Can Teachers Really Do Their Jobs in Masks?

Teachers and District Administrators certainly understand the necessity to wear a mask for everyone’s safety, but the prospect of wearing one all day long is daunting for many.

The questions abound. Will it be comfortable to talk and teach for up to eight hours in a mask? How will wearing a mask impact instruction, especially for younger children and English-language learners? Will covering their face impede forming relationships with new students?

“I just cannot imagine trying to build rapport with kids who can’t see two-thirds of my face,” said Janet Hall, a 7th-grade teacher in Oklahoma City. “When you’re trying to get to know kids, and they’re trying to get to know you, body language is a big part of it, and that includes facial expressions.”

“I don’t think [an opaque face covering] is appropriate when kids don’t even know me yet,” Hall said. “Teaching middle school, sometimes I’m rather silly—it’s more important for them to see my face and get those visual cues.”

Some Children will Feel this More than Others

There are certain populations of students that will suffer more by their inability to see their teachers’ faces. Experts contend that students who are deaf, hard of hearing, or who have autism benefit most from seeing facial expressions.

For students who use American Sign Language, “they will miss out [on] a lot of communication and language cues,” Francisca Rangel, a K-2 teacher at Kendall Demonstration Elementary, a Washington, D.C., private school serving students who are deaf and hard of hearing, said in an email. “ASL relies heavily on facial expressions and mouth movements for many grammatical cues.”

Also, English-language learners tend to watch their teachers’ mouths closely to distinguish between words or sounds that are similar, said Heidi Faust, the director of learning and engagement for the TESOL International Association.

“Your English-learners are going to pay a lot more attention to you than students who already understand English and can conceptualize what’s happening,” she said. “It’s going to be the most impactful on your newcomer students and students with entry English, who rely so much more heavily on non-verbal cues. The more they can comprehend, the less of a barrier the mask will be.”

Masks will be a particular challenge when it comes to pronunciation lessons. This is when students need to see the position of the teacher’s tongue and lips. Experience has shown that wearing a mask can muffle sounds, which has the effect of making it more difficult to hear higher-pitched voices.

Masks can also be physically uncomfortable for people who wear hearing aids or cochlear implants, said the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.

Elizabeth Emmons, an English-as-a-second-language teacher in Pembroke, Massachusetts, taught English in South Korea during the H1N1 pandemic. Required to wear a mask then, she said that it made teaching difficult.

“When you’re teaching language, especially to a student who’s learning it as a second language, you rely so heavily on their oral language input, and when you put a little barrier in between that, it’s almost impossible,” she said.

Now, she’s considering creative ways to work around the problem for the new school year. She has considered recording a video of herself pronouncing words or making sounds at home, and afterward playing that recording for her students in the classroom. She also plans to use a microphone in class which would help her students better understand her voice despite wearing a mask.

“It’s important for teachers and other school staff to be aware that children with hearing, speech, language and social communication disorders may miss out on certain messages when masks are used,” says Brooke Hatfield, ASHA’s associate director of Clinical Issues in Speech-Language Pathology. “ASHA wants to raise awareness about this with teachers and other school professionals to help children achieve success in the classroom in this challenging communication environment.”

Impact on a Child’s Ability to Read Emotions

Non-verbal cues carry up to 55 percent of the emotional content of messages. Lacking those vital cues, important information can be missed or be misinterpreted.

Furthermore, the mouth and eyes are even more important than other facial features when interpreting expression. Whereas adults obtain most non-verbal social information from the speakers’ eyes, young children pick up most of their information from the speakers’ mouths. This exacerbates the challenge of the teacher to communicate emotions to children while wearing a mask.

Research has shown the “ability to encode, interpret and organize emotional and social information are skills needed to both engage in learning, and to develop self- and social awareness and make responsible decisions.” These social-emotional skills are recognized as critical developmental skills in early childhood.

And there is a broad consensus between experts that positive relationships have a greater likelihood of developing when people communicate clearly, feel that they are understood, and can understand the feelings of others in a safe environment.

Positive student-teacher relationships benefit both teachers and students. Students exhibit greater prosocial behavior, school engagement, and academic success, and there are lower levels of burnout among teachers.

11 Tips for Teachers While Wearing a Mask

1. Clear Panel Masks or Face Shields are Preferred

Most disposable masks that people wear cover the face from above the nose to the bottom of the chin. There are, however, masks on the market that have clear, light plastic covering the mouth. Alternatively, face shields, worn like a headband across the forehead, have a clear plastic sheet that covers the entire face and bends toward the ears without touching the skin. Their visual advantage is that the mouth is exposed.

