It may seem strange to be thinking about relationships and connections at this time of the year, but this is not a normal year. It’s true that the end of the school year is not that far away. Normally, our focus might be on sustaining the momentum we have built with students over the course of many months together. We might be planning special events and breaks in routines to create excitement and build motivation for the final push.
Yet, this is a time when many students are returning from months of remote and hybrid learning. They are navigating changing learning environments. They may be meeting classmates in person for the first time all year. Many students are nervous about once again learning in the physical presence of others. Some are likely wondering whether they will fit in, if they will still be friends with classmates from the past, and if their learning is on pace to be successful as they return to in-person learning.
These are issues that we should not ignore in our efforts to address areas and aspects of academic learning that have lagged for many students. We are not likely to achieve success with students if they are not feeling comfortable with peers, confident in their relationships, and assured of our care and support for them.
As much as we might be tempted to press forward in our efforts to address missing skills and shore up areas of weakness, we need to make it a priority to address emotional needs and build connections with and among our students if we hope to have a successful ending to the year. Here are five ideas and activities you can use to create the conditions and culture your students need to do their best learning now.
If your students are returning to in-person learning after being physically separated, use icebreakers to initiate personal conversations and share stories. The icebreakers might involve recounting experiences while remote learning, sharing hopes and concerns regarding the return to face-to-face classes, discussing plans for new activities and opportunities that lie ahead, or other topics that will build connections among students. As students learn more about each other, friendships will form and renew, and feelings of connectedness will emerge. Importantly, creating time for and facilitation of these activities will also communicate to students that their feelings and experiences matter to you.
Take time to connect personally with each student. It may be a warm greeting upon entry to the classroom, a comment about something they shared during an icebreaker, or something positive you have noticed. The key is to communicate that you notice and care about the student as a person. The more you notice and communicate your interest and support, the more comfortable and connected your students will feel.
In the coming weeks, carve out time to engage in conversations with your students about their transitioning experience as it unfolds. Your interest in their experiences will further communicate that you care. Equally important, you may learn about challenges and barriers students are facing that you may not have been aware of or considered. Alternatively, you can receive feedback on what is working well and might be expanded to successfully move the process along. Be alert for students who do not share or who make superficial contributions. It may be that there is more to learn from these students, but they are reluctant to speak in a group setting. A brief follow-up check-in may be what is needed.
Look for opportunities to give students responsibilities and opportunities to lead activities within the classroom. Whether taking digital notes to share with the class, being a timekeeper for small group discussions, summarizing a discussion, or other activities, the more students share in the operation of the class, the more ownership and connectedness they are likely to experience. Feeling needed, having responsibilities, and being a part of something larger than ourselves can be highly motivating and build strong connections.
Be alert to the activities, engagements, and successes of students beyond the classroom and let students know you notice. The pandemic may still be limiting some opportunities for students, so the more you notice and comment on, the more meaning your attention will carry. Sending a short note, text, or email or making a brief verbal comment is all it takes. You will be communicating that you notice and you care. There are few messages that are more powerful.