Cameras On or Off?

Most American schools have operated under the tradition of using force (demanding compliance) to teach middle and high school students. Remote teaching during this pandemic has in more than one way become a trap for teachers.

John Brown
Feb 9 · 13 min read

Probably the most ubiquitous aspect of remote learning today is the use of teleconferencing software that enables audio/video live streaming through Zoom, Google Meet, Skype, and other platforms. This has been a lifesaver for teachers and students. Of course, it’s not the same as face to face teaching. Nobody is claiming that it is. But, it is a powerful tool that we are fortunate to have under these difficult circumstances. And, one of the most important, most valuable features of this software is the camera that nearly every PC or smartphone has built in these days.

Although most schools across the country require their students to leave their cameras on, close to 70%, many school administrators in Massachusetts have told their teachers that they cannot force students to use their cameras. They have also told parents and children the same, so when teachers attempt to elicit participation from their classes during live synchronous teaching, they are confronted with rows of black squares, not knowing whether students are present or not. Elementary schools are having this problem as well, but not to the same degree.

I understand the reasons behind the no-force policy regarding cameras during class is related to social justice, economic equity, and meeting students’ social and emotional needs. I agree with those ideals. However, after 300 years of forcing young people to comply with adults in school, this new direction is abrupt, and the consequences of this change show most children are not prepared for it. Meanwhile, schools in Massachusetts are still using force in almost every other aspect of education. In fact, the double standards are glaring.

Of course, before the pandemic and remote teaching, when those same students were seated in classrooms in front of their teachers, they may or may not have been any more engaged than they are sitting at home with their cameras on or off. Just because teachers could see their students in person, a year ago does not mean that most of them were paying attention or learning. Though it may have felt as if most of them were attending, actively learning, and participating, because their teacher could see them, and they were mostly looking in the right direction, it’s also possible (even likely) that only a handful of students were asking questions, answering questions and responding to the teacher and classmates, even back then.

It’s quite possible that this pandemic-edu-pocalypse of non-participation is actually less acute than we may think. It’s likely that it has been a chronic condition all along, but the pandemic has shed new light on it.

I wonder, how long we have lived with this. How long have we been blind to its effects?

Because COVID-19 has pushed students out of schools and into their homes for remote learning, we have all seen school from a new perspective, witnessing a phenomenon of passive learning that has perhaps been with us for a long time, and we may truly be seeing it for what it is for the first time.

It is also more than likely that allowing students to leave their cameras off not only fails to hold students accountable by giving them a reason not to extend themselves every day that their classes are held on Zoom, but there is no question that the empty black squares are making teachers’ jobs hell.

I am sure there are many teachers who engaged their students in meaningful class activities in their pre-pandemic classrooms, and now they find the camera-off problem to be a central problem in their teaching by being interfering with their ability to build relationships with their students, and to innovate their approach to match the learning styles of their students.

However, compliance is a powerful tool, and this pandemic has freed many students from being under the thumbs of their teachers. Even the most passionate teachers have fallen back on the power they hold in the compliance model only to have their positional power fail them.

I am sure that there are many students who want to participate in class discussions and activities, but still do not turn their cameras on, probably because it would not be so not cool. This leaves teachers like a former student of mine, Kate, stuck. She recently reached out to me. She had been evaluated twice by her supervisors and both times she was given low marks on her teacher evaluations for “student participation,” even though it was those same supervisors who told her that she could not require students to have their cameras on. And, like many schools in this state, Kate’s principal told students and their parents in an email that students are not be required to have their cameras on.

Kate asked me if it is legitimate for her bosses to give her low scores in the student participation part of her teacher evaluation, under those circumstances. I tried to refocus her toward figuring out how to “encourage” her students to turn their cameras on, but the answer to her question is “no.” It’s not fair.

First of all, I have no idea why school administrators are evaluating teachers during a pandemic when they could be coaching, supporting and collaborating with them instead. Probably because their bosses (superintendents) are making them do these evaluations. The problem is that most superintendents are so far removed from teaching and learning that they likely do not experience the tensions, conflicts, and troubles that teachers encounter every day during this pandemic. Those school leaders who do understand the conditions on the ground in schools right now have suspended evaluations until the end of this school year.

Secondly, scoring teachers on what they do or don’t do is fair, but scoring teachers (pandemic or no pandemic) on what other people do or don’t do, in this case, their students, is not only unfair but irrational. If your doctor told you to exercise and stop eating junk food, but you did not follow that advice, would you blame the doctor?

Third, it is obviously not at all fair to judge teachers on their ability to engage students in a completely new format of instruction (remote teaching) for which they received little or no training, of which their students are especially weary and that shakes up the snow globe to the point where we are in a blizzard, while at the same time imposing restrictions related to camera compliance. Kate’s bosses no longer teach and have never taught remotely. What would they know about it?

Many school administrations have also forced teachers to relax their grading standards, for what seem like good reasons. Perhaps they are.

