As an international teacher who has been teaching in a mask since September, I can understand if secondary teachers in England are wondering what it will be like to have to wear a mask in classrooms while teaching.
However, having done it for four months, I can tell you that it’s not as bad as you may fear and you soon get used to it.
That said, there are some useful adaptations to my teaching that I have made to overcome the issues a mask can cause that I think are worth sharing for those about to tackle this for the first time.
Schools reopening: Teaching in a face mask
1. Projecting, and protecting, your voice
When speaking to our students, they said the biggest issue initially was being able to clearly hear teaching instruction and responses from their peers.
This is something we have all had to overcome and, at the end of a full teaching day, I am definitely aware that I have had to project my voice more than I used to – and this can be tiring.
Maybe speak to your drama department – if you have one – about how to do this without damaging your vocal cords.
Otherwise, just be aware that your voice will be under more strain than ever, so try and use it sparingly (see point 2).
When taking responses from students, some will still try to mutter and mumble – many of those who do this while wearing a mask will be the ones who did this prior to wearing a mask.
The solution is the same: ask them to project their voice loudly and proudly for all their peers to hear.
Some students have also set me the challenge of seeing how many different ways I can say, “Sorry, a little louder, please.” We laugh about it. After all, we’re getting by in a pandemic so we try to find the humour.
2. Silence is golden
Another good tip, especially when you do have a full teaching day, is to ensure that you build in time for silent practice.
I’m sure most of us do this already to preserve our sanity, but this will also now help to preserve your voice.
Furthermore, insisting on silence when giving explanations has always been important but when students and staff are wearing masks, this is even more vital.
Some students will feel they can get away with whispering to peers – as if their mask offers some kind of invisibility cloak – and it can be trickier to identify the culprits.
Insisting on silence, and pausing whenever you do hear noise, helps to prevent this, too.
3. Work on your non-verbal cues
As a staff body, we are using more non-verbal cues with students and I am really enjoying implementing more of these in my teaching.
I’ve noticed students around school being asked to show their fingers to vote on an idea and using thumbs up/down to demonstrate understanding. Some teachers are even teaching students basic sign language to engage with Doug Lemov’s ABC strategy.
4. Make more use of images
Similarly, the use of images has become more important in my classroom.
I have never been more aware of how much I relied on my facial expressions to model emotions, vocabulary, responses to texts and so forth.
Wearing a mask obviously makes this more challenging but images are working as a fantastic, and probably more accessible, alternative for students.
A character was "flabbergasted" last week, for example, and Google Images saved the day when exemplifying this to my Year 9 group.
Saying that, a mask certainly doesn’t remove the ability to use your face to send that important warning to misbehaving students in the classroom.
For many, the teacher glare is all about the eyes, and that prolonged stare – the mask does not get in the way of that…trust me.
5. Glasses wearers – prepare to fake it
Glasses wearers, I empathise. Your glasses are going to fog up a lot and this will mean often suddenly finding the class disappears in front of you at a moment’s notice.
As such, I recommend practising wiping your glasses while continuing to deliver instruction, looking around the room, pretending to see clearly the students in front of you.
Master this and the students won’t doubt you.
And for teachers who don't wear glasses, know that this problem will affect students that wear glasses so if they seem to be constantly removing their glasses to wipe them down, you know it’s done for good reason.
6. It soon feels normal
Perhaps most importantly, the resounding message from my students when asked about mask wearing in classrooms was: “It’s just normal for us now; we don’t even notice them any more”.
The same goes for me – yes, there are odd moments when you suddenly have a strange realisation that "Oh, I’m wearing a mask", but it soon feels normal. And, most importantly, we all feel safe, too.
Charlotte Brunton is a secondary English department head at the British School of Gran Canaria. She has taught internationally for three years