Physical – Not Social – Distancing

Let’s start with a brief exercise. Take a deep breath in. Hold it for three seconds. Breathe out. Repeat that two more times.

Feel better? I know, it isn’t a solution to the stress and anxiety all of us are feeling amidst the COVID-19 situation. But taking a moment to breathe can be a helpful way to disengage from the swirl of anxiety you may feel yourself caught up on. Our grocery stores are bare, our hands are dried from sanitizer, many who we love are sequestered for their safety, we are second guessing every sniffle and cough, and we are becoming acutely aware of the number of times we touch our face.

On top of all of this, remote teaching and work are becoming mainstream. As a person who started teaching online 17 years ago and has worked remotely for more than ten years, I have observations to share that I hope will resonate with some of you, particularly those who are in the field of education. Physical distance has never been the thing to prevent me from having regular, meaningful interactions with others and feeling like I was part of a team. This video, recorded four years ago, shows some of the ways this was achieved in my former role at CSU Channel Islands.

The phrase “social distancing” is now rolling off the tongues of so many as we justify the reasons for moving teaching and learning, as well as work from a physical to an online modality. I asked my 19 year old son, who is also a college student, if that phrase made sense to him. He said, “Not really, because social doesn’t have to be in person.” Exactly. For those who regularly engage in meaningful social interactions online, the phrase social distancing is an oxymoron. And when you’re an educator whose focus should always be to support the learning of your students, what kind of message does it send to you when you hear the phrase “social distancing” within the same sentence as “remote instruction”? Folks, our rhetoric is kicking holes in our boat as we build it. And it’s disempowering those who are working tirelessly to support faculty and send the exact opposite message.

What we really should be saying is “physical distancing” or, as my son suggested, how about just “distancing”?

Stress has toxic effects on learning. I encourage you to watch this 7-minute video by Karen Costa to learn more about how and why this is. It actually is brain science. The antidote to stress and anxiety is human connection and the last thing we should be doing through this difficult time is distancing ourselves socially. We are human beings. We need each other.

As you embark upon your remote teaching experience, please remember that. Recognize your stress. Close your eyes. Feel it. Be aware of the impact it is having on your ability to sleep, focus, get things done. And know that your students are struggling too. Our students who normally work, take care of families, and go to school are now trying to work, take care of kids who should be in school, tend to parents who can’t leave the home, and complete their courses. Their learning is compromised. And it is not their fault.

Reach out. Students need to know that you see them. A simple, small message just letting them know you get it, that you too are feeling the stress of this situation can go a long way.

For those of you who have a smartphone and either the bandwidth to learn something new or the existing skills, pick up your smartphone – in widescreen or landscape mode – and record 1-minute video letting your students see you, really see you. Show them that you’re stressed too. Let them feel that you are in this with them. Then download the YouTube app and upload your video. Wait for the auto-captions to generate and edit them (on a computer). And embed that video in an announcement in your LMS. All of this will take about 20 minutes.

And you know what? No instructor likes the way the look on video. Don’t let that be the reason you don’t connect with your learners. (Thank you, Amber Henrey.)

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