomfortable. Most of us by now have had to repeat ourselves, or ask someone else to, when words get muffled by a few layers of fabric. And most of us aren’t spending six to eight hours per day trying to teach phonemic awareness to Kindergarteners, or math to sixth graders.

The challenge of masks isn’t just one of comfort or aural understanding. When it comes to teaching, masks can, well, mask the emotions that help teachers build strong relationships and classroom communities.

When the nationwide schools shutdown hit in March, students, parents, and teachers were reminded just how important relationships are to great teaching. Relationships are what help teachers convey high expectations and warmth, both of which depend on clear communication. And communication benefits mightily from facial expressions.

But if the spring schools shutdown showed us anything, it’s that children are resilient–and teachers are adaptable. And, as we welcome students back to the classroom this fall, we can build confidence knowing three things.

First, kids are remarkably adept at making meaning from even the slightest facial expression. Teachers who have mastered the art of the neutral stare know that, even at a young age, children can understand what a teacher’s raised eyebrow means or how to interpret crinkled smiling eyes. And this fall, while teachers’ may rely more on tone of voice or posture than they might have otherwise, these tools will powerfully deliver the expectations and warmth that are the hallmark of effective classrooms.

Second, facial expressions are not as reliable as body language. So in the absence of facial expressions, a teacher might instinctively look more to body language–and s/he might just end up with more accurate instincts. For example, if the 7th grader I’ve just told to sit down smirks at me but sits, in pre-mask days I would no doubt have focused on the sass of smirk. But when the smirk is covered up, perhaps I’ll pay more attention to the more important message the student’s body is sending: agreement with my direction.

More significantly, much of what we communicate and understand from body language is transmitted subconsciously. I can try consciously to adapt my gestures, postures and tone, and I can try to attend consciously to others’ body language. But my subconscious is going to be communicating what I’m really thinking, and it will be making inferences on the same level. The chances are excellent that if I’m annoyed by a student, or amused by another, or in awe of yet another, my body language is going to undermine my conscious attempts to communicate anything other than these judgements.

Finally, the best way to avoid subconsciously communicating judgments–dislike, favoritism–in my body language is not to judge in the first place. So even as we add the artifice of a physical mask to the act of teaching in person this fall, we have a new reason to strive for authentic love of our students. That, of course, is easier said than done. And it’s where practicing being a Catholic educator can get really powerful.

We are all sinners, and we all have the capacity to be saints. If that knowledge is ingrained in us, then we can react instinctively to each others’ misdeeds with some measure of hope, and we can temper our admiration of “good” kids. This ingrained love of the humanity within others is not an emotion but rather an act of will that takes practice. And teacher prayer, at its simplest and perhaps most potent level, is simply a chance to practice seeing our students in their full God-given dignity–behind their own figurative masks and bad habits–and a chance to ask for help to keep reacting to them as God’s beloved. With enough practice, that way of seeing our students can, like our teacher voices, become less of a conscious effort, and wired into our subconscious deeply enough that our body language conveys it whether we are aware of it or not.

So while we wear physical masks this year in our schools, we may find ourselves searching for new ways to connect with students whose expressions we cannot fully see, and who cannot see our own. One way–the kind of prayer powerful enough to shift our perceptions of others–might just help us become even more authentically the loving people our profession gives us a chance to be. Far from being an added burden, that just might be the blessing we can find from now until the day when we can unmask completely in our classrooms.