Making Students Feel Seen in the Era of Masking
Kozbi Simmons on Finding Ways to Connect
This piece is part of a series from teachers on the ways their classrooms have changed over the last year. Read others here.
I have 95 students. Of those, I am meeting 80 seniors for the first time this year. Each day, they wear different clothes, maybe they change up their glasses, accessorize with fresh jewelry, style their hair a new way or get braids, switch up their masks. I never see their mouths—whether they have big, toothy grins, a gap in their front teeth, full lips—or their chins and cheeks—if they’ve got deep dimples or puffy blushed apples. I am not allowed to get too close, to hug, to kneel down at their desks. I have to strain to hear their voices—some seem deep and raspy, others childlike and chirpy, but is it the mask or is that really them? I constantly ask them to repeat themselves. Sometimes, they just give up.
I focus on their eyes—the almond, the wide-set, the hooded, the round, the brown, the black, the blue, the green. I watch the short, natural and the glued-on, half-inch lashes sweep up and down over the doubt, the questioning, the confidence, the playfulness, the sadness. But it’s not enough. That “windows to the soul” thing? Nonsense.
So I asked for photos. “I want to see you,” I said. “I want us to think about the time when we didn’t have to hide, when we weren’t afraid and unsafe and when we could be free. I want to see you.” I told them that if they texted me pictures, I would print them and hang them on the classroom wall.
It was the third day of school. I wondered if they’d bite—if they’d even want to come out from behind their masks. There is some safety in staying hidden. As seniors, they have gone through much of their high school careers in some version of pandemic life. Would they want to post themselves up after a year and a half behind a screen and a mask?
I got 71 texts.
“Hi Ms. Simmons”
“Here’s a photo featuring my dog.”
“Is this good?”
“This is the best one I have.”
“I hope you like it”
“I don’t take a lot of pics.”
“Just got my hair done”
And lots of emojis.
There they were: no Zoom, no mask, no social distance, no doubt about their expression, their identity, or their existence. They wanted to be seen.
They aren’t just numbers behind “learning loss” statistics. They aren’t political pawns for vaccine and school lunch money protests. They aren’t bodies in seats for October funding updates. They aren’t ID numbers for new standardized tests.
Do you see them?
After a week, I know Jamar because he always has a joke for me. Brakel asks for a mint every day. Nia’s laptop persistently has issues. Alaurra is a transfer student. Lala loves his heels. Whether I can look at their faces or hear their voices clearly, it may take a little longer than usual, but I will know my kids.
We teachers always have to peel the masks back anyway.