Care and Feeding

All of My Students Turn Their Cameras Off. It’s Making Class Miserable.

Collage of a student attending Zoom class on a laptop. The screen shows only the participants' names, indicating that they have their cameras turned off.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. In addition to our traditional advice, every Thursday we feature an assortment of teachers from across the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

I’m a graduate student and a teaching assistant at a large state university. As a TA, I teach two discussion sections of around 20 undergrad students each for an introductory humanities class. The course is online because of COVID, and the students watch two asynchronous lectures recorded by the professor-of-record per week, and they attend one synchronous discussion section with me and their 20 or so classmates on Zoom.

My teaching pedagogy heavily prioritizes social justice and empathy for my students, but I also have high standards for writing and class discussion. I care deeply about my students and typically really value forming meaningful individual relationships with them. This semester I’m … not having a good time! Specifically, I want to get your input about camera ethics. I felt strongly at the beginning of the semester that I would not require students to have cameras on, since they may be taking the class in a less-than-ideal environment, and I wanted to give them the option to maintain privacy.

At the beginning of the quarter, I had them complete a survey about their levels of comfort with various Zoom features, like having their camera on, speaking on mic with their camera off, and typing in the chat. Most people were pretty comfortable having their cameras on! But none of them actually do it, and it’s pretty significantly impacting the flow of our discussion. I understand, but having everyone’s cameras off makes it more of a slog for all of us. What are your thoughts on requiring college students to have cameras on during class? I’m stuck!

—Camera Shy

Dear Camera Shy,

The struggle is real. I do not enjoy teaching 30 disembodied voices, calling fruitlessly into the void, “What do you think, Steven? Steven … ? Can you hear me, Steven?” However, I decided at the beginning of the year not to require students to turn their cameras on for a number of reasons. For students without reliable high-speed internet access, keeping the video on can slow down the connection. Some students may feel uncomfortable with their peers seeing into their homes, and for others just being on camera is anxiety-provoking. Many teens have also expressed concern about bullying: What if someone screenshots their image and uses it for an unsavory purpose?

To be honest, I hate having my camera on. I get distracted by my own image. When I was working from home, I worried that a naked toddler might streak across my background, or the sight of my kindergartner jumping around behind me demanding a snack might distract my students. I also did not want anyone to witness the state of disarray in my home. Thank goodness for virtual backgrounds (and the option to hide my image).

Of course, you are teaching adults, and they’ve told you they feel fine having their cameras on, so I think it’s OK to ask them to do so. I’m currently participating in a professional development course through my district, and our facilitators ask us to “turn your camera on if your context allows,” which applies some peer pressure but also provides grace for those who cannot.

If you go this route, survey them again for feedback on how this new norm is working. If they are comfortable having cameras on, great! If not, you will need to get creative. Even with cameras on, your discussions may still be a slog. The body language and facial cues we use in person are harder to discern through Zoom squares, especially when there are 20 of them. Perhaps you can use breakout rooms for small-group discussion, with a “share-out” when you return to the large group? Or get creative with the chat feature? Or use the discussion board in your learning management system? Sometimes I post the order in which I’m going to call on students so they know when they are up next. Other times I ask students to use the “raise hand” feature to indicate they have something to contribute. In fact, the nonverbal feedback feature of Zoom has been incredibly useful for me and my students.

I understand why discussion is important to you; natural, student-led conversation in a real classroom is one of the things I miss most right now. In order to make it work through Zoom, I have to facilitate class differently than I do in person.

Good luck!

—Ms. Holbrook (high school teacher, Texas)

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I have a fourth grader (Lucy) and a third grader (Joey) who are both enrolled in a school that is 100 percent remote learning. I am happy about this because there is significant COVID risk in our area. In many ways, the school has been great, third grade has been very engaging, and they have gone above and beyond to accommodate Joey.

My problem has been with fourth grade, and some bullying I’ve seen on Zoom. The second week of class, the kids were placed into unsupervised Zoom breakout rooms where a child said to mine: “Ew, Lucy is here. Now we can’t have any fun.” Lucy has social anxiety and is on the autism spectrum, but we do not have an IEP because it has not been necessary. I saw this as potentially sexist or ableist bullying behavior. I called the teacher, and he agreed to stop doing unsupervised rooms at least until they are able to build new trust and standards of behavior. He also spoke with the other students’ caregivers. Great!

Unfortunately, Lucy got moved to a different class, and her new teacher is ready to die on this hill. A few days in, Lucy told me that they were having regular unsupervised breakout rooms and that in one of them, another student told her, “Stop talking. Your ideas suck.” I called the teacher, who told me “the benefits of unsupervised social development outweigh the risks,” and that what I was reporting did not meet the definition of bullying. He said it is no different than a classroom, since he can’t hear everything said when they are in groups in a classroom either. He refused to tell me when breakouts might happen so that I can sit in, and he said that having my child run upstairs to tell me would constitute “leaving class.”

