Dear Parents, Guardians & Staff,
All this school year, we have worn our Green Glasses to follow several strands in a story about how to develop resiliency. Kindness has been our secret “code word”… but the objective has always been to focus on developing resiliency in our students and in our community. How? Well, the research tells us, by developing our abilities to focus our attention, express gratitude, be empathetic, practice inclusivity, respectfully communicate effectively and to be reflective … we will develop resiliency. To symbolize it, on occasion we wear our Green Glasses, and envelop all we do in simply practicing Kindness. This segment of our story was determined long ago, to focus on the fifth element: Communication.
The story, however, has been interrupted. Our pathway to discovering resilience has been disrupted by a pandemic-sized boulder in the road. Or has it?
During this COVID-19 crisis, our ability to bounce back is essential. For many, though, the isolation, anxiety and uncertainty are a test of their mental and emotional grit, their resiliency. Sometimes, the only way to assess resilience is through adversity itself, just as a health threat like the coronavirus is a measure of our society’s fortitude. Our resiliency is being tested… And in some ways our ability to communicate has been compromised.
As a teacher and coach, long ago and far away… I always believed that communication was critical in developing relationships. And I have always agreed with the experts, that communication is more than just the words we use. The best teachers and coaches I have ever observed have what some call “with-it-ness.” The master teacher can sense, by reading slight signals (body language, a facial expression, a glance of the eyes) that “Johnny” in the back of the room, is going to misbehave five minutes before he has contemplated the behavior. A great coach, out of the corner of their eye, can “read” what is going on with a discouraged player and will move into proximity and place their hand on the player’s shoulder, communicating volumes, without saying a word.
Some know I have a passion for jazz. Watching a great quintet play live music is truly a joy. As the musicians on stage navigate a song, adjust to one another and map the improvisations, much is done without saying a word. Just a glance, a nod, a wink … or even less, no words, but it all stays on track.
This disease-filled detour from normalcy is certainly stretching our stamina – more specifically, our ability to maintain communication and build relationships despite being secluded at home. Having any kind of meaningful exchange with those outside our immediate family has been relegated to social media, text messages, phone calls and Zoom meetings, which require a whole other kind of emotional endurance, energy and focus. As social distancing remains necessary across the country, people (students included) are jumping from one video call to another. Mental health and communication experts describe the unintended effect as "Zoom fatigue," or the feeling of exhaustion, anxiety and dread of yet one more video call.
No Substitute for Interpersonal Communication
As a credit to their resilience, we see our Eanes ISD students finding clever ways to stay attached to their friends and teachers and display their talents online, attempting to fill the void and replace the social-emotional interaction lost during this quarantine. Yet, there simply is no substitute for the healthy expression and interpersonal communication we experience and need when seeing each other in the flesh.
According to Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of Stanford's Virtual Human Interaction Lab, video platforms such as Zoom place us in an unnatural position. A combination of prolonged eye contact and having someone's enlarged face extremely close to you forces certain subconscious responses in humans.
"Our brains have evolved to have a very intense reaction when you have a close face to you," he said. During normal, in-person conversations, "eye contact moves in a very intricate dance, and we're very good at it," Bailenson said. When one person squints one way, another changes where he or she looks. Someone raising an eyebrow across the table can trigger a glance between two other people in the conversation. Typically, however, we do not gaze into our colleagues' eyes, up close on a computer screen, for an hour (or more).
So much of human communication occurs through these nonverbal cues, which are either lost or distorted in a video conference. Simple nods and hints missed in a virtual dialog can have an indirect effect on resiliency. Without the benefit of seeing these in-person prompts, sometimes we may unknowingly say something wrong or overlook a cautionary sign we would have seen if actually interacting. Recovering – or being resilient – when relationships break down and communication falters is not always so easy.
Communication and relationship building are the lifeblood of teaching and parenting
Yet, in these current technology-dependent circumstances, the intangibles we depend upon to be good teachers and parents may be impaired if not altogether removed. For teachers, the importance of touch, expression and personal interest are more difficult to extend, if not physically impossible, in a twice-daily video chat. For parents, patience may be lost in a crowded, uptight space now doing triple duty as home, classroom and office. For both teachers and parents, a balance of kindness and toughness is crucial to persevere through this seemingly endless episode.
This is where resiliency once again wins the day. Our Eanes ISD teachers (who are the best in the world, I believe) do not give up, despite “Zoom fatigue.” They have become masters at noticing when one student is not very responsive, consistently mutes the audio or video, or doesn’t show up for an online lesson. Although they may have their own children at home to care for or their own personal struggle with solitude, I have heard countless stories of our teachers and staff being resilient in the face of these challenges to still communicate, still foster connections and still deliver inspired instruction.
Our teachers and parents now know what psychologists have learned: "When we're on all these videos calls all day long, we're kind of chained to a screen," said Suzanne Degges-White, a licensed counselor and chair of counseling and counselor education at Northern Illinois University. "Don't expect these Zoom groups to replace other ways you communicate with people," she said.
Understanding the unique relational needs of students, teachers and parents in this complex environment is vital. Rediscovering “other ways you communicate with people” – especially while confined to our homes – can lead us to greater resilience and deeper reflection. This is a new narrative we are writing, one which will not be deterred by the current pandemic; rather, our collective stories will be richer because we are learning resilience, empathy and real communication regardless of this adversity.
“Listening and trying to understand the needs of those we would communicate with seems to me to be the essential prerequisite of any real communication,” said my favorite philosopher, Mr. Rogers. “And we might as well aim for real communication.”
I truly believe we will make it through this together and will be stronger in the end. The entire staff of Eanes ISD is working hard, as are the students, as are the parents. Is this a difficult time? Yes, but there are magical moments where the voices come through … the communication is clear …. and we can sense the emotion. I leave you with two examples, one from our Forest Trail Elementary students and one from the Westlake High School Jazz Band. Both magical.
The final month of the school year should be filled with traditions, milestones and celebrations. Instead, as schools remain closed and we continue to shelter in place, let’s aim for real communication to stay in touch with each other. In doing so, we will emerge from this pandemic more resilient, more united and more grateful for relationships than ever before.
Be safe, stay well …. And don’t forget to #BeKind.