I am not a big defender of grades, but “forcing” teachers to change their grading standards, then forcing them to teach remotely, then teach hybrid while simultaneously teaching remotely then back to teaching fully remote and then back to teaching face to face but socially distanced at three feet — no six feet— no three, while their students are allowed to remain invisible, is a complete collapse of the long American tradition of forcing students to learn (ie the compliance-based model). Of course, as most students find themselves abruptly untethered, the level of force that is being applied and compliance required of professional educators, has increased many times over.

It’s about time that schools moved away from compliance-based teaching and management as well. The best education research has shown for decades that using compliance-based teaching methods, to force students to learn is not a sustainable practice. It is also simply un-American, if you ask me. It’s sad that we need a pandemic to teach us how reliant we are on authoritative models to run schools. But, even more, depressing is the fact that some people still don’t get it.

I am not surprised that some administrators are forcing their teachers to comply with a complex set of irrational rules while not applying those standards to students or themselves. After all, during fully remote teaching, many school administrations have required (i.e. forced) teachers to come into school buildings and conduct remote teaching from their empty classrooms, when they could teach remotely from home.

That is simply ridiculous. Why do this? Do they not trust that their teachers will login? If that’s the case, then they have a bigger problem than making them come into the school building can possibly solve. Plus, if these administrations think that forcing teachers into empty schools is A. necessary to force their teachers to teach, and B. that if the teachers didn’t want to comply, this move would work, they must not be thinking the whole thing through, and their problems are much much bigger than their paranoia about a few noncompliant teachers.

Trust is essential for the kind of relationships that schools require, and it is as contagious as distrust.

Meanwhile, my former student a teacher, Kate, is trapped. She is struggling to teach in ways she and most teachers never have before. She can’t enforce camera compliance on her students, but her bosses are expect from her a high level of engagement with her students. Some school administrators advise teachers who find that students are not participating with cameras off to send them to a zoom “break out room.” This seems like a reasonable idea until you realize that we are just toggling back to the compliance-based teaching model. These students end up unsupervised in a virtual back room. Not good.

Let’s make up our minds folks. Are we going to stay with the punishment and reward system? Or, are we committed to changing over to a more enlightened paradigm of schooling based on community-building, developing trust, and tapping into intrinsic motivation instead of demanding compliance from anyone you see as downhill from you? If so, then we have to start at the top. Superintendents have to trust that their principals are doing their jobs. And, principals and assistant principals have to trust teachers are doing theirs. Not with perfection. That’s not a real thing. And, we don’t want it to be either. How boring would that be? Leading by example, we will get where we want to be, faster, healthier and with more meaning and more grace. We can get there together.

Teachers will eventually learn to trust their students, too. And, if all goes well, with adults setting the example, students may someday trust their teachers. Real participation requires trust in any circumstance with any group of people at any age.

That means that, for example, student evaluation and teacher evaluation must be based less on accountability and more on learning, growth, and supporting continuous improvement. The concept of grading teachers and grading students must be, at the very least, de-emphasized, if not significantly reduced. But, departments of education, like DESE here in Massachusetts, are refusing to let go of high-stakes testing, even though we are in a pandemic. They are still grading schools based on data gathered from those student test scores, and the commissioner even threatened school leaders that are not transitioning from remote to in-person learning with an “audit,” if they don’t reopen the doors of their schools for face to face teaching and learning, despite the infection rates in their communities. What are MCAS scores going to tell us after this year? Don’t teachers and students have anything better to do?

So, DESE forces school districts to comply with their rules, and school committees force superintendents to comply with their rules. Then, superintendents force principles to comply, too. What do principals do? Yup. They force their teachers to comply. But, then teachers can’t force students to comply with the camera-on rule. The shit doesn’t roll all the way down the hill here in Massachusetts schools, which is nice for the students, but our teachers who are working twice as hard these days are sitting right in the spot where the shit piles up.

Where does this shit come from?

When DESE published its Initial Fall School Reopening Guidance Repost last year, it mentioned “remote teaching” 35 times, but the word “camera” was never used. That must have been an oversight, right? I don’t think so. When they posted their Remote Learning Supplement to the DESE website in December, again the word “camera” was never used. Not once. The word microphone is not used either. They won’t even consider dipping their toes into the shit that teachers sit in all day long.

I’m not optimistic about our schools moving away from compliance-based education with what I have seen over the past few months. Between state agencies forcing schools to do things and schools forcing school leaders and teachers to do things, there is more compliance going around than ever. But just in case there are educators out there who want to shift their thinking away from force and toward new ways of schooling where students and teachers are consistently encouraged to build relationships, instead of using compliance-based teaching — after all, community/relationship building is more effective and sustainable, there are some things that we can do, if we are patient and trusting with the process of change.

