Why your students won’t turn on their camera

Or talk in the chat or during whole-group discussions.

Or participate in your Nearpod/Jamboard/Flipgrid/cool tech tool du jour activity.

Or stay off of other tabs/devices.

Or complete your assignments.

Well, I don’t really know, of course. I’m not your students. But I can tell you why I turn off my camera/remain silent/get on my phone/do other things during the Zoom meetings and professional development sessions I’m required to attend.

I do it because there is no new learning happening for me.

Or I do it because I don’t understand/don’t know how to do the task I’m supposed to be doing and don’t have what I need to solve that problem.

Or I do it because the content of the meeting/PD is not relevant to (or is maybe even counter to) my goals and the context in which I’m working.

Or I do it because I have other things I need to get done and attending the meeting/PD rather than working on them makes me so angry/frustrated/anxious I can hardly stand it.

Or I do it because I’m struggling emotionally or physically—sometimes with things that aren’t even about work—and don’t want to reveal that to others.

Or I do it for reasons that have nothing to do with the person leading the PD/meeting but have everything to do with pressures I’m feeling from other people in the room.

Or I do it because I think the person leading the meeting/PD doesn’t really want to hear what I have to say.

In short, I do it because I am so uncomfortable that disengaging a little feels like the only way I can safely and appropriately manage my feelings/behavior and remain engaged at any level.

When I first left the classroom and became the person standing at the front of the room during staff PDs, I got really frustrated—and judgy—when adult peers engaged in behaviors I’d long associated only with students. They talked when I was talking, they got on their phones, they didn’t follow directions, they rushed through assigned tasks, they were off-task (often doing other work tasks, but not the tasks I’d given them).

“They are being PAID to be here,” I’d grumble to fellow instructional coaches. “It’s their JOB to show up and participate positively.”

Yeah, sure, 2010 Rita. You were right–but not very effective.

As I started my second year of developing and delivering PDs, I decided that maybe I needed to do a better job of walking my talk when it came to learner engagement, and I was much more purposeful about doing the kinds of things in my PDs that I was suggesting teachers do in their classes. And waddya know? Things went much better. By the end of that year, I’d developed a new mantra: Learners are learners. Whether you’re 5 or 55, a lot of the same principles apply: We all want to see purpose and meaning in the things we’re being taught how to do, we all want to believe that we can do them, and we all want to feel positive connections with our co-learners. If we don’t, we disengage or find work arounds or go through the motions.

My behaviors might lead my bosses or co-workers to conclude that I don’t care (or am lazy, unprofessional, undisciplined, etc.). What I would want them to know is that, paradoxically, the opposite is true: I care so much about doing my work well that if something in or about your meeting/PD isn’t congruent with my values and goals, I do what I have to do to get through it enough to get on with what I think my real work is.

What I wish the people in charge of running meetings or delivering PD could know is that I turn off my camera or get on my phone or do another task or refuse to share my thoughts because doing so is the only way I can remain engaged at all. It is me choosing these behaviors rather than engaging in others that would be far more problematic: leaving the meeting completely, blurting out my negative/angry thoughts, crying on screen for all to see (and feel uncomfortable about).

I wish they could know it is me doing my best to manage a bad day. And this year, there are more bad days than usual.

Teaching and learning is always a two-way street, and there are some things students bring into a classroom that our best efforts cannot truly mitigate. (Also: Teachers are human, and sometimes the choices we make are the only ones possible for us in any given moment, and we should be given grace, too.) So, I’m not putting all responsibility for my issues on the people at the front of the room. But maybe it would help students–and teachers and parents!–if we accepted that our students and kids are not fundamentally different from adults; they are just younger. No matter our age, we all want to feel connected to others, safe to be ourselves, and able to succeed in the things that matter to us.

I’m sure not perfect in this. I still get frustrated (see: human) and when too many things are pushing on me I can go right back to a rigid, judgy place (with folks of any age). But when I can remember and live the truth of this, it’s so much easier for me to accept and respond without judgement to what I might label as resistance; instead of concluding that someone doesn’t care, I wonder what it is they care about that I might not be seeing, which opens up all sorts of possibilities for different ways of engaging.

Wouldn’t so many things be better if we could all do this more? Especially now, especially in the hard weeks just ahead of us.

11 thoughts on “Why your students won’t turn on their camera

  1. Kari Wagner Hoban says:

    We all need to give each other grace during this time. I could not do all that the teachers AND students are doing right now. Six to seven hours plus in front of a computer monitor is not meant for learning. It just isn’t. And I feel for all of you. So go ahead and do your crossword puzzles. Walk away from the monitor.
    There are days, as a homeschool mom, where I just can’t homeschool.
    Did I say days?
    OKAY WEEKS.
    I took this next week off because I can’t make her want to do homeschool one more moment and our district is off anyway so I just waved the white flag and told her that we are taking the week off.
    So I feel you all.
    I. Feel. You.
    So very much.
    I give all of you so much credit.
    Kari Wagner Hoban recently posted…Nobody Puts Gravy in a Corner- I Didn’t Make That UpMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      I will admit, I have been hanging on to get to next week. I can’t wait to have four days off.

      If I stay focused on the day I’m in, I do OK. (Usually. Not yesterday, but usually.) If I let myself think that this is what it might be until the end of the year, I feel something kind of like despair. (Not that I want to go back. Not when it’s so unsafe.) The year already feels soooooo long. Like we’ve been doing this forever. I am “one day at a time”ing it like crazy.

