The last time I was in a lockdown was 37 years ago. I was 9 and I was trying to survive with my mother, brother and somewhat absent father (he was a doctor on the front line) each day for over two years. Tripoli, Lebanon will forever be etched in my psyche as the homeland of my father and the root of many of my deepest fears and anxieties. To this date, fireworks are difficult for me to bear unless I can see them, the sound very much reminiscent of the rapid gunfire that would send us scurrying into the pantry, the only room with no windows in our house. Lockdown then meant the curtains were always closed so no one could tell we were inside the house, no running water for days, intermittent electricity and a landline phone signal that came about once a week. I started school that September and two weeks later the school gates closed indefinitely. There was no distance learning as the internet wasn’t invented yet. There was no social media because that wasn’t invented yet. The TV signal came and went and my favourite foods of the season were strawberries and cherries and I hadn’t seen them for about a month as fresh food wasn’t being imported anymore. Lockdown was a nightmare that took years to recover from.
Fast forward to Dubai, UAE 2020. Four weeks into a lockdown and I am reaching for all my psychology books to make sense of the rising sense of anxiety I feel every time I look out the window to desolate roads, the unexplainable feeling of loss I feel when I look up from the computer and the struggle to stay positive on a daily basis for my young sons, my husband, my isolated and ageing mother and of course my colleagues and students. I had to check my anxieties before this lockdown fell into the same schema as the other lockdown in my mind.
The first book that fell off my bookshelf was Daniel Goleman’s Social Intelligence. As I thumbed through the dog eared pages, I rested on one of his earlier chapters explaining ‘The glow of simpatico’ as he labelled it. He describes this feeling as the power of human connection. Relationship magic, he goes on to explain, is made of several ingredients that give us the recipe for rapport. Rapport exists only between people. We are wired to connect with others. One indicator of rapport is mutual empathy….rapport feels good , generating the harmonious glow of being simpatico, a sense of friendliness where each person feels the others warmth, understanding and genuineness (Goleman 2006) He does go on to elaborate on the importance of human connection, the fleeting moments where we register people’s body language and our brain interprets their mood, the importance of undivided attention, the pitch and tone of our voices, the amount of eye contact we give to our speaker – ‘seeing eye to eye opens a pathway for empathy’.
I put down my book and closed my eyes and started to reflect on my interactions. At home my young sons are getting more concentrated mummy time. My husband is now able to have a conversation with me part way through our day without me falling asleep! Rapport here was good. It was in my opinion simpatico. Then I stared across my desk at my computer. Ah well that’s a different story. In the past four weeks Ihave been virtual and the 100+ colleagues that I interact with on a daily basis and the over 600 students that I would smile with, encourage, pat on the shoulder, scold for being reckless on the playground were now all virtual. My interactions have now shrunk to my classes – online – ‘seeing’ a maximum of 50% of my students and unless I connect online with my colleagues – I will only see perhaps a dozen of them per day now. I realised I was feeling anxious because I know I thrive on my interactions.
All those small moments of walking from my car in the morning to arriving at my office…. Making eye contact with the cleaners, saying good morning to the accountants (that’s the first door I reach before I ascend the stairs) bumping into a few early bird students and finding something to complement them on and greet them before dashing into our morning briefing. My favourite part of the day when we are all together. The small conversations amongst colleagues of how lovely your hair looks, goodness what was that score at the game last night and goodness what happened to your arm that’s now in a cast are just non existent now. Our shared attention to and special connection to what we are saying to each, that moment of glow is no longer there.
I also miss those colleagues I work closest with. Each day for our daily briefing I see the same 5 faces of our leadership team. I see them from the shoulder up. I can’t detect the subtle cues of their facial expressions as we are looking at each on a screen but our eyes are not meeting. I can detect some sort of rapport but none of the body language non-verbal cues as the computer doesn’t give us this vantage point. Some meetings are formulaic, some flow, sometimes we laugh other times we know we wander off on-screen into a reverie of another time. We all instinctively check our phones, answer emails and look at the screen but we are not as fully engaged as when we were all present and attentive face to face.
We have a different rapport now. We know each other well, but this online world feels different to what I enjoyed. I actually long to share the small jokes we would make sitting side by side and across the conference table about the ‘healthy biscuits’ that would last us the meeting, or the knock on the window from any passing student as they entered or exited the school, or the simple physical act of drawing our strategy on the white board. Share my screen or let me navigate your journey on screen just isn’t the same for me.
My rapport with my students is also not the same. Their voices are flat as they answer the register, and no amount of me begging them to turn on their cameras convinces them quickly enough to do so. They are teenagers after all. When they are at school, they wear a uniform, they sit in their places around the tables they know in classrooms they feel safe in. All of a sudden, we are in their space and their homes, their families in the background working away, their pets jumping up for attention. I know my students well, but I don’t feel connected to them as much anymore. For the fleeting moments I see them across the screen I am not able to walk between their tables, look over their shoulder at their work, praise them openly about a contribution or look them in the eye and genuinely say well done. I find myself smiling and moving ever closer to my camera now, it is almost like I think my mind is convincing itself that if I inch that little bit closer to my students in that virtual world beyond I might be able to fall through the looking glass like Alice and be with them again.
I chose this profession because I genuinely love being around people; helping them to understand themselves, bring out the best in them and make them feel just that little better about themselves by the time they walk away from any interaction I had with them. I can’t help the anxieties I feel. I am wired to connect to others. I am in this profession to model altruism. I do what I do each day in an attempt to create an environment whereby children understand and learn how altruistic behaviour leads to generosity and cooperativeness and a more successful and balanced mental state. I know I thrive in the glow of simpatico.
I have adopted a mantra that I repeat in my head when I just want to be amongst my colleagues again in those briefings. I am hopeful, I am grateful I am thankful. I am keeping my emotions in check when I look out at those desolate streets and chose to focus on the great memories of over 16 years of living in Dubai. I am hopeful that this lockdown and my connectivity to so many, gives me some semblance of a continued rapport with all those I cherish working with and my beloved friends and family worldwide.
I know that I will only thrive in this lockdown if I stop being transported back to Tripoli 37 years ago and instead focus on the difference I can make to those around me. At least staying connected to so many peers, students, friends and family should give us all an opportunity to create a new virtual simpatico where at least we never forget how we made each other feel in the Pandemic of 2020.
Head of Secondary and Vice Principal
Hartland International School