‘Doc Nancy’ continues to be a model for connecting colleagues in a virtual world
When schools transitioned to remote learning during the pandemic, some of the most important work teachers tackled had nothing to do with academics. It was about building community—maintaining the school’s culture and deep relationships that are crucial to student success. Fortunately, Western Governors University (WGU Washington) already had a master virtual communicator leading the way, offering weekly, mental health check ins for both her students and fellow staff.
The students in WGU's Teachers College know this beloved educator and advisor as “Doc Nancy,” known officially as Dr. Nancy Cartwright, former course instructor and now semi-retired instructor practitioner. But for the hundreds of students whom this renowned educator has taught, there are countless more Doc Nancy has influenced with her power of connection, especially in this increasingly virtual world.
Loneliness had already reached 'epidemic proportions' when COVID-19 hit. When millions of people transitioned to working from home, the virus fundamentally changed the way people connected, collaborated, and socialized.
“It was a huge change for all of us, and it wasn't just a change of someone going to their job and now they had to be isolated. I was already teaching from my home office, but my student teachers were in the schools and suddenly they had to go remote and create a whole separate curriculum to be able to teach online in a week or two,” Cartwright said. “They did an amazing job!”
WGU students had a big advantage from the standpoint that they were already accustomed to learning, teaching, and building community online. They were able to be leaders in their schools on how to create lessons online and successfully connect with their students.
Cartwright said the biggest challenges came from many of those teachers getting COVID themselves, or they had parents, loved ones and students who died from the virus.
“So, the trauma and the need to have that social and emotional touchstone and places where they could feel safe were vital,” she said. “At first, they didn't want to have something to go to every week, but then they learned to lean on each other. And they knew it was safe place to share some of their fears and to get ideas on how to handle it all.”
And for Cartwright, who at the age of 75 was already dealing with some serious health issues when the pandemic hit, handling isolation was key to her survival. Those same students and colleagues whom she had bonded with during weekly virtual classes and staff coffee chats started showing up “in person” for Doc Nancy whenever they could.
“I couldn't go out and get my meds. I couldn't go do anything, so I had former students and colleagues who would drive a long distance to bring me special things and leave them outside,” she said.
It was then—when Cartwright was the most isolated—that she learned another life lesson.
“I'm a very social person, but this experience taught me that I can find the richness of life even when I can't leave the house,” she said. “It was almost a blessing to slow down because I didn't have to rush from one thing to the other.”
The challenges for her student teachers, though, continued to mount. Cartwright felt an even greater need to reach out virtually and ask what support they needed.
“They learned a lot about being reflective. They were still learning to be teachers and then often going home to teach their own children. These were huge stressors we talked about,” she said.
Cartwright knows about big life stressors, especially at the start of a career. She lost her mother before she graduated high school and then tragically her father, too, just as she was beginning her own teaching career. This is one of many reasons why she so passionately and consciously chooses to reach out to her students and fellow coffee chatters to see how they are coping.
“I’d ask what do you need right now? Do you need somebody to empty the dishwasher or maybe bring in a meal? Can you ask a neighbor to just watch the kids for a bit? Just look for opportunities to reach out.”
Cartwright recalls one student who asked her neighbor to come over just for a few minutes so she could walk around the block. The student later told Cartwright that brief break saved her from just caving in. It was yet another seemingly small but significant example of how reaching out and checking in on someone—even virtually—can have a dramatic impact on their mental state.
“Sometimes you think if you don't have people physically around you in the house, you’re without support, but that's just not true,” Cartwright said. “We're blessed with Webex and other platforms where you can see and talk to each other. But I think the main thing is just reaching out and telling them you can talk to me privately. I can call you.”
Cartwright recalled a former manager’s phrase, JPUTP, which stood for “Just pick up the phone.”
“I'd call and they'd say, ‘Oh, you called just at the right time. I was about ready to collapse.’ And they’ve done that for me too. You never know when someone really needs it.
“The pandemic was very difficult, and it taught us a lot of lessons,” she said. “We need to know how to be resilient and pull from our resources because it's going to come again in some fashion, whether it's the pandemic or something else. Life continues to happen, and you’re not going to be able to control all that it gives you, but you can control how you embrace it.”
As she and her students continued to navigate the pandemic, life continued to happen. Cartwright dealt with cataract glaucoma issues and underwent eye surgery. Just as she finally made her way through that, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She underwent a lumpectomy and is now in remission, but she has endured serious side effects from her treatment.
How did Cartwright cope? She kept working and reaching out to her students and colleagues when one of them needed to feel that connection. She also continued to host a weekly coffee chat with her Pacific Northwest team, which she has voluntarily facilitated for 10 years.
She kept it all going the best she could—the way she always has for herself and so many others in her WGU community. That is, until just a few days after this interview when life happened, again. Cartwright blacked out, likely as a side effect of her medications, and fell down some stairs at home. The fall left her with several broken ribs, a broken clavicle, and deep hematomas about her body. The accident also forced her to take a leave of absence. On the harder days, she finds those safe places to share, pray and cry.
Still, Doc Nancy perseveres. She recalls one of the greatest lessons she often heard her late mother recite. She captured it for her son, Ben, in a story she wrote called, She’s quick. She will catch up.
“My mother used that phrase because I had to be taken out of school a lot for us to go back to Alabama and different places when we needed to. We were not a traditional family and were very poor. Mom would walk into the teacher’s classroom and say, ‘Ma'am, I'm sorry, but Miss Nancy Jane and I must go to Alabama for a month. Now don't you worry about her getting behind because she's quick, and she'll catch up.’ And that's what I did.
“When life happens, you might miss some stuff. You know what? You can be quick, and you'll catch up.”
As she continues to teach and inspire others, Doc Nancy shares her prescription for life with all of us: Reach out however you can. Even a virtual connection can provide a powerful lifeline.
By Courtney Dunham, Communications Manager for WGU Northwest Region. For media or other inquiries, contact Courtney at 206.388.8926 or Courtney.email@example.com