Here we are, nearly three months into the most bizarre and challenging school year that most of us — teachers, parents and students alike — have ever faced. Teachers and parents are working around the clock, and students are facing a daily routine that leaves them sapped of energy and yearning for social interaction.
So, I hear you, parents, when you ask me to make your kids turn their cameras on, because you believe it will increase their involvement and improve their accountability.
I also hear you, fellow teachers, who want to know that someone, anyone, is behind that black box and who believe that cameras are tied to student engagement.
We can all agree that hearts are hurting when classrooms are quiet and anonymous, and engagement can decline easily in the virtual classroom. But we must consider the possibility that mandatory camera policies open the door to new and nefarious problems.
Consider this: Micah and Jalen don’t get along. In a normal classroom, an astute teacher observes this early on and accounts for it in seating arrangements, group assignments and other ways. If Micah decides to pull out his phone and record Jalen, the teacher can intervene almost immediately (assuming Jalen’s friends don’t notice and intervene first). In an online world, with mandatory cameras, Micah can spend all class staring at Jalen and taking screenshots of every little move he makes. Jalen never knows. His classmates never know (until the images inevitably, maliciously circle on social media). The teacher never knows. Imagine being Jalen.
Consider this: Jo is transgender. They have spent a year in therapy, and with the support of family and friends have finally become confident and happy in their new gender expression. For now, as a teenager, new pronouns and first names will have to suffice for expressing their new identity. But with mandatory cameras online, Jo now has to stare all day at a body — their body — that they don’t recognize. Gender dysphoria is real, and the anxiety of this mirrored existence overwhelms Jo on a daily basis. Imagine being Jo.
Consider this: The teacher suggests virtual backgrounds as a solution to concerns about privacy, messy rooms or impoverished living conditions. But Vincent has ADHD and sensory processing issues, and the only thing worse than having all of his classmates staring at him at once is having them all stare at him from in front of multiple, pixelating backgrounds. The distraction is overwhelming. For Maddie, the backgrounds increase the likelihood that she will have a headache by the end of the day, because they create artificial color contrasts and strobe light-like movements. And for Niya, the background simply reveals, even subtly, her shaky and unreliable internet connection as it appears and disappears, rarely stable enough to hide her home circumstances. Imagine being Vincent, Maddie, Niya.
Consider, finally, this: Keenan is the oldest, in charge of his education and that of his younger brother, who has an Individualized Education Program. No adults are home, so every need and problem lands in Keenan’s lap. And every time it does, he has to either broadcast his life and his brother’s struggles, or he has to turn off his camera, essentially signaling to everyone that he is no longer present and inviting endless speculation. He must fumble through his competing responsibilities simultaneously alone at home and with an entire audience online. Can you imagine?
Yes, cameras can make us feel better temporarily, giving us the impression of connection and community. But at what cost? A price that, I argue, is too high to pay when our children’s lives have already been turned upside down and dumped into the mud. Real connection and community is built on empathy, flexibility, understanding and the grace to make mistakes without their being broadcast to the world or saved for all time on someone else’s computer.
Please, parents, don’t ask teachers to make your child turn on their camera. Instead, help your student contribute by way of chat boxes, microphones and class activities. Please, school districts, let teachers use all of the diverse tools in their toolbox to cultivate and create connection and community — it can be done without mandatory cameras.
Cameras are a seemingly controllable element in a world full of the uncontrollable. I know many incredible parents, teachers and administrators who believe that mandatory camera policies are useful and beneficial. I urge you to reconsider. There is less to gain than we think. And more to lose than we realize.
Maggie Ray (email@example.com) is a teacher in Prince George’s County Public Schools, where cameras are encouraged but not mandated at the district level.