The Wild Energy That Teachers Are Putting Into Zoom Shouldn’t Be a Surprise

Kindergartner wearing headphones, sitting in front of a laptop with an enthusiastic teacher on the screen
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Earlier this week, a video from a teacher, captioned “My facial expressions trying to keep kindergarteners engaged in online learning,” went viral on TikTok and then Twitter. The instructor’s got wide-open eyes and oversized, excited expressions; she struggles, ever so patiently, with one student who just can’t figure out how to unmute to answer a math question. “This woman should literally be paid one million dollars a year,” Twitter user @gxrlreadingthis wrote. “This makes me want to cry,” a typical reply went. “These teachers deserve the Medal of Honor.” “Their patience is AMAZING.” And on and on.

As the coronavirus pandemic has collided with the new school year, the TikTok video of an early-elementary teacher trying ever so hard to connect over Zoom has become a mini-genre, showcasing the work done by educators of the youngest online learners. They have an extremely tough row to hoe. Five-to-8-year-olds, as many parents are learning this year, are not well adapted to online learning: They aren’t as accustomed to the technology; many of them can’t read well yet; they are tactile and social; they get really, really wiggly. Educators are out there trying to bridge the gap with all the wide-eyed enthusiasm, inventive props, and deep patience they can muster.

These videos are undeniably funny, but as I watched them, I couldn’t shake a feeling of low-key sadness. Seeing young kids trying to conform to the conventions of a Zoom meeting is like watching a 5-year-old walk around in high heels or Daddy’s necktie. It’s just such an obvious mismatch, and we all know it—not least the teachers who are trying so hard to make it work.

Sofia Bella, a kindergarten teacher in Las Vegas who made a TikTok video about the struggles of teaching young kids over Zoom, told me over email that the teaching part of “teaching online” was never an issue for her. “The problem with teaching online is knowing if the kids are actually grasping it,” she wrote. “I’m always worried about whether my voice is cutting off because of a bad connection.”

She found that she needed to put more energy than usual into the day “because we have to keep their focus on us.” “If they aren’t entertained,” she wrote, “they will literally lay down and ignore every word you say, and not worry about anything going on!” Teaching is always a performance, but online, the stakes are even higher. At the end of a school day, on a scale of 1 to 10, Bella found that her level of exhaustion was “a solid 25”—even though her time on duty is two hours shorter than when school is in person.

There may be some nostalgia about people’s own elementary school experiences going into their appreciation of these videos. But to teachers, the sweet antics don’t seem so exceptional. Hannah Roddy, a second grade teacher in Harker Heights, Texas, who TikTok’d her colleague Ashlee Skelton teaching a math lesson in a shark suit, told me over email she wasn’t sure why this video became so popular. “For teachers, doing things like this is very common,” she said. Early-elementary teachers, she pointed out, who teach across subjects, have the extra burden of preparing multiple such lessons per day.

I showed these videos to Anna Shoup, who teaches pre-K in Athens, Ohio (and is currently doing so online), and wondered what she saw. “The fact that people are so impressed with these teachers,” Shoup wrote in an email, “tells me that people really just don’t understand what teachers do in a classroom on a day-to-day basis. This is what we do to engage children and show that we care. If you have energy in person, you’ll have energy on video.”

“You should see my Zooms,” Shoup said. “They are nuts. I’m jumping and running and singing and making a fool of myself. Now broadcast live into family living rooms.”

As documents of 2020, these videos feel singularly tragic. There’s all this goodwill, all this emotional effort, all this trying, poured into an impossible job that really shouldn’t have to be done. Teachers, as the oft-repeated truism goes, do deserve “all the money in the world.” It’ll be interesting to see whether more parents overhearing their efforts this year will come to support actual policies that make it so.