Let's Talk About Cameras in the Classroom

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Over the past month I’ve seen some version of these comments on many a school district or parent thread: 

“Let the people who want to send their kids to school send them, and the people who don't want to can keep their kids at home to watch remotely. Is that really so hard?” 

“Such-and-such district is doing it! Why can’t we??”

There are so many problems with these statements it has been hard for me to wrap my brain around a response that isn’t just an incredulous GIF. 

So let’s just start with the logistics. In full disclosure, my own kids’ (12 & 16) district is doing this. My kids go in-person 2 days, and have to log into Google Meets all day the other 3. It will eventually amount to over 20 hours of screen time in addition to how much they stare at their screens while IN school and whatever “homework” they are assigned. 
The district has provided:

  • 1-1 Chrome Books at all times, whether in person or remote (that are aging and sometimes don't function correctly)
  • Chrome Books for teachers (that sometimes work, sometimes don't)
  • desktops for teachers
  • TWO microphone systems (one for the kids in class bc talking through a mask is rough, and one so the kids at home can hear)
  • SmartBoard technology 
  • document cameras 
  • webcams (some staff purchased their own because the cameras on the Chrome Books aren't great)

You may see the beginning of my point here. Most districts don’t have the money for this, and frankly, they shouldn’t be spending the money they DO have on technology for an unsustainable, temporary model of learning. 

I hope you can also get a sense of how much work (and money) this is for teachers. To master all of that technology every single day while connecting with kids online while also wearing a mask and teaching kids in their room... Please be honest: does this sound like a reasonable expectation for a teacher? For anyone outside of a television production room?

The feedback I’m getting from my own kids and my friends’ kids is that the online part—while they do acknowledge their teachers are trying hard—is boring. They feel ignored because the teachers (rightly so!) are focused on the kids physically in the room. And because all of the students have an opportunity to be “present,” the pacing of content continues at a sometimes breakneck speed. I don’t think I have to tell you that learning while listening to a Google Meet and learning while you’re actually in the classroom are two different things. This dual mode, which people have dubbed “hybrid,” is a bastardization of teaching and learning.

Oh—and this is a super fun addition: in districts where this is being tried, the kids don’t actually have to consistently show up on the days they are assigned. If they wake up and don’t feel like coming to school, they can just join the Google Meet and still be counted as present. Now you might think, well Cara, if they’re sick they should be able to stay home and just watch class. No. No, they shouldn’t. If they are sick, they should be able to rest and the teacher can provide them some work to do that doesn’t require them to log into class and stare at a screen… Because they are sick. Side note: sometimes kids aren’t sick—sometimes they just don’t want to come. Which I get. But they shouldn’t be able to just “watch from home.” What we do in-person with kids matters. It’s not something you can just “watch and get.” 

Which leads me to my next point. One of the most beautiful things about teaching is the opportunity for a new adult to establish a relationship with a child outside of their home. The work we do with children is between the child and teacher with parents & caregivers as teammates. If a camera is focused on me all day long, it will inevitably change the way that I relate to and connect with my students. With countless eyes on me as I attempt to reach them, redirect them, and perhaps even reprimand them, I know it will not be the same. I teach high school. Sometimes we joke. Sometimes kids say or do things I know exactly how to deal with, but a non-educator, perhaps listening or watching from home, would not understand. Ask yourself how this impacts the education that your child is going to get in that classroom. Ask yourself if you want some parent you don’t know passing judgment on your child’s behavior they heard through a Google Meet. 

Speaking of relationships, if any administrators happen to be reading this, I am deeply concerned for you and your relationships with your employees. You are asking too much if you are putting cameras in their classrooms, and calling it a “hybrid.” They are starting to resent you, even if you didn’t meant for any of this to happen. I have never been an administrator, and I know there are so many aspects of the job I just don’t understand. But one thing I do know is relationships. And relationships matter long-term. The short term solutions you are coming up with are hurting your employees and endangering whatever goodwill you have spent years building. Be cautious in what you are asking people to sacrifice for their profession. You are going to need them throughout this crisis, and for years afterward. Tread lightly, and show empathy.

If you still think that I am overreacting and that cameras are no big deal, please just ask yourself this: would you be comfortable with a camera watching everything you do for seven hours a day at your place of employment? And would you be comfortable with the feed from that camera live-streamed into hundreds of homes, day after day? Would you enjoy having people who don’t do what you do, constantly critiquing, and sometimes even interrupting? Would that be OK with you? And are you OK with that kind of intrusion for your child who is sitting in a classroom, just trying to learn?

So by this point maybe you’re asking, OK, Cara, you’ve convinced me. Cameras are not a great idea. But what can we do? It's not safe yet to send all of the kids all day every day, and they still need to be learning. Yes, true. My answer to this is my answer to everything when it comes to figuring out what is best for students. 

Ask the teachers. Ask them what they could send home or post that kids could work on when they’re not in school. Ask them how you can keep your child learning when they’re not physically in a classroom (and maybe also see if there’s some non-screen things they could do). If you give teachers a chance, they will come through. We know what your kids could work on when they’re not with us. We know how much is too much or too little for them. Have faith in the professionals to make a plan that doesn’t overwhelm them OR you OR your kids. 

Lastly, because this also has to be said. I’m deeply concerned that so many local teachers’ unions have already agreed to this intrusion into their classrooms. Cameras in classrooms falls under working conditions, which makes it a bargain-able issue. Cameras in classrooms have always been a hard line in the sand for most, and with GOOD REASON. The intrusions that we allow now will set precedents for the future. Every single local teachers union, and every single school district needs to consider the consequences of their decisions long-term. What are all the possible permutations of this plan? Will students always be able to just “watch from home“? Will physical attendance just cease to matter at all? But most importantly, will the teacher’s presence in a student’s life be diminished to a face on a screen? Is this what we want?

We need to think rationally and with an eye towards the future of education, not just be satisfied with short-term, unsustainable, harmful solutions that will ultimately drive more people away from the profession, and cause communities to question if schools actually know what is best for their kids.

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