With half their faces covered, mask-wearing teachers innovate to communicate with students

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One holds up a smiley face. Another crinkles her eyes extra squinty to show she’s grinning. A third goes for “expressive” eyes.

The eyes are all they’ve got, but the lack of full facial expression certainly poses a challenge for teachers, especially when teaching students whose hearing is impaired, or whose first language is not English.

As students return to in-class learning, the challenges of communication using only half of one’s face highlights the degree to which facial cues, in addition to spoken words, are key to understanding what someone is saying.

The eyes and mouth are the most expressive part of our faces, and thus the most communicative, as BBC News reported recently. Without the mouth visible, the eyes must do double duty – and carry a big smile stick.

“I try to be really expressive with my eyes,” Connecticut special-education teacher Stephanie Wanzer told the Associated Press of one of her students. "He’s looking at me, and I’m not sure if he thinks I’m mad or happy because you can’t see my mouth smiling. So I actually have a smile on a stick, which is bizarre, but it’s a smile like, ‘Look, I’m smiling.’ "

College professors are also finding it difficult to communicate.

“Wearing these masks, I can’t hear people as well and it’s very frustrating to have to almost yell,” Santa Fe College associate professor of American Sign Language Michelle Freas told WUFT-TV. “If you’re not seeing somebody smiling and you’re not seeing somebody frowning. I’m going to have to read their eyes or their gestures.”

Sound quality is another issue, audiologist Jane Kukula of Advanced Audiology Concepts in Mentor, Ohio, told The News-Herald. “Kind of what happens with the face mask is that everything gets muffled a little bit. The clarity of the speech is degraded, and it’s harder to hear.”

Moreover, masks obscure the lip and facial cues that form a crucial underpinning for communication, The News-Herald noted.

“All of us, even people with normal hearing…our ears don’t catch everything,” Kukula told The News-Herald. “The brain picks up facial expressions, lip cues…hand gestures.”

Other innovations include wearing clear masks, though those can fog up. People are also learning to pay attention to other cues, basically changing the way they’re listening, as the situation evolves.

Especially with students who are hard of hearing, or whose first language is not English, speaking loudly and articulating well are other solutions. Utilizing videos and images to “show how sounds may be created” is also helpful, Deborah Short, president of the TESOL International Association, told AP.

The innovations will prevail, as instructional coach Elizabeth Sked told AP, adding, “Kids and teachers are super resilient.”

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