Yesterday I ran into a colleague at the local grocery store. This is not an unusual thing – I teach in an international school and our faculty members all live in the same small neighborhood. Anyhow, I realized that I hadn’t seen this colleague in a very long time, despite the fact that we work in the same building and teach in the same department. We joked about the lack of contact, but later I realized that this isn’t right. As colleagues we should be collaborating more closely with each other, and – at the very least – we should be interacting regularly in some meaningful way.
Recently I’ve written a lot about the bad habits that students developed during two years of online learning. For instance, students now multitask – watching videos and posting comments on a Discord chat while working, they now prefer to work alone, and they are very uncomfortable speaking aloud (at least about academic topics) in front of their peers.
Having highlighted student behavior, it is only fair to admit that it seems like many teachers have picked up new habits during this time as well. The one that concerns me the most is a greater reluctance to connect with colleagues – professionally and socially. I remember trying to organize a holiday social event last December. Our faculty was scattered around the globe, still working via Zoom because of the pandemic and the political situation in our country. While time zone differences made a whole-faculty get-together a challenge, the real roadblock was apathy. The lack of connection among us had become normalized and, sadly, preferable. The colleagues I talked to about this phenomenon spoke of their newfound appreciation for the lack of ‘hassle’ or ‘interference’ in their day-to-day efforts.
This feeling that interactions equal hassles is a holdover from the Zoom experience. In a 2020 article entitled What’s Missing From Zoom Reminds Us What it Means to be Human, entrepreneur Steve Blank identified many of the limitations of online collaboration. First, there is the lack of contextual cues: on Zoom we miss that buzz in the air when a group of people are close together in a room. And, in an online environment, we miss out on physical contact – the hugs and fist bumps that help to connect us. Also missing in digital meetings are all the non verbal cues we use to help us link to one another and share information, including eye rolls, shrugs, body posture, and hand gestures. The loss of non verbal cues is particularly impactful for teachers since, because of years of classroom experience, we really depend on these cues to help us ‘read’ a room.
Two years without these connection opportunities has taken its toll on teachers. We are going to have to be intentional about rebuilding what we’ve lost. It might be uncomfortable for some at first, but we can smooth the transition by beginning with purely social interactions. My wife and I got the ball rolling among our faculty with a recent St. Patrick’s Day party. My school has also attempted to rebuild connections with ‘TGIF’ events where the faculty gathers to play cards or just chill out together over beers.
Once the social connections are strengthened, the real work will begin. At some point, teachers will need to get comfortable meeting to talk shop. This will be easier through in-person meetings, but even these will limit human connectivity because of the continued necessity for masks and social distancing.
The real key will be how these interactions are positioned. Simply obliging teachers to meet will result in compliance, but the real objective should be captivation – inspiring teachers to want to meet together. This means spending time on what Simon Sinek calls the why, and not the how or what. In his TED video How Great Leaders Inspire Action, Sinek said “Those who lead inspire us…we follow those who lead not because we have to, but because we want to. We follow those who lead, not for them, but for ourselves.”
That means, as educators, we can’t wait for someone to cajole us to reconnect with each other. If it is going to be authentic (and impactful) it begins with us. We have to first look inside ourselves and remember why we got into this field in the first place. And when we rediscover our own personal why, we can help each other reignite our passion collectively.
It’s been a great two years – I’ve never been more productive in terms of grading, planning, and finding cool new resources. But, I can’t wait to lose a portion of that productivity if it means I get to thrive as part of a genuine collaborative teaching community.