When life gives you lemons, make lemonade! This is one of those saying that my mother used to say to me whenever I encountered adversity while growing up, and it has helped shape my optimistic outlook on life. I thrive at trying to find those glimmers of possibility and hope within difficult situations. This has served me well in my role as a teacher – from helping students navigate disappointment and failure in their studies to teaching courses focused on learning from tragic aircraft accidents. Indeed, even in a tragic aircraft accident it is important to reflect on the event from the perspective of what can be learned to improve future safety. But what about in a pandemic?
Currently we are in a difficult and unprecedented situation with the Covid-19 pandemic. Self-quarantine, social distancing, flattening the curve; these have become regular phrases in our lexicon that we use to describe our new routines during this period. They allude to negative notions of isolation, distance, and disruption that have seeped into our daily lives. As an educator, I have experienced my fair share of this negativity. I have spent many frustrated days retooling my courses to be delivered in the sub-optimal just-in-time-online teaching format that many of us have become accustomed to. Cursing technology has become a new sport for me when it inevitably fails at the most inopportune time during a live online meeting or lecture. Additionally, many events that I have been actively participating in organizing or eagerly awaiting to attend have been postponed or even cancelled outright. And this is only on the work front.
On the personal front, I have had to also cope with many new and difficult situations. I struggle with the fact that my grandfather, who was recently hospitalized in Canada for reasons not related to Covid-19, cannot have any visitors due to restrictions in hospital intensive care units. I also think often of my sister who works in the healthcare industry. She lives on her own and is compelled to isolate herself to more extreme measures than most due to her higher risk of being exposed to the virus in her workplace. These thoughts weigh on me, as I am sure your own personal stories and circumstances weigh on each of you.
In the aircraft accident investigation course I co-teach with a colleague of mine, we spend a lot of time discussing with students the importance of observation and the danger of our own bias blinding us from key facts. We practice together with the students how to take moments to step back from highly charged (but staged) situations and simply observe. This habit has permeated into my daily life and I often take moments to step back from everything that is happening around me and simply observe.
What I see when I take a step back from the tragedy of the current health crisis is something truly inspiring and beautiful. In perhaps a great twist of irony amidst the current social distancing measures, I see a strengthening of communities all around me. This is certainly the case in the higher education community. Just look at how entire faculties and institutions came together to ensure that teaching and learning could continue in an online environment. Take a moment to appreciate how forgiving and understanding students have been with the ad hoc nature of our online education. Think back to some of the emails and virtual meetings you have had recently and observe the increased empathy shown in them. And don’t forget some of the amazing initiatives arising out of our students, staff, and alumni to contribute to the battle against the Covid-19 virus.
The facts are all around us. We have a strong, vibrant, and compassionate education community within the Netherlands, and we should not be ashamed to beam with pride about that. To this point, I find myself in a unique position. As holder of the title Docent van het Jaar 2019, I was supposed to pass the title on to the winner of the Docent van het Jaar 2020 competition at a final showdown of inspirational teaching in mid-April. Unfortunately, the selection process was interrupted by the current health crisis, leaving uncertainty as to if and when the process could be resumed for this year. Holding on to the title for an extended period of time due to the current crisis is not something that feels right to me, especially since I am such an advocate for giving recognition to deserving teachers. So I feel the only fitting thing to do is to give up my title, modify it slightly to Leergemeenschap van het Jaar, and award it to the entire teaching and learning community within the Netherlands – at least until such time as a new Docent van het Jaar can be elected. We have a community here that we should truly be collectively proud of and proud to be a part of.