How to Build Relationships With Students Virtually or in Person This Fall

The education world suffered a seismic shift in its learning landscape last spring, when it abruptly moved from in-person to remote learning. It continues to struggle with what learning outside an actual school building means.

It’s no surprise that challenges persisted from March through the end of last school year, given that teachers, school boards, superintendents’ cabinets, students, and families were all collectively thrown into an experiment in learning for the safety and well-being of the greater community. I cannot recall an entire industry (teaching) altering its services so drastically to all of its 50 million daily customers (children) under such a quick turnaround.

Of course, we don’t think of teaching and learning like typical businesses that strive to develop products or services and ultimately make a company and its employees money. No, schools are not anything like making an automobile, building a house, or serving you dinner. Schools are in the business of making people, little ones who will develop and grow into citizens, pursue happiness, uphold their liberty, and have the opportunity to live the American dream.

If we can agree that schools are in the people-making business wherever learning happens, shouldn’t school and district reentry plans include what motivates students to actively participate in the learning process in the first place—namely, effective relationships with their teachers? Unfortunately, the time, effort, and energy devoted to relationships is disproportionate to their importance in the classroom during a “normal” summer of planning. Add in a raging pandemic, the ever-changing plans that ruled the summer months, and the challenge of becoming more racially just—all important considerations for the upcoming school year—and we can understand how the priority of building strong relationships, which was shaky to begin with, fades into the background.

For a moment, consider a teacher, coach, or mentor who positively impacted your life—an adult or more experienced colleague who really took an interest in you and your development. As you think of your experience with this person, I gather you have an image in your mind representing them and an emotion that bubbles up along with it. Why? Because meaningful learning does not happen without a meaningful relationship!

Whether learning takes place face-to-face or remotely during this school year, schools and districts may devote intentional plans to restoring, restarting, or building strong relationships, or they may not. But schools and teachers could learn a great deal from those effective educators who kept students actively engaged in the spring because they took the time to maintain relationships, regardless of where those relationships played out.

Building Relationships With Students During COVID-19

Here are some ideas for teachers and education leaders when it comes to building relationships with students heading into a most unusual school year.

1. Try the 2/2/2 Method

Talk with two students for two minutes twice a day about anything school related (or not)—in a classroom or hallway or through meeting software. Let students know you will be actively looking to engage with them before, during, or after class, and make appointments to do so.

"Meaningful learning does not happen without a meaningful relationship!"

2. Survey Students About How They Feel

Create surveys to gauge not only feelings but also perceptions, coping strategies (or lack thereof), and information from students that will help you create intentional plans to restore relationships lost to COVID-19. This could include polling students using software like Mentimeter, creating a word cloud based on a prompt (for example, “Use a word or words to describe your remote learning experience last year”), or even multiple choice, ranking, or true/false questions on related topics.

3. Spark Engaging Conversations With Students

However you start or have started this school year, it will be like no other back-to-school season anyone has ever experienced. Whether remote, in-person, or a combination of both, teachers can ask students a thought-provoking question of the week—something they can respond to in person, in a journal, or through video creation. Online bulletin boards from Lino, where students can post color-coded questions and answers—or a jigsaw activity on Padlet that can be personalized with GIFs, videos, or images—are great ideas to seize on at this moment when students need new ways to thoughtfully engage with one another and their teachers. Heck, just start each class with a student’s talent, interest, or words.

4. Show Students How to Learn from Mistakes

Model mistake-making over and over and over again. There's currently no place for perfection, which should have left the education landscape long ago. In March, all school educators entered the “making it up as we go along” phase together. Now, while teachers, administrators, students, and families would like to avoid the happenstance of learning on the fly again, there are important lessons to be learned by educators showing vulnerability, making mistakes, and then showing students how they can learn from them. It’s what we expect from students anyway, and if we model these processes, we will see more willingness from our students to do the same.

5. Understand the Intimacy of Learning, Especially Virtually

Students can feel the sting of discord and the warmth of understanding in their seats at home or at school. But when there are 20 to 25 faces all fitting on one screen, everything the teacher says and does is amplified. If you admonish a student in the online experience, it’s likely that every other student feels that anger and frustration because there is no other place to look or be. In a physical classroom, a teacher can correct a student quietly and privately—and even if the teacher does it in a more public manner, other students may be working on something else or staring out the window, and therefore not paying attention.

But in the online environment, the physical distance of an in-person classroom (ranging from 10 inches to 30 feet) is replaced by tiny fractions of an inch, with many faces on the screen almost touching one another. Therefore, educators should always be mindful of the fact that what they say and do will be amplified. Teachers’ words have always mattered, but they matter more in a remote world, where the distance and distractions of a classroom are replaced with faces on a screen that all can feel, immediately.

These are just a few suggestions for you to consider as you take deep breaths for the 2020-2021 school year. Teachers around the country actively sought out methods to maintain relationships with a flick of the virtual switch last year, and this year, so many more relationships will have to begin on a screen instead of in person. Amongst all the concerns that come with teaching during a pandemic, reach out to your students and do so with humility, empathy, and understanding. It’s the least we can do.

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