What it's like having to teach with a face covering

Wearing a mask in class is annoying – we but should never lose sight of the bigger picture, says teacher Alan Gillespie
8th November 2020, 1:00pm

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What it's like having to teach with a face covering

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archive/what-its-having-teach-face-covering
Woman Wearing A Face Mask

I've always been acutely aware of the importance of facial expression. When my grandpa was 65, he had an operation to remove tumours from his throat, which effectively left him mute for the last 30 years of his life.

He could whisper, and hold good conversation once you grew used to it. And he slowly mastered the art of facial gesture - a purse of the lips to indicate confusion, the wide smile when he was happy, the little air kiss to show appreciation for a fine bowl of soup. You could tell from a glance at his face how he was feeling.

And so here we are in Scotland, one week into teaching students - one of the most foundational interactions in life - with our faces covered up. A line of communication cut off.

Pupils can no longer see if we're smiling or stern. The nuance of facial gesture is gone, with only the eyebrows left as the sole upholders of creative expression. I find myself having to use more inflections and tonal changes in my voice so that pupils can gauge the temperature of our lessons.

And face coverings do not just inconvenience communication - they are, plainly, uncomfortable. Too hot, too tight around the ears, too itchy. I constantly lose or forget them and have to scratch at the skin underneath.

Students, too, have to be reminded regularly about wearing their face coverings properly - not through malice or some kind of protest, but simply because they feel unnatural. I worry about students with learning support needs, with ASD (autism spectrum disorder) profiles, with hearing difficulties. The masks muffle our instructions and our questions. Hopefully, issues like these have been identified in schools, with exemptions and support put in place.


Background: Staff in Scottish schools told to wear face coverings

In England: Schools 'need new masks and rota guidance now'

Evidence: How effective could face coverings be in schools?


I spoke this morning with my Higher English students about the new policy, which traps them behind masks for every lesson. They get the reason behind it, they do, but I can't help feeling sorry for them. Wearing glasses is clearly a point of frustration: Kevin told me that he "can't see a thing because my glasses steam up. If I take them off, I can see nothing - but that's better than seeing steam."

Another student, Fathima, added: "I can't see and I can't breathe properly either. So, yeah." Lucy said her mask made her feel "steamy, claustrophobic", while Isabella made the startling claim that the face covering makes her "feel menopausal, like I'm so warm all the time." Finally, another student (who shall remain anonymous owing to a recommended editorial compromise) revealed a genius plan: "I purposefully drink from my water bottle for ages, so that I don't have to wear it. I'd rather be hydrated."

While clearly joking, this does get to the thrust of the matter. In teaching, as in life, it's important to smile. To be able to see properly. To drink water. Face coverings impede these in a way that is alien and unnatural to us all.

But let's not get carried away with the severity of this. The masks are inconvenient and annoying, of course. But I'd still much rather wear them in school than work from home again. I'd rather protect others, and myself, than not. I want to work, and teach my subject, and see students learning and laughing and being themselves. Let's not allow these masks to get in the way of that.

Alan Gillespie is principal teacher of English at Fernhill School in Glasgow

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