Mastering masked communication

Teaching while masked is another skill Carolina’s faculty have needed to develop during the pandemic.

teaching associate professor Michael Gutierrez teaches while masked.
When teaching while masked, it helps to be performative, says teaching associate professor Michael Gutierrez. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

They might groan at his recurring references to “some random 1990s rom-com,” but the students in teaching associate professor Michael Gutierrez’s ENGL 105i: Writing in the Social Sciences class are totally engaged.

The rom-com, “Before Sunrise,” comes up in an exchange about how we use our phones to avoid interactions with others, especially strangers. “So you avoid that five-hour conversation with the person next to you on the flight to Phoenix,” Gutierrez tells them, “but you also might not connect with the love of your life, like in ‘Before Sunrise.’”

“We weren’t born when that movie came out,” one of the students points out.

“You’re babies,” Gutierrez counters. “The only president you remember is Obama.”

This is a class taught in the COVID-19 era, so the 18 students in attendance are wearing masks. So is Gutierrez. His mask is plain and made of black cloth, like his jeans.

Gutierrez paces back and forth in the tiny Greenlaw classroom, arms raised, hands gesticulating. When speaking to individual students, he makes eye contact. He raises his eyebrows. His diction is clear, his voice modulated. He enunciates.

Unlike many of his colleagues, he is teaching in a mask for his second semester, and part of his curriculum deals with public speaking. He’s got this.

Gutierrez is a master of masked communication.

“You have to be more performative. You can’t be soft-spoken,” says Gutierrez of speaking while masked. This semester’s class is easier on his voice because the room is so small. In the spring, he was teaching to a physically distanced class in a large auditorium and there was “a lot of screaming.”

He doesn’t particularly like teaching masked, but the masks allow him and his students to be in the same room and that’s what counts. “The students are really happy to be back in class. I think they appreciate the human contact, especially the first-years. Their last year of high school was just awful. They lost their proms and football games and all that stuff. They are thrilled to be interacting with human beings.”

Patricia Johnson wears a clear mask

Wearing a clear mask is one way to help get your message across while masked, says audiologist Patricia Johnson. (Photo by Ben Johnson)

Tips from an audiologist

“Mask wearing has given everyone a mild communication disorder,” says Patricia Johnson, an assistant clinical professor in the School of Medicine’s allied health sciences department and an audiologist at the UNC Hearing and Communication Center.

“The mask alters the sound coming out of your mouth. Your speech is muffled. It’s like listening through a filter,” she says.

The same kinds of tips she gives for communicating with the hard of hearing also work for masked communication in the classroom:

  • Take extra pauses between words and sentences.
  • Be mindful of diction.
  • Repeat all audience/classroom questions.
  • Use microphones, if available.
  • Use a clear mask so that the audience/class can see your lips move.
  • Provide recorded lectures.
  • Supplement the lecture with message boards and follow up with an email summary.
  • Survey the class, anonymously, to find out if anyone is having trouble hearing.

Johnson also shared tips for masked communication in the workplace:

  • Make sure you have eye contact before starting to speak to a co-worker. No more talking around doors.
  • Say the person’s name first before beginning the conversation. This gives them time to turn their attention to you.
  • Pay attention to the end of your sentences. This is where people tend to drop their volume.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask others to repeat themselves. They may not know you are having difficulty hearing them.

Lessons learned

Gutierrez has adjusted to teaching wearing a mask and even saw further health benefits of mask-wearing. He recently realized his 4-year-old hadn’t been sick over the past year in daycare.

But he looks forward to the day when masks will no longer be required. “I miss seeing the students’ faces when you’re in a discussion class,” he says. “You can see the eyes, and that sometimes gives you a clue. But you can’t tell if they’re smiling or not.”

Wearing a mask wasn’t the only teaching adjustment he made over the pandemic. Gutierrez, who is also associate director of the writing program in the College of Arts & Sciences, looked for ways to make learning less stressful for his students, who were already dealing with so much. He no longer required printed papers. He gave more extensions and relaxed hard deadlines. He scheduled individual online conferences. He accommodated student absences.

In fact, as his in-person class began in Greenlaw, he also had to admit two students on Zoom. “Zoom is something we’re going to keep. And teachers record lectures much more often now than they did before,” Gutierrez says. “Pedagogy has shifted. When you’re forced to experiment out of necessity, you’re going to get some things that just work a little bit better.”

Some things — not everything.

“But losing the mask is going to be great.”

The Center for Faculty Excellence provides resources and support for faculty, including strategies for teaching during pandemic conditions.