I called the principal and got the same answer, but I was given a few options: 1) Lucy can be in a breakout room alone with the teacher, or 2) they can always put her in the same room with a kid they know she gets along with. I’m leaning toward Option 2, but I don’t know how that might impact the other student or if their parents would even be OK with that. Also, I really want Option 3: No unsupervised breakout rooms until they are able to build trust and have some sort of curriculum about online bullying with the kids.

I am ready to start tweeting at the superintendent and am worried I’ll lose my cool completely at this point. Am I asking for too much accommodation here? How can I make sure my child is safe in online spaces that are not supervised?

—Seeking Safety

Dear Seeking Safety,

There are several important differences here between your child being made fun of on the playground and your child being made fun of in an unsupervised Zoom room.

1. On the playground, your child can walk away. Create space. Seek the support of classmates. Inform a teacher. In an unsupervised Zoom room, there is nowhere to go without leaving the actual room, which leaves your child alone and unsupported and makes returning to that room at a later time fraught with anxiety and fear.

2. On the playground, there is always adult supervision. In fact, in every setting on the grounds of school, there is adult supervision. Kids do not play or eat or learn without a teacher nearby. A teacher may not hear everything being said, but the child has the option to seek out the teacher immediately for assistance, intervention, guidance, or support. In an unsupervised Zoom room, there is no support.

3. When your child is insulted at school, that behavior remains at school. It takes place in the classroom or the playground or the cafeteria, but it never leaves that space. In this case, the insults are being lobbed at your child while she is in the comfort of her own home, thus eliminating any safe space for your child.

The responses to your concerns by the teacher and principal are, in my humble opinion, asinine. “The benefits of unsupervised social development outweigh the risks” is an opinion lacking any foundation in research. We have absolutely no idea how behavior of this kind can affect a child who is digitally confined to an unsupervised Zoom room, not to mention the anxiety that children everywhere are already experiencing as a result of the pandemic. To assume otherwise in today’s fraught and ever-changing environment demonstrates unwarranted hubris and a disturbing lack of empathy.

It’s impossible to know what kids are experiencing in these unprecedented times. We can make educated guesses, but those guesses should never place children in compromised positions.

If there was ever a time when children required safe spaces, supportive environments, and caring adults, it is now. The thought that the benefits of these unsupervised Zoom rooms outweigh any risks is nothing more than an uneducated guess that fails to take into account all of the factors at play here. It is lazy, uninformed, and stupid. It’s bad for kids. If a child is being made to feel unwanted, attacked, or sad because of the degradations of other students, something should be done immediately. Your child deserves the same opportunities as every other child—not modified, half-assed experiences because some students take pleasure in making her feel bad.

Demand this. If the teacher or the principal is unresponsive, contact the superintendent.

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

My daughter started pre-K in late August. She’s insanely happy to be with her friends and loves learning. Because of COVID-19, drop-off and pickup protocols are a bit different. At pickup, parents don’t go into the school; instead, the teacher brings your child to your car. When I pick my daughter up, her teacher and I usually don’t have a substantive exchange. She says hello, I say thank you, and I go on my way. However, on the occasions that we’ve had longer exchanges, she’s always said something critical of my daughter.

Once she told me that my daughter got very upset when she lost a board game. Another day she told me that my daughter was going to be a handful as a teenager. Then today, my daughter came down the stairs with one of her friends and ran into my arms, seemingly a bit down, and her teacher said, “I don’t know what that was about. Maybe she was upset she wasn’t in the lead coming down the stairs.” She’s probably made half a dozen comments like this in the past month. My daughter is a spirited kid with endless energy. Her emotions are intense no matter what end of the spectrum they’re on, but she’s a good kid. I’m having a hard time with these comments because they seem mean-spirited, not constructive. Am I overreacting, or is it worth setting up a conversation with her teacher to discuss my concerns?

—It Can’t Be That Bad!

Dear It Can’t Be That Bad,

I don’t think you’re overreacting at all. When I taught middle school, our administration had this policy: For every negative call home you make, make three positive calls home, and try to make three positive calls home per week regardless. It sounds cheesy, but it’s important as a teacher to build trust with the families you work with, and one of the ways you build that trust is by reaching out with good news more often than bad.

What this teacher is doing, by telling you one bad thing every time you talk for more than a second, is showing you that she only has bad things to say about your daughter. I’ve worked with kids that other teachers at my school outright disliked. I’ve worked with kids with incredibly negative reputations. But even the most infamous kids I’ve worked with have good days, or good moments in an average day, and that matters. So when my chair-throwing, tantrums-when-I-make-him-pick-up-the-chair-he-threw preschooler did a great job waiting his turn at circle, I told his parents that he did a good job sharing that day. I did it because it was true, and he deserved praise at home. And I did it so that next time he did throw a chair, and I had to call home to let them know, they knew for certain that I didn’t spend my day waiting for their son to do something bad so I’d have a reason to complain to them about it.