For example, instead of demanding that adolescents use their cameras or permitting them to leave them off, perhaps there needs to be a dialogue between teachers and students about the new medium. What does it mean? Is it working? How does it feel? How could it be improved? I find it amazing that many schools switched to remote teaching in September as if teaching through Zoom were the same as teaching was in the fall of 2019. This is a big change, and we need to do more than agree it was big. We need to engage students in a conversation about the change first. This is common ground on which students and teachers sit. This is where trust can be built. Academics will wait, whether we say it will or not because if we simply plow ahead with the curriculum as it was in 2019, the cameras won’t be the only things turning off.

Things are not the same. In fact, they are more different than most people want to admit. Our common cultural denial has us saying things like “When this is all over, I will……” But, teachers can’t afford to be in denial. They are confronted by reality every day, all day. And, Secretary Peyser, Commissioner Riley, and Governor Baker need to acknowledge that they don’t know anything about what teachers are experiencing now and probably don’t understand what teachers experienced pre-pandemic, even if they think they do.

Kate’s students are scared. And, so is Kate. The last thing she needs to worry about is her job security, but that’s what her bosses are doing to her.

Kate. Here are some suggestions for you:

  • Try to ignore-if you can-TeachPoint for now. Easier said than done, Brown. Your bosses shouldn’t be evaluating you during a pandemic, and they can’t afford to fire you, so focus on your teaching instead of on their criticism.
  • Find ways to incentivize your students to turn their cameras on. For example, create a practice where if a student has his or her camera on, that student won’t have homework that night.
  • Use Google Forms or another polling app to ask students why they don’t want to have their cameras on. And why they do.
  • Assign them to write a brief paragraph about what would make them more comfortable to have their cameras on.
  • If you can identify some barriers to camera use, brainstorm with your students some ways to remove those barriers.
  • Connect with parents and guardians that you believe that their children are more likely to feel connected and engaged when they can see and interact with the faces of their peers and teachers.
  • Create opportunities to discuss non-academic subjects with your students with cameras on, both in groups and individually.
  • Create opportunities to meet with parents and guardians with cameras on, beyond school-sponsored parent-teacher conferences.
  • Use community-building activities that encourage camera use. For example, give your students a brief tour of the room you are in, and allow them to do the same but only if they want to.
  • Play games that work better when cameras are on, like Pictionary or charades. Explore resources online that may give you ideas: 25 games to play on Zoom
  • Have students vote with their thumbs up or down on a topic with cameras on or off.
  • Use the poll the class feature of your online platform with cameras on or off.
  • Study the social dynamics of your classes through a Sociogram. You may be able to identify some role models for camera use.
  • Share with your students that you don’t always want to have your camera on. Tell a story about how you didn’t want to have it on, but had to, and relate to them how you prepare yourself to turn on the camera, even when you’re not in the mood.
  • As students arrive, greet them individually.
  • Occasionally check in with your students individually, about camera use.
  • Use the private message in the chat to welcome students, to check in with them.
  • Privately ask a confident student or pair of students to teach a lesson on how to find and put up virtual backgrounds. If no one will do it, use a video like this one: Zoom virtual backgrounds
  • Implement virtual background Fridays.
  • Have a virtual background contest where three students win a homework-free weekend for the most original, most calming, and most relevant backgrounds.
  • Ask students to help you develop a camera-optional policy.
  • Do not criticize students for how they use their cameras and what is seen in the camera.
  • If you can, be goofier and more entertaining when more students have cameras on. And less animated when they have them off. Do this without telling them.

None of these ideas can replace rational and supportive school leadership, and if we are going to move away from compliance-based schooling, we have to do so with our eyes open and a shared understanding of why and how. We have to do so deliberately, strategically, and gradually, because authoritative education in America is firmly rooted in our schools and change will come slowly.

If we aren’t really moving away from compliance-based schooling but are merely pandering to constituencies that are not in the trenches (classrooms) with us, like parents, school committees, and department of education officials, be honest that we are complying too, and don’t use social justice, equity, and SEL as an excuse for our decisions.

If teachers want to build relationships with their students, trust is essential. We have to trust them, and we have to do things that encourage them to trust us, remembering that force does not engender trust. Principals who want their teachers to trust them, have to trust those same teachers and express that they trust them, allowing them to teach their way. Unless teachers feel free to teach as they know how to, they can’t encourage their students to feel free and safe to learn the way that is best for them.

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John Brown

Written by

Clinical Associate Professor of Education at the University of Massachusetts and host of Teacher Talk.



Educate magnifies the voices of changemakers in education. We empower educators to share their stories, ideas, insights, and inspiration. Educate is dedicated to the fusion of research + education policy and practice.

John Brown

Written by

Clinical Associate Professor of Education at the University of Massachusetts and host of Teacher Talk.



Educate magnifies the voices of changemakers in education. We empower educators to share their stories, ideas, insights, and inspiration. Educate is dedicated to the fusion of research + education policy and practice.

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