A Leap Back into a New Future
It is always said that change is the only constant. The pandemic however, has revolutionized various areas of our lives in ways that we hardly ever expected or even dreamt of. The solid foundations of our society have been thoroughly shaken and the fabric almost shredded. It is no longer business as usual in offices, schools and universities. For more than an entire year staff and students struggled to come to terms with the new norm – Online Learning. However with the help of the vaccine, institutions are now making a U-turn to return to the old norm. How feasible and how successful this great leap is going to be remains to be seen. Especially considering that our modes of interaction have been modified, trust eroded and we ought to continue wearing face masks and maintain “social distancing”.
It may sound very old-fashioned to say that effective teaching and learning relies on a face to face interaction. With their physical presence, teachers are meant to be able to impact their students’ lives positively. They do not do this only with their words, but with their entire body language. Their posture and composure are quintessential as they motivate, teach and correct and mentor their students. That infectious enthusiasm which some teachers have, can be effectively passed on in a situation where the student can experience both body language and facial expressions. Masks, while being helpful in the era of the pandemic, have a subtle “estranging” and dehumanizing element. Teacher-student communication with masks will undoubtedly reduce the effectiveness and the smoothness of the communication.
Any good speaker would ascertain to the fact that the facial expressions of the listener is vital. These facial expressions serve as a gauge to measure interest, understanding and comfort and even the tiredness or exasperation of the audience. Saying that a speaker whose audience are wearing masks is blindfolded is therefore not an understatement. In the same light, teaching, which is a form of public speaking, will be negatively affected and students should be aware that their teachers will be grappling with this seemingly simple aspect.
Then there are the new fears, stigmas and phobias. After more than a year of social distancing and consuming the pandemic news, it is unavoidable that certain mindsets have been developed. Handshakes seem to be a relic from a distant past and another simple example is that of someone sneezing or coughing. Previously these instances were more or less ignored as they were immediately linked to a cold, flu or just an allergic reaction. A sneeze or cough nowadays might attract stares, whispers or even see people distance themselves slightly. It is hard to blame anyone for reacting in such a paranoid way as we are all prone to conditioning like Pavlov’s dog. And like Pavlov’s dog we have been thoroughly conditioned by the ubiquitous media reporting about the pandemic and have utterly internalized ideas of social distancing and isolating those with COVID-like symptoms.
A key part of dealing with any unfamiliar issue is raising the awareness of the issue at stake. Students and teachers are going to have to adapt fast and develop ways to deal with the old-new norm. Getting back to campus is a welcomed relief for some and exhilarating for others. Nevertheless, the challenges or the threats that must be overcome are evident and many. The opportunity to benefit again from face to face teaching and learning must be embraced albeit with circumspection to ensure we recognize the battle against the pandemic is far from over.