I learned a lot about disappearing acts my junior year of college. In some ways, I felt more visible than I ever had at my university; as a graduate of a small high school and now an incoming senior at a school with more than 15,000 undergraduate students, my perspective of my studenthood fluctuated regularly. Within the first two years of college, I was often one of 20, occasionally one of nine, and at times, one of 200 students in a class. Some of my professors knew me by my name or my face, but not by both. Remote learning altered that dynamic. Over Zoom, regardless of where I was, I was suddenly illuminated and visible on the screen. In one respect, I was more accessible to my classmates and teachers than I was in an auditorium or average classroom space. And yet, in a time of so much technological visibility, it felt easier than ever to hide.
Though Zoom and Google Meet have extensive camera features, like the ability to spotlight or “pin” someone’s image, both interfaces offer options that do not require participants to be visible at all. So even when I came to class and saw my image come to life on the screen, which sometimes included my broken bed frame, my roommate’s dog—small and exhausted across my lap–or the hazy bathroom light intruding from my cracked door, I still had the power. With one click, I could dissolve it all into darkness, leaving only my frozen name in its place.
Navigating the Virtual Classroom
For school leaders across the country, adapting to online learning meant instituting new policies about technology—particularly class participation and camera usage. Some schools, like Washington Leadership Academy—an XQ school located in Washington, D.C.—encouraged students to have their cameras on but did not mandate student usage, allowing students to make the choice based on their technological and educational needs. “I preferred to keep my camera off during virtual meetings because I don’t like the way I looked on the camera,” explains De’Von Lewis, a 12th grader at WLA. “If I wanted to get up, everyone would see that.”
On telephones and computers, the camera icon is unassuming. If not for that gentle glow that appeared at the top of their computer, students would hardly know where their camera is, let alone whether it is on or off. But these cameras, however small they seem, capture some of the most intimate parts of students’ lives, particularly the places that other students and teachers might not normally see.
Through the use of backgrounds, virtual or actual, students made observations about each other and even speculated about who their classmates might be. For instance, a pile of toys on a student’s shelf could mean that they are back in their childhood home; it could also mean they have a younger sibling, or that they are a parent themselves, or something else entirely. Often these theories were disproved. As an example, a girl in my class who usually logged on to class from a golf course was not on a month long vacation, she was working—usually until seven or eight at night. She had only communicated using the chat function because that was her only option her limited WiFi options would allow.
Asking students to remain visible in a class during a traumatic and complicated time seemed unfair. There are so many factors impacting student identity, and it can feel like some of a school’s camera policies are for the purpose of surveillance, not for the student experience.
As remote learning continues to be a part of our educational reality, it is imperative to recognize the pressure that comes with constantly being on camera and the intense levels of self-scrutiny it can invite, both of which make it difficult for students to experience positive outcomes in their classes. Even students who return to in-person classrooms will come with the experience of their time online, so school leaders need to be cognizant and supportive so they can best understand what students might be carrying with them into the new school year. It is hard to enter a classroom and feel swarmed with insecure thoughts; it can be even harder, then, for students to devote their attention to learning when they feel consumed by their inner worlds. Constantly thinking about the self, particularly when one’s self-image is rapidly influenced by interpersonal relationships, school, and now a pandemic, is more than a distraction—it can be an intrusion, one that interrupts a student’s academic life and their ability to form positive relationships with their teachers and the material.
Looking Inward, Looking Forward
Like many students, I have gone through several personal journeys since the pandemic—some spurred by COVID, others, a part of my growth. My experiences of love and loss throughout the last year have triggered a personal metamorphosis; it has become obvious to me that I cannot understand who I am while trying to fit into the caricature of what people might assume me to be. It is unsurprising that I and other students would reckon with the complexities of self-image in a schooling environment that asks us to scrutinize ourselves and our peers. Remote learning has cemented the possibility (and increased the probability) of both watching and being watched by the people around you, rendering students perhaps more vulnerable than they were within in-person modes of schooling.
“I don’t care what people think of me. I’m not the type of person that’s gonna change the way I look or the way I act to satisfy others,” explains De’Von. As I prepare for my final year of undergrad, I want these words with me. I am so inspired by the way that high school students stay true to themselves. As I think about my own high school experience, I recall the many times where I felt beholden to the image that other people had of me instead of being able to invest time in understanding myself.
It is clear that students care deeply about the world they live in; they show us through their actions, art, activism and more. Teachers are in a unique position to support students as they cultivate their students’ sense of self. As we know, students who feel like they belong in the class are more likely to feel safe and be successful in the classroom, regardless of whether they are participating remotely or in person.
Ultimately, a student’s success in and out of school will depend less on whether they had their camera on or off and more on how teachers continue to communicate their care and compassion for their students.
Questions of self-identity development will continue past high school and likely into adulthood; since that is the case, teachers should be inspired to think about how their consideration for their students can provide a framework for feeling more secure in school, affording students the opportunity to focus as much time and attention as possible to achieving their goals as learners.
To learn more about what students think about high school today, check out our student testimonials on Choose High School Now:
Author: Grace Morse
Author Bio: Grace Morse is a 2021 XQ summer intern on the education content & tools team. She is a student studying Global Studies, Hispanic Literatures and Cultures, and creative writing. Grace hopes to write for the rest of her life.