One of the most significant struggles teachers reported from their experience with remote learning in the spring was the perception that they were not able to maintain strong relationships with many of their students, which is at the heart and soul of what they do. When teachers have good relationships with students, they feel they can teach them well. When relationships are poor, they fear students will falter.
As school opens, many teachers are carrying forward their feelings from the spring and are worried that they will not be able to form strong relationships online. Many also worry that they won’t have enough time with students at the beginning of the year before schools are shut down again and they will be forced to teach online without the necessary knowledge about their students as individuals.
These are understandable concerns. Certainly, the abrupt shift to remote instruction came without time to prepare and engage in activities that might have made the transition less stressful and more successful. However, fears that remote instruction or online learning means that strong, positive relationships between teachers and students are not possible are not well-founded. Teachers who have practiced in this space for years have found ways to develop and maintain supportive, influential relationships with their students. In fact, many students with experience in online learning report that they feel they know their teachers better and their teachers know them better than what they experienced in brick and mortar schools.
The basics of relationship development are the same whether teachers are working with students in a face-to-face environment or virtually. Getting to know each other matters. Showing interest and developing personal connections make interactions more intimate. Showing respect and concern makes engagement in risk-taking and sharing struggles safer. However, some steps and activities vary between the two contexts.
Here are several relationship-building secrets and strategies from veterans of distance learning that you can pass along to your staff:
- “Break the ice” by helping students get to know you. A brief introductory video, welcome letters, postcards, emails, and “live chats” are some examples.
- Give students opportunities to introduce themselves in a safe and informal context. Phone calls, short surveys, brief autobiographies, and short student-made videos can be good places to start. The information gleaned through these activities can be great conversation starters, content for future examples, and connection builders.
- Focus on building relationships during the first few weeks of class. Online games, fun technology tool explorations, and online team building activities can build relationships while also helping students become comfortable with technology tools. They also create shared experiences and grow bonds. Once relationships are in place, everything else becomes easier.
- Create time for regular one-on-one check-ins. Students report that these times are particularly valuable because they often occur more frequently than one-on-one conversations in brick and mortar schools.
- Always assume the best in student intentions and behavior. The inability to see a student’s nonverbal behavior can lead to confusion about intent and result in negative judgments about behaviors, such as lack of responsiveness. A consistently positive approach can avoid the damage of misunderstandings and negative assumptions.
- Schedule frequent, consistent office hours when students can reach you with questions, reach out for guidance, and engage in informal conversation. Be sure to keep these times safe and free from judgment and criticism so students will utilize the opportunities.
- When relationships with particular students are slow to develop, do not give up. Persistence and flexibility in approach often pay off handsomely.