Guest Columnist

John Richard Schrock


Off to School?

 

Teacher morale is at its lowest point since the pandemic began, according to data reported from the Education Week Research Center. It appears that about half of the nation's schools have at least some students returning to classrooms and about 90 percent of districts are requiring teachers to wear face coverings. Reports indicate that elementary students are adapting well, wearing their masks without complaint and often with enthusiasm. They are eagerly washing their hands too.
 
    But for teachers, speaking through a mask makes having a "teacher's voice" particularly important. 
 
    Many elementary teachers are also using more gestures.  Many teachers naturally use gestures and we often joke that they would go silent if they had to sit on their hands. But good teachers realize that we all converse with our hands and our eyes and our body posture. We have innate or unschooled gestures that are "homesigns" as described by University of Chicago Professor Susan Goldin-Meadow. She saw how a deaf child who had not learned sign language nevertheless used richly meaningful gestures that were natural and understandable.
 
    Homesign gestures are nouns and verbs and possess the "universal properties of language." Sometimes you see a person walking alone but speaking into a cell phone and gesturing to a listener who will never see it. This is "co-speech gesturing" that we naturally provide even if our listener cannot see it. When they can, it adds visual richness. 

    Teachers also realize "When we are excited, our students are excited." And it comes as much from our visual expression as from our speech. This is the richness of face-to-face classroom communication. But you have to be in the presence of the speaker. Going through media dampens students' perception.

Compare sitting at a ball game in the enthusiastic cheering crowd versus watching on ESPN where the view is actually better but the atmosphere is not as electric. It is the high resolution gestures that we can read by "being there" that provides greater understanding and empathy and exultation. Lack of resolution in co-speech gesturing is but one of many deficiencies of inferior online learning. 

    For some teachers whose "teacher's voice" is too soft, some are using a headset microphone outside the mask. Teachers are discovering they need to have several masks in order to change out when one gets wet. Speaking through a mask can also cause dehydration; teachers learn to step out to drop the mask to take a drink. 

    For those students that must study from home, the fiasco of this last spring has clearly shown that anytime-anywhere asynchronous learning is abysmal. Those who taught during the 1970s experiment with the much hyped television education know it failed miserably. Today's teachers know that only "live screen time" or being "together" online with the teacher in real time is a little more engaging. But it is nowhere as good as being physically present in class. 

    For those students watching a screen at home, "Zoom fatigue" has become a major limitation. Honest teachers clearly recognize that the attention span on a screen is limited and far less than engagement in a real classroom.
 
    And it is the hugs that young elementary students miss. That is hard to simulate. Cardboard cut-out "fake hands" or waving to friends from a distance just isn't the same. 

    But K-12 teachers are "in loco parentis" or function "in the place of the parent" and have a jurisdiction over students. 

    Universities have less jurisdiction over their students, especially off-campus. However, many college students are aware that their safety depends on their classmates not participating in high risk behaviors. Off-campus beer parties are becoming a source of asymptomatic transmission. While the risk of serious COVID-19 infection is less the younger the student, hospitalizations occur and in turn endanger healthcare workers both young and old. And non-traditional students coming back for advanced degrees are older and more at-risk. 

    So some college students who are alert to these dangerous behaviors are "virus snitching" on their irresponsible classmates. And that is a good thing.