2. Get their Attention Before you Begin Speaking

The teacher needs to make eye contact when beginning an important lesson or in the course of giving instructions. Since the number of students in the classroom will be reduced to accommodate social distancing, it may facilitate the teacher gaining the attention of all of the students fairly quickly.

3. While Maintaining Social Distancing, Face Students Directly

Teachers should avoid speaking while their backs are to their students, or while walking around the room. Given that teachers need to social-distance from their students as well, the teacher needs to find a spot where every student can see her face.

4. Talk a Little Bit Louder Without Shouting

Since masks muffle the sounds emanating from one’s mouth, teachers will need to train themselves to speak a bit louder, especially when they are teaching in a larger classroom for social distancing purposes. However, teachers should avoid shouting as it can be unsettling for students as well as taxing on teachers’ voices.

5. Body Language is Very Helpful

As was mentioned, masks inhibit the ability to read facial expressions. Because of this, teachers should consider ways to communicate approval to the students through body language, such as a thumbs-up, an OK gesture with their fingers, or even by holding up a sign with a smiley face!

What’s more, it’s important to remember that non-verbal cues should be used to send messages of kindness and empathy. Some tips to convey these messages are:

  • Relax your shoulders

  • Try not to cross your arms in front of your body

  • Try to keep your hands off your hips and out of your pockets

  • Nod when appropriate to acknowledge you are listening and understanding

  • Use your eyes and eyebrows. Good eye contact is most important. Let your eyebrows tell the story.

  • Happiness can be seen by raised eyebrows, raised cheeks and “crow’s feet”

  • Eyebrows pinched together and eyes drooping can indicate sadness

  • Eyebrows in a “V” can convey anger

6. Make your Communication Personal

Students invariably have a communication preference. At the beginning of the school year, teachers should attempt to understand each student’s communication preference. In this way, communication can be made easier for each student. For example, some students may always need both verbal and written instructions.

7. Comfortable Masks are Needed for Students with Hearing Aids or Cochlear Implants

There are students whose masks need to be chosen with extra care. Common face masks are those that hug the face with loops behind the ears. But these can be uncomfortable for people who wear hearing aids or who have cochlear implants.

For these students, teachers may suggest face shields, masks that tie behind the head, masks with four-string ties, or other face coverings that don’t interfere with hearing devices nor cause the child discomfort.

8. Amplify Visual and Verbal Cues to Expression and Meaning

Masked teachers can provide enhanced verbal and non-verbal cues when communicating with students by using exaggerated nodding, emphasizing eyebrow movement to enhance expression, and frequently checking to ensure that students understand. Moreover, teachers can intentionally replace the smile behind the mask by intensifying statements of connection and encouragement, winks, and other signs of emotion.

9. Instruct Students to Watch for your “Happy Crinkles”

“In addition to exaggerating expressions, teaching children to use cues outside of those provided by mouths can help them interpret emotions and meaning. Focus young children’s attention on the “happy crinkles” that appear around the outer corners of eyes when adults smile.” Experts recommend playing masked “guess the emotion” games as a fun way to cue children to identify emotions displayed by others, a strategy Laura (author Laura Sokal, Professor of Education, University of Winnipeg) used successfully as a child life therapist.”

10. Focus on Who you are, Not on your Role

Nurses during the pandemic use two strategies to ensure that their identities as individuals are accessible to patients. One strategy is wearing photos of themselves unmasked and smiling outside of their protective equipment. In this way, pediatric patients can see them as individual people rather than as generic medical personnel. Other nurses also find it helpful to smile unmasked at pediatric patients through the window of their hospital room doors before masking and entering the room.

11. Rest your Voice by Using a Microphone

The risk of voice strain is exacerbated by the use of masks while teaching. Using a wireless microphone not only increases the volume while demanding no more than typical voice effort by teachers, but it also allows teachers to move freely while teaching.

Moreover, alternating teacher-led and student-led work will provide rest periods for teachers’ voices, as well as allow for the differentiated instruction associated with improved student outcomes.

Got Lemons? Make Lemonade!

Widespread mask use is essential for protecting the health of the public, ASHA and other health-related organizations have said. However, by implementing from the list of suggestions above, teachers everywhere can significantly mitigate the liabilities incurred by wearing masks and still deliver top-notch instruction to their worthy students.

In this way, not only will students learn better, and feel more connected to their teachers, but they will be receiving a powerful lesson in resilience and resourcefulness to carry throughout their lives.