by Natalie May, PhD

We were made for this!

I have seen this spoken on social media a dozen times in the new, self-quarantined world we now occupy, in reference to the sea change in how we teach. As in, “Introverts. Germaphobes. Quilters! We were made for this!”

But what about doctors and nurses who heal and comfort? Teachers who ignite their students’ minds across a classroom’s expanse? Collaborators who need one another to fuel their creativity?

One wobbly week in, it may not feel like we’re made for this, but I think, in fact, we – the collective we – really are. We educators are motivated. And if there were ever a time to step up and solve problems and find creative solutions, it is now. People are depending on us, and the virtual communities we establish must foster creativity, innovation, and stamina.

As we convene in Zoom meetings and chat rooms, we’re finding our way together. We lead from our home offices, couches, and dining room tables. We do it with pajama bottoms on, sipping from mugs in our kitchens, and leave meetings to let the dog out. We do our best to be steady as we realize the incredible value of this virtual community at a time when we are more physically apart than we ever imagined we could be, and a new moment in how we teach, connect, and learn.

So what’s the secret sauce of the best virtual spaces? In my world of nursing and medical students, who stand at the precipice of professions that are at the frontlines of this pandemic, it’s positivity.

Do you remember, pre-COVID-19, how you looked forward to some meetings and dreaded others? We look forward to meetings that are productive and positive, and groan over those that are too long, are dominated by one or two people, or produce no visible results. What constituted a good meeting then? Laughter? Jokes? Progress?

It’s the same now. Online, we can be just as productive, so long as we use positivity to bridge the virtual gaps we might anticipate. Here’s how:

We must maximize introductions. As COVID-19 twists our work into pretzels, many of us are meeting with new colleagues and lean on Zoom’s name feature. (By the way, can we keep this when the crisis ends? Names on our foreheads, perhaps?) Use introductions to celebrate one another, even if it makes you chuckle doing it. “Welcome, Kathy!” Everyone applauds.
Share “Appreciative Chickens.” At the Center for Appreciative Practice at UVA where I work, we begin meetings with “appreciative check-ins” – or did until a colleague mis-typed the moniker as “appreciative chicken.” We embraced it. Appreciative chickens are opportunities to share anything that recently brought joy. Your mention of the coming of spring makes me see the tulips; when I share a thank-you email it prompts you to think of your child. It doesn’t have to be a monumental chicken; just a human one.

Ask unconditionally positive questions. A friend told me a COVID-19 best practice story when her colleague asked everyone: “What are you doing to build community in your current situation?” Not, “What challenges or issues are you facing?” Start with an up note. Try hard to keep it there.

Acknowledge and reframe the pandemic. COVID-19 is out there, and we’re unsure what lies ahead. But we can encourage each other to also look to the remarkableness that lives in the corners of every crisis. That shifts our focus to one another’s resilience, good humor, and more.

It’s also an invitation to creatively step up our teaching game. If you struggle with the novelty of meeting online, consider some benefits of online gatherings. I love seeing colleagues’ homes and meeting students’ pets. I love wearing comfy pants all day. Next week, I’ll ask my students to upload their favorite vacation spot to their virtual background for class.

A friend of mine recently called social distancing a “gift of time.” It won’t last forever, so what will we do with the gift? And how will we, heaven help us, connect?

We’re doing it already. And if we teachers and academics view online communities and platforms not as chilly expanses of internet ether but as sunny places to connect, we’ve won half the battle. Our students will see us and feel that they, too, can plot forward, that they, too, can find ways to embrace this new, albeit temporary, reality. Maybe even relish it a little.

A colleague of mine told me her kids got in on a recent Zoom meeting and told knock-knock jokes to her colleagues, and that her daughter later fell asleep in her lap while she facilitated a brainstorming session. It was hard to type, she said, as the child snored, but she got it done.

“I need grace,” she typed in an email to me later, “because I am human and my kids need me right now, too.”

Yes, we are humans in need of so much grace, but with so much grace to give. We will lead from our couches and construct virtual environments where grace and communities thrive.

Natalie May, an assistant professor in the Schools of Nursing and Medicine at the University of Virginia, teaches Wisdom in Nursing and Foundations of Clinical Medicine, and is an affiliate of UVA’s Center for Appreciative Practice.