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Unlikely Survival Strategies for Teaching on Zoom

by Mandy Osterhaus Ream about a year ago in teacher
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I start with red lipstick.

Unlikely Survival Strategies for Teaching on Zoom
Photo by Joey Nicotra on Unsplash

It never occurred to me just how much energy teaching live college classes on Zoom would require. Now, after a year of limping along in this mediated format, one strategy has become my lifeline.

I wear red lipstick.

Generally, my lip shades are neutral and unassuming. But teaching during a pandemic has demanded something new, something outside the box. So, I started with a bright color and proceeded to hone four other survival strategies; strategies I keep in the forefront of my mind every morning when I'm logging in.

Strategy One: Wear red lipstick.

I was first inspired by Gwen Stefani on "The Voice", with maybe a small dose of a fantasy mixed in that I could look like her if I added some color like she does. (Um, no.) But I liked the pop on the screen and quite simply, it made me happy.

Wearing lipstick was also a way to draw attention away from the dark circles under my eyes and my less-than sparkling white teeth; things I have enjoyed noticing about myself now that I have the wonderful opportunity to see my face while I teach.

I’m also realizing that I gesture emphatically. A lot.

So, I’ve decided to embrace it all: red lips; big gestures; clunky screen sharing. (And by “embrace it all,” I mean fumble in frustration and then wake up and do it all again the next day.)

I started this Spring semester hopeful, as the reality set in that I was going to be teaching synchronously online (synchronously meaning in real-time with my real face on Zoom.) I self-talked and power-posed and accepted the facts as they were…for the first hour.

And then, that same reality darkened as I began to feel the weight of exhaustion from all the, what? Sitting?

That is one of the first baffling observations I made when this all started last year. I was so tired. I teach three classes at a local community college and I quickly became fixated on understanding why I was so tired from being so inert. On paper, I can understand the explanations of Zoom fatigue, but it is weird to experience firsthand because it doesn't make sense…until it does.

Gradually it has dawned on me what many psychologists and communication experts have posited for years, that in-person, human interaction offers a certain energy unmatched through a screen. I have studied this but I have never lived it first-hand.

What I realized is that I am compensating for this energy black-hole by attempting to manufacture the energy from within myself. My facial expressions are a little more, well, expressive. My hands are waving about wildly within the frame. I am using nonverbal communication as a way to reach through the screen and grab hold of my students’ attention.

Now, to know me is to know I’m an animated professor. Teaching for me is aerobic. I like teaching with my whole self and body.

But like a group spin class, where I am biking my heart out (Full disclosure. I have never actually been to a spin class but I’ve seen the ads), there is an energy around me that continues to fuel my effort. And right now, in a corner of our TV room, I am missing that energy.

So, I’m trying to figure out some strategies to keep me motivated. Hence, the red lipstick.

Strategy Two: Employ Smile Therapy.

This next strategy may sound ridiculous. And I’m okay with that because it’s effective. Remember “Smile Therapy” from Ally McBeal in the early-2000s? Social psychologist Amy Cuddy suggests that how we manipulate our bodies can change our internal chemistry and attitude. This is not a new concept.

And like Will Ferrell in “Elf,” I, too, like smiling. Smiling’s my favorite.

There is nothing quite like goading thirty community college students into smiling as big as they can; challenging them to go for it and fully commit. It is quite over the top…and, like I said, effective. There is a lightness that comes across the Wi-Fi. A silliness that relieves some tension. It connects us for a minute. Then we move on to the material at hand.

Strategy three: Appoint a Chat Master.

A third helpful strategy in this whole Zoom thing is appointing a “chat master.” I just like saying that, chat master. This is a student in each class who reads through comments in the Chat feature during our time together. Students can ask questions and share observations and the chat master reads these lines out loud. Practically, this is helpful because I simply can’t effectively manage the chat and the breakout rooms while sharing my screen and attending to the faces I see looking back at me.

Having a chat master is also helpful when I declare spontaneously, “What are you distracted by? Write it in the chat. Right now.

Do it. Do it.” (Like Ben Stiller in “Starsky and Hutch” circa 2004). I do this when I notice eyes averted or cameras off or heads sinking low.

As our chat master reads all of the answers I notice two things: one, students perk up to see what the responses are; and two, students feel a little less alone in their isolated spaces knowing that fellow classmates are also tired or chewing on a hangnail too.

Strategy Four: I keep reminding myself we’re in a pandemic.

I say this out loud to myself. We are in a pandemic. It astounds me how quickly I can forget this. I mean. I know we’re in a pandemic. But I evaluate my teaching as if I wasn’t constantly navigating new things in a new system with students who are doing the same. I forget that like my students I, too, am distracted by being at home with my dog, and children, who are also Zooming.

So, I remind myself. Over and over again. Sometimes, my department checks in with informal Zoom meetings, and there, colleagues will say to one another: it’s a pandemic, the rules are different. This helps me remove the weighted backpack of expectations for, and criticism of, myself that I carry around all the time. This ability to remind myself we’re in a pandemic helps me loosen my expectations and criticism of my students as well.

Sure, there are still parameters and a syllabus and grades, but my execution of these things is very different when I remember every one of us is managing a reality with an umbrella of stress hovering above. Remembering this also includes knowing that students might experience sudden job loss or are now doing school with young siblings nearby or have to help out at home.

Strategy Five: I crack myself up.

This last strategy isn’t for everyone (perhaps the first one isn’t either), but damn is it helpful. I crack myself up. Especially when the absurdity of it all, the shoddy Wi-Fi connections and the unmuted eating and the students still in bed. It can all feel just a little too overwhelming. I have had this ability (gift? questionable character-trait?) since I was a kid.

Although a few people in my life might laugh along with me, I am decidedly my best audience and sometimes I just start to giggle, during class, at something in my head or something I’ve said. This has become particularly helpful as cameras are generally off in my classes these days.

Stepping outside of the great camera-on vs. camera-off debate, my students often don't have their cameras on and I am teaching to what feels like the abyss. So, entertaining myself, as mine is often the only face I see, sometimes keeps the despair at bay.

These strategies aren’t just whimsical “sometimes you just have to laugh” bumper stickers. I am clutching to them for dear life with the hopes that I will keep some modicum of enthusiasm for teaching and my students will leave our 16 weeks together having learned something.

Some mornings I'm not sure I have the energy to get out of bed. But there is hope on the horizon that this pandemic might end and I believe I will see students in a classroom once again.

Until then, I apply my red lipstick and laugh. It’s a pandemic after all.


About the author

Mandy Osterhaus Ream

Woman in middle age. Professor. Mom to one surfer and one kid with Down Syndrome. Fireman’s wife. Writing about all of it.

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