Zoom Gave My Teaching New Life

When all our interactions suddenly shifted from in-person to virtual in Spring 2020, I suspected it would stress-test our comfort with being seen and seeing others in a new way, but something else happened that I hadn’t anticipated: This experience over the last year-plus has made me a better, more confident teacher.

When the pandemic hit, I was teaching two Senior seminars at Barnard College of Columbia University. On our first Zoom call, I was struck by the glum expressions on my graduating seniors’ faces. They were ready to spread their wings and fly – and being back in their childhood bedrooms wasn’t what they had envisioned.

The sudden switch to remote meetings was jarring for everyone.

Early on, because of my research with mirrors and how we view our own reflections, several journalists tapped me for insights on how the loss of face-to-face interactions and increase in videoconferencing might affect us psychologically. For several years now, I’ve been using mirror meditation to help people overcome appearance-related self-criticism and get more comfortable with themselves in general. Viewing our reflections, I’ve found, can enhance awareness of our emotions and provide new, deep revelations about our emotions.

Dr. Tara WellDr. Tara Well

So when reporters began soliciting advice on how people should deal with seeing themselves on Zoom, I suggested they embrace it. We should all take time to look at ourselves with compassion before the call begins, I said. See others and let them see you – we’re all in this together.

Apparently, this wasn’t the desired response, as my suggestions were quickly drowned out by quick fixes to buffer the intimate intensity of the Zoom space – tips like “move further from the camera” and instructions for how to hide your own image.

Zoom fatigue has since received a great deal of attention – with the media focused on how exhausting it is to see too many faces, too close with full-frontal emotions and nonverbal cues out of context.

But I embraced it. Though looking at myself on Zoom was not exactly a walk in the park – in contrast to the radiant, youthful faces of my 19-year-old students, my 50-something face looked tired and worn. But there was something important to be gained by not shying away from my own reflection. Given the backdrop of these dire times and the immediate challenge of holding my students’ attention, I refused to be distracted by my own imperfections.

It was time to practice what I’d been preaching about self-acceptance and self-compassion – to eschew self-indulgence in favor of seeing others and allowing myself to be seen exactly as I was.

When teaching in a large classroom, there’s a lot to manage visually – keeping track of yourself, your PowerPoints, your notes, your thoughts, and everything that’s happening in the room. Often, half of the students aren’t paying attention and getting up to go to the bathroom or looking at you blankly or quizzically, or maybe not even listening.

As professors, my colleagues and I had to overcome the new distractions of the Zoom space and develop innovative ways to engage our students. The research on reflections was an invaluable resource in meeting the challenge.

Embrace the Face

On Zoom, the direct facial feedback allowed me to learn so much about how what I was saying impacted my student’s moment-to-moment. I could not help but notice a slight frown when I unintentionally cut a student off in my eagerness to make a point or the smiles of recognition when I first joined the meeting.

I came to enjoy the increased real-time feedback and soon I was also watching every lecture after the fact. At times, I realized I had misspoken or forgotten to relay something important. Without reviewing the recording, I wouldn’t have known to correct these mistakes during subsequent class sessions.

Research shows that as we rise in positions of authority, we tend to respond less empathically to our followers. This finding is partly because subordinates give leaders less direct feedback and are not inclined to correct those who hold power over them.

For that reason, it’s unlikely that my student would have pointed out my mistakes, which I didn’t notice when they occurred. It’s possible that an unintentional slight might fester throughout the semester – leading to decreased motivation, poorer attendance, and a snarky anonymous evaluation at the end of the course. Zoom, however, gave me a second chance to evaluate my own performance, correct mistakes, and clear up any misunderstandings right away.

The Private Becomes Public

Instead of insisting on firm boundaries for our virtual interactions, I invited students into my home, flipping the camera around on the first day of class so they could see my view of the Hudson River. They were in my living room, after all. The lines between work and home had all but disappeared and I didn’t mind inviting them in to virtually share a cup of tea.

And when my offer on a waterfront condo was accepted just a few days into the Fall semester and I committed to moving from my beloved yet cramped Manhattan abode of 25 years into a space in which I had spent a total of 45 minutes, I didn’t try to hide this major life change.

Getting on the first Zoom class after I’d decided to move, I glanced at my face. I knew then that I couldn’t pretend like this wasn’t happening and simply jump into the lecture. So I told my students I was moving and that I felt excited and scared at the same time. Over the semester, I also revealed other personal details, such as how as a child I’d lost my home in a flood. Despite this, I told them, I’ve always loved living close to water – I refuse to let one bad experience limit me; I’d rather take risks in life.

As the semester went on, the boxes piled up behind me, and I planned to do the last class from my new home – but the closing was delayed – so I suggested that they take one of my Spring classes if they wanted to see my new home – and many did.

Be the Biggest Head

As a teacher, nothing zaps your enthusiasm like student inattention – it takes enormous energy to keep going when half your class or more is distracted.

That’s why I make sure my head is the biggest on Zoom – and that everyone can see my facial expressions. (This adds new meaning to the term “leaning in!”) Though I might prefer to lean back and avoid scrutiny from so many eyes, it’s important to demonstrate presence as a leader. Just as it drains my energy when students are aloof – it drains their energy to have to reach for me.

The changes I’d made as I transitioned to virtual teaching are paying off – my students seem more comfortable and excited to learn than ever before. This is reflected not only through my observations, but concrete metrics: Class attendance and my course evaluation scores are the highest they’ve ever been. Zoom has made me a better teacher because while focusing on yourself may have a bad reputation, not being able to do so can limit your ability to connect with others in meaningful ways.

Dr. Tara Well is an associate professor of psychology at Barnard College of Columbia University, where she researches personality, motivation, and meditation. She is currently writing a book about mirror meditation.