I don’t know why this teacher is only sharing bad news, to be clear. As a personal policy, I try to assume the best of other people, so maybe there is an understandable reason for it. But at the same time, your daughter is a person, and I want to assume the best of her too. So I think a conversation with the teacher is exactly the right move. You can even frame it explicitly: “I’d like to have a conference with you. I know we don’t get to talk at length often, but whenever we do, you bring up concerns about my daughter’s behavior. If her behavior is really that concerning, I’d love to make a plan to address it as a team,” or something to that effect. I think this would indicate to her that either she needs to be more thoughtful in how she talks about your daughter, or she needs to be prepared to make a legitimate behavior plan. The reality is probably that your daughter has some behaviors that are irritating, if not difficult, in the classroom (what 4-year-old doesn’t?). But they’re probably not worthy of all that negative attention. By your shining a spotlight on her behavior, the teacher will see that it isn’t all that concerning, and hopefully she will change the way she talks about your daughter.

—Ms. Sarnell (early childhood special education teacher, New York)

Distance learning is ruining my relationship with my daughter. My 9-year-old is in the third grade, and school has started back up in our district on a hybrid schedule, with her at school for in-person learning two days a week and at home for distance learning three days a week. My wife is a teacher, and she is in the classroom all five days a week. My office is in the home, thus leaving me to try and manage the schoolwork for my daughter, as well as my demanding work schedule.

While my daughter loves in-person school, home-based leaning has become a fight every day. Sure, I’m no teacher, but I try to be accessible and willing to answer all questions that come up. She is easily pulled off task, complains constantly, and then calls herself dumb and a failure. This type of language—being dumb, a failure, etc.— has never been used at home, and I don’t know where she is getting it.

I am resentful, stressed, and sad that this is not going well for either of us. I had a hard time in elementary school, so I am sympathetic, but mostly this seems like she just isn’t trying. She will give up and try to manipulate the situation by pulling the “woe is me.”

By the end of the day, more tears are shed than schoolwork done. My nerves are shot and short with everyone in the house. My fun and outgoing little girl is a shell of her former self, and I’m ready to snap. Do I go to the teacher with this only being two weeks in? My wife seems like all this is normal and it’s just me. I’m ready to call the whole thing quits.

—At My Limit

Dear At My Limit,

I’m sorry you’re both struggling so much. When a child is demonstrating a new or challenging or seemingly inexplicable behavior, I try to think about the underlying purpose of their actions.  What is your daughter seeking when she avoids work and cries and berates herself? What need of hers is unmet? You said she loves in-person school, and you don’t describe any particular academic challenges she’s facing. It could be that while she isn’t struggling with the material, the virtual learning makes her feel like a failure because it’s not as engaging, doesn’t come as naturally, or just plain feels weird.

What you’ve written, though, also makes me wonder if her reactions are a bid for more connection with you. My kids are younger than your daughter, but they find it very disconcerting and uncomfortable when I am physically present at home but unavailable to them as I work. Sometimes they unleash every misbehavior in their arsenal to interrupt a situation they find intolerably frustrating. What matters to them is that they regain my full attention, however unhappy that attention may be when it arrives. You said that you “try to be accessible and willing to answer questions that come up,” and she may simply need more from you than that.

She may be calling herself names, for instance, because of the reaction she gets from you. It’s not consciously manipulative; it’s the best strategy she’s got for meeting her need. You said your work schedule is demanding, and I sympathize; many working parents are struggling with directly competing demands on their time and attention. But is there any opportunity to offer her more of your warm, supportive, and undivided attention? I do think consciously making an effort to “fill her bucket” might help.

Of course, I could be off base. I think it’s interesting that you wrote to Ask a Teacher rather than asking the teacher who is parenting this kid with you. I don’t mean that to be glib or snarky; I mean that I can give you some ideas, but your wife has both the teaching expertise and the intimate personal knowledge of both your and your daughter’s personalities, strengths, quirks, needs, and so on. I’m wondering if you can convene with your wife again, and approach the conversation a bit differently this time by trying to keep your open mind and your empathy and your desire to do what’s best for your kid at the center of the conversation. She may be able to help identify the triggers for your daughter’s behavior, and help you improve your own responses.

If all else fails: hire somebody, if it’s financially feasible in any way. I know it’s ludicrous and negligent that so many families find themselves in the position of essentially paying for access to public education (and deeply unjust and enraging that families without those resources cannot access their public education at all). But if you’re at an impasse and it feels like your relationship is on the line, or that your daughter simply needs more support than you’re able to offer during the day, try seeking out a college student, a nanny, or a shared child care arrangement where your daughter can receive the attention she needs and you can reduce the stressors on you both and concentrate on reconnecting with her. Good luck.

—Ms. Bauer (middle and high school, New York)

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