By Heather Bredin
I have always wanted to create a classroom environment that communicates safety and promotes self-expression and respect. But when the COVID-19 virus hit the world, our goals shifted to a different kind of safety: physical safety from the coronavirus. As I began teaching online I was relieved of the responsibility to create a physically safe environment which allowed me to create a socially safe environment. And when my student feels safe, magic happens.
The first tool in communicating to my students that they are safe is my own face. As Stuart Shanker explains, we are constantly reading cues in facial expression in order to know if we are safe. If someone in our social group feels threatened, it will show up in our facial expression immediately. This is a cue to those around us that we are in danger. This may have had it’s advantages in prehistoric times when we were living in caves and trying to escape predators, but this is a world of glitchy google meets and unreliable wifi signals. The stress in my face is not a sign of danger to my students but of frustration with technology. Unfortunately, the reading of facial expressions happens outside of our awareness, and so my students will have a biological stress response to my facial expression and not even be aware of the reason for their stress response. In fact, I’m not even aware or in control of my facial expression. (Have you seen the meme, “I can’t be held responsible for what my face does when you are talking?” Turns out that this is accurate.)
This can have a huge impact on our students. My daughter, a grade one student who is learning online, had a very difficult time adjusting to online learning. She refused to be on camera or respond to the teacher. She hid in the corner whenever she was supposed to be in her online class. My mother, who was trying to help my daughter navigate this new classroom situation, came to me for my help and when I came into the room I could feel all my muscles instantly tighten. I was having a stress response. The teacher’s face was on the screen, larger than life, and she looked angry. She was explaining to the class how she wanted to show them a story but it wouldn’t open and she asked for everyone’s patience as she tried to get the story working. My daughter was hiding in the corner. What the teacher’s face was communicating (danger!) spoke to my daughter louder than the teacher’s words.
This can happen, and does happen, all the time. But the gift of online learning is my own face in the top corner of the screen. After the incident with my daughter’s teacher, I often look up to that corner to see what my face is doing. I often find that my eyebrows turn downward when the tech isn’t cooperating or when I’m having trouble hearing what a student is saying. This sends a message to my students, beyond either of our awareness, that there is danger. I’m careful with my face now. I try to relax my facial muscles and always have a slight smile on my face.
My second tool of communicating safety is my voice. When we are talking to babies or pets we instinctively use a sing song high pitched voice to communicate love and safety. During class we try to sing as much as possible. We sing the days of the week, the months of the year, we sing about the water cycle and about how to be friends. I apologize to everyone for my terrible singing voice, but the wonderful thing is, kids don’t seem to care. They unmute their mics and sign along just as out of tune as I am. And hearing it, and signing, makes me happy too. They repay me by communicating safety right back at me.
And when everyone feels safe magic happens. A young girl sings a song to the class in Urdu. Parents unmute to exclaim that they speak the same language at home as another family in our class. Parents get up and dance the freeze dance right along with their children. And at the end of the day, the muscles in my face hurt from smiling.
I know that virtual learning is not perfect. I have no idea how I will assess, or teach guided reading. But my students feel safe in an uncertain world. And as a bonus of co-regulation, I also feel safe and loved.