Teaching while Masked

Teaching while Masked

The Fall 2021 semester is beginning with a mask mandate in place for all indoor IU spaces. While some schools are telling instructors they can unmask while teaching as long as they are socially distant from students, this is difficult to do in smaller classrooms, and some teachers may want to wear a mask to protect themselves and their students. Wearing a mask can be a problem when teaching, so what can instructors do to minimize those impacts? We provide some suggestions for you here.

Consider Your Mask

There are a variety of masks available for use—from the ubiquitous blue surgical masks, to cloth masks, to N95 respirators. Look for a mask that allows for you to comfortably move your mouth and jaw while speaking. Masks that restrict your facial movement, or that you feel suck into your mouth on inhalation, will restrict your ability to communicate. Some instructors may want to consider a "singer's mask" that promotes movement and breathability, although this mask's bulk may be unappealing to some.

There has been discussion of masks with clear panes being useful for use in teaching languages or for hearing-impaired students—where seeing lip movement is important. The plastic in these panes tends to block sound, however, making it even harder to hear, so be aware of the tradeoffs.

Use a Microphone when Possible

Many midsize to large classrooms have audio systems built in, and those tend to include a lavalier (clip-on) microphone. You can see if your assigned classrooms have microphones by looking at the Classroom Database. Be sure you practice with this microphone before you start the semester, and consider wearing clothing with belts or pockets to allow you to clip the transmitter to something, rather than needing to carry it in your hand. If you do have a wireless microphone in your classroom, you might get used to carrying a spare battery (usually 9v), in case the one in the mic dies.

Think More about Your Gestures

Most of us who have worn masks over the past year have gotten used to exaggerating our gestures, whether that involves uncovered parts of our faces or our body language. Even if you are not an expressive talker, consider trying to emote a bit more with what is visible, as that might make up for lack of facial expressions and auditory clues. And be aware of what might be lost by not seeing facial gestures; sarcasm is tougher to spot when your face is hidden, for example.

Warm Up Your Voice and Project

You will likely need to more consciously project your voice to overcome any muffling from the mask. Projecting your voice is about more than just speaking louder, and just trying to be louder can strain your vocal cords. Here are a few common suggestions:

  • Make sure you have good posture—chest up and shoulders back—and breathe deeply, from your belly/diaphragm. Think of breathing out from your belly as you speak, as if your voice is coming from deeper inside of you. Shallower breathing makes projecting your voice more difficult and can lead to strained vocal cords. Breathing deeply will be easier if you have a mask that doesn't suck into your mouth during inhalation.
  • Slow down and clearly enunciate words. Slowing down allows you to emphasize each syllable (almost to exaggeration), and to complete full sentences that are easier to follow. The slower pace also allows listeners to figure out missed words through context clues. Work at pronouncing entire words, not cutting off the ends of -ing words or running words together.
  • Try to put energy and emotion into your words. It may feel a bit stilted or silly, but that energy helps you project your voice and convey meaning.
  • Be sure to warm up your voice in advance—stretching your face, yawning, reciting various common sounds or tongue-twisters.
  • For more suggestions on projecting your voice, and for guidance on warming up before you go to class, see this video on teaching in a mask by Nancy Lipshultz from the Department of Theatre, Drama, and Contemporary Dance. Nancy is a voice and dialect coach, and she offers some practical suggestions for being heard in a mask without hurting your voice.

Provide Written Notes and Recordings

Providing some written notes or guides can help students stay on track, even when they might miss a bit of what you are saying. Using shared Google docs lets students and groups collaborate on note-taking, filling in gaps any individual might miss.

If you have the technology in your room, record your lecture with Kaltura. That likely won't pick up what students say (get used to repeating questions and comments), but it will allow students to go back and review what you said.

Move around the Room

Whenever possible, move about the room, rather than standing behind a podium up front. Be aware, though, that once you walk past the front row, those students are to your back and will have a harder time hearing you. So, walking the perimeter of the room may be best. This practice has the added bonus of perking up students who may thought they were hiding in the back of class. Two caveats: First, if you are near students when they ask/answer a question, they will likely speak more quietly, so you may have to repeat what they say for the class. Second, if you are recording with Kaltura, know how far you can move and still stay on camera.

Intentionally Build Community

Masks can create psychological and emotional distance among people, and that can make it harder to build interpersonal relationships that are an important part of education. Add to that the cultural and political tension surrounding masking, and you may need to actively work at building community. That might include the following:

  • Add a welcome video to your Canvas site, sharing a bit about yourself to add a touch of humanity that you lose by being masked.
  • Put a photo of yourself—unmasked—on a slide at the start of class. Have students share similar photos for future slides.
  • Consider using ice breakers and "good news moments" to build community.
  • If you are comfortable with being a bit vulnerable in front of your students, talk openly about any concerns you have about the weird semester ahead, and be ready to listen to students' concerns.
  • Promote care of each other as part of your class culture, and collaboratively develop some guidelines that will promote that culture of care. Jamie Landau of Valdosta State University notes that this may be a good way to work past the politicization of masking and avoid confrontation: "An ethic of care calls us to make decisions by enriching relationships and empathizing rather than dividing."


Resources and More Reading 

3 Tips on Teaching while Wearing a Mask. News at IU. August 17, 2020.

Ackles, Brian. Leading Voices: Teaching and Singing While Wearing a Mask: Why it is a Challenge and How to Make it Better. American Choral Directors Association. September 9, 2020. (This page is a good deep dive into some issues around reduced volume, attenuated frequencies, and diminished word boundaries.)

Lanau, Jamie. How to Teach F2F With a Mask and Create Caring Classrooms. Inside Higher Education. August 26, 2020.

Lipshultz, Nancy. Teaching Live and In-Person in a Mask. (Nancy, from IU's  Department of Theatre, Drama, and Contemporary Dance, shares some insights into communication, voice projection, and warm-ups to prevent vocal strain.)