      I would feel no guilt/shame/nothing about taking this coming week off. Lots of schools give kids this whole week off. (Not staff, but students. We get to do grades and PD and such.) But, I hope you can be that way with yourself all the time, not just next week. I hope a thing that comes out of all of this is that we all give ourselves more permission to take real care of ourselves. We shouldn’t have to be in a pandemic to do that, you know?

  2. Marian says:

    I’m sorry this has been such a difficult week, Rita (as per your comment to Kari). Online learning and zoom meetings are far from ideal (which is a huge understatement, of course), and I have enormous respect for all those people (not only teachers and students, but also everyone else working from home) who are having to make this work. Back in March, when my youngest had to do online learning, he never turned the camera on. I think for some of us there’s an uncomfortable intrusiveness to this that crosses a line. (I can only speak for myself, but I’m most comfortable when my spheres are compartmentalized, and if I had had to do this when I was young, I would have hated having teachers and fellow students, most of whom would not have been friends, seeing my home.)

    I love this: “. . . instead of concluding that someone doesn’t care, I wonder what it is they care about that I might not be seeing . . . ” Not to put even more pressure on teachers, but I think it’s important to note that Type A kids who *always* do their work can also be dealing with things that teachers and other adults aren’t seeing.

    Wishing you a better week, Rita.
    xo Marian

    • Rita says:

      Hi Marian,
      I’m pretty sure I would have hated this when I was young, too. For the same reasons. And vanity; I hate how I look in Zoom. Even though I’m a big old grown-up, some days I still feel that way, and don’t really like that I have to share my home in the way I do. That’s probably part of why I renovated my office, but I’ve realized I wish it were less personal.

      This week is going to be better because it will be shorter! Just having more rest makes a big difference. I hope you have a good one, too.

      • Kate says:

        I don’t know if this something you already know, but Violet’s classes require students to use a virtual background. She uses the universe option but they have all kind of options – even just blurred/bokeh effects. It doesn’t do much for the vanity but it does help with the privacy.

        • Marian says:

          I had to participate in a couple of zoom meetings for my climate action group this summer. When I was listing out pros and cons and trying to figure out if I should quit, one of the items on the cons side was the zoom meetings. In-person meetings, pre-COVID, were hard enough, but the zoom meetings were worse, partly because I found it so hard to see myself on the screen. (I’m also a big old grown-up who at times lets vanity get in the way of things.)

          I did not realize that there was such a thing as virtual backgrounds, Kate! I think it’s fantastic that Violet’s school doesn’t just put that out there as an option, but actually makes it a requirement. Schools are still open here, but if that changes and my son has to go back to online learning, I’ll make sure to ask him about virtual backgrounds. Thank you so much for letting me know 🙂 .

  3. Kate says:

    I’ve had to have a couple conversations with teachers this year and the administrator in charge of virtual education because of this. All of it.

    Violet loves learning but this year is tough. Teachers don’t always understand the tech (this isn’t a criticism) and it’s just so frustrating for everyone. Currently, the school district software has her having an F in a class that her teacher tells me she has an A in but she’s 13 (and conscientious about her grades) and of course it’s terrifying for her waiting for that to be resolved. I just want to throw this whole year away and I’m frustrated that we can’t have nice things (like kids in schools) but our bars and restaurants must remain open. I can’t imagine trying to engage as a teacher!

    Hang in there. We’re one day at a timing over here too. Hugs!!!

    • Rita says:

      Hi Kate,
      I’m so sorry Violet is weathering this kind of stress. It all is “just so frustrating for everyone.” Not every day and not all the time, but enough that it takes a toll. The tech lift has been tough for lots of us. I’m a little in awe when I see how much teachers have had to learn and figure out how to do differently. There will be good things that come out of all this. That learning is a benefit that won’t go away once we’re back in buildings. I hope there will be other things, too. And I hope that’s true for students as much as it is for us adults in the system.

      You hang in there, too. One day at a time is keeping me OK.

      Oh, and I’ve been meaning to tell you: I was so underwhelmed by Rebecca. 🙁 I didn’t believe the transformation in the Lily James character. Kristen Scott Thomas was pretty terrific, though (as usual). What did you think?

      • Kate says:

        I am so grateful for the teachers and all that they are being asked to tackle. Thank you for your words of encouragement. I have a banner “Together We’ll See This Through” and I firmly believe that’s true.

        I’m so glad you mentioned Rebecca! Kristin Scott Thomas was perfect. Armie Hammer surprised me (and was glorious eye candy) but I agree it was underwhelming. I chalked my feelings to the fact that the book is one of my favorite suspense stories of all time and I’ve read it probably 20 times. I’ve never seen the Hitchcock version but perhaps I should as he does suspense so very well.

  4. Ally Bean says:

    “Learners are learners.”

    That’s a great mantra. I wish more people understood this. I don’t like any meeting, business or social, that is via a screen. Perhaps it’s my weak eyes but I find seeing people on zoom makes me queasy. That’s why I turn off the camera. Plus, some folks do drone on, don’t they?

    • Rita says:

      I really don’t like meeting via screens. I abandoned Zoom happy hours almost as soon as they were invented. Maybe, once I’ve gone long enough without seeing friends, I’ll try them again. But probably not.

      I turned my camera off on Friday for multiple reasons, but I was migraining and trying to cut down on the minutes I was looking at the screen was a big one. I get the queasiness.

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