On Seeing Half Your Face – Teaching With a Mask

Written by: Jorinde Berben
Image by: Pexels.com

We just finished our very first week of the new school year. In my case: the first week I was allowed back in front of a class since the Covid lockdown started on March 13th. And Covid still plays a major part in our classes. We disinfect regularly. Students remain in their seats throughout the entirety of the class. No one shares anything. And yes, we all wear masks, everywhere and all the time.

We’re used to masked faces by now. They’re in stores, on the street, in schools, at the doctor’s office. We’ve learned whether our neighbour is the ‘self-made-mask’ type, prefers the disposable blue ones or the government-issued white masks. We have our own mask preferences by now, know the smell of different types, how they work with our hair cuts and how they affect our breathing. We’ve learned a lot about these squarish bits of cloth over the past six months.

But there’s one thing I apparently haven’t learned. While teaching my class, I notice I lack information. I notice how much I rely on the facial expressions of my students to gauge how engaged they are, and how well they comprehend what I’m saying. I feel handicapped as a teacher not being able to access this non-verbal feedback. Now I look at eyes and eyebrows, at body language where possible, and feel a sense of loss. I really miss seeing these diverse faces.

With only seeing someone’s eyes, your mind somehow creates a bottom half to that face which seems plausible in your mind. Try it with the faces in the picture above. I’m pretty sure you have an idea about what that bottom half looks like. I’m guessing our mind bases this on previous faces we’ve seen. It makes assumptions. The disillusionment when someone pulls down their mask to take a sip of water is oddly startling. Suddenly a face is revealed that you see for the first time, even if it’s the 3rd class you have together, and it feels like you didn’t really know that student as well as you thought you did. It reveals that there is just so much we don’t know about eachother.

Some of my students I haven’t even fully seen at all, and I wonder how long it will take before I get a glimpse at their face. I also notice how quickly that image of their face fades again as well. Usually I spend over 3 hours a day looking at these faces, concentrating on their every expression and picking up all kinds of cues. I know them by the end of the course. Now I might run into them again in two months time and won’t even recognize them if they’re not wearing a mask.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad I’m in a classroom. I’m glad I don’t have to teach from home anymore and can be there with my students, all of them. And I’m glad to see interaction again between students, to the degree they are allowed. I don’t even mind so much that my voice is taking a bigger hit than normal, or that I have a slight headache at the end of the day.

I just know what I miss. I’ve come to realise what seeing a human face means to me, what touching another human being means to me.
If there’s anything I’ve learned from this strange time, it’s this unprecedented appreciation for simple human connection. The quiet and uncomplicated expression of one human’s kindness to another.

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