Virtual learning, hybrid learning, synchronous/asynchronous, and all the other buzzwords and names about this unprecedented time in American education do not even begin to explain the complete revamping all educators have had to do over this last year. For some, this year has shaken them to their foundation. For others, it has been a renewed perspective and a shot of adrenaline as they were unceremoniously kicked out of any teaching rut they were in. Many have left education to maintain their own personal health, sanity, or both.
What has remained true is that successful teachers build relationships with their students.
My teenage middle school son and I were on a walk the other day (thank goodness for some outdoor time) and I asked him which of his teachers he felt had done the best last year and this year in distance/virtual learning. His answer completely shocked me. The reason why it shocked me is my son’s personality…he is a kid who does not often and freely talk about “touchy feely” stuff. He has the biggest heart and loves deeply, but any big warm fuzzy emotional displays seem to just annoy him. His response was “I think the teacher who has done the best is the one who wants to get to know us. She spends the first 5 minutes of class everyday asking us how we are and what has been happening in our lives.” Jaw. Drop.
It was a stark reminder that while there are a million different ways to approach this crazy time in education, there is one truth that remains unchanged. Students respond to teachers who care about them and build relationships; which is infinitely more challenging in a virtual classroom environment. Now, after I patted myself on the back for asking my students every day for the first five minutes how they are and casually chatting (WHEW…met the middle school boy criteria), I realized that building relationships is something we all can do even at this point in the year. Here are some great ideas from my own classroom and from what my friends and colleagues in education have done:
- Be authentic – Any relationship that works is based on being authentic. With your students, admit the truth (appropriately) and share the joys and challenges with them authentically.
- Don’t forget the FUN – Spirit Days, Classroom contests, Fun Friday (every Friday I have a LIVE fun event for any student I teach – we do trivia, escape rooms, we even played Yahtzee virtually), create Tik Tok videos, anything to create a school and classroom culture will build those important memories and relationships our kids need. .
- Be genuinely excited about learning – Perseverance Rover just landed on the moon and you are excited, Amanda Gorman blew your mind at the Inauguration, or whatever you find amazing SHARE IT WITH YOUR STUDENTS – right now our kids need us to be EXCITED about learning. This is when shifting the lesson plans or pacing guides to find ways to share and celebrate learning is so essential. My daughter’s teacher got her so pumped about the bones of the body (all done virtually) that she was creating songs, making movable finger puppets…of the fingers and generally getting my daughter excited about bones.
- Open the doors of communication – There are simply too many free and easy to use ways to keep the lines of communication open with your students – Flipgrid – I have one always open where kids can record a video letting me know what is happening, Google or Microsoft form surveys/check ins, email, and my new favorite parent communication tool – Talking Points (this is an app like remind that translates both ways – parent to you and you to parent in dozens of languages. I have found because it is on people’s phone as a text I get a ton of communication and it is super easy for me to respond.)
- Get Creative – I keep looking for ways to solve problems my students are having in creative and new ways. This year I have done a 100’s Club for students who complete 100% of their work on time each week, Peer Squads where students can meet in small groups virtually and work together, and just recently I reintroduced Genius Hour to motivate students to get their work done and challenge my kids who are needing a push. Enjoy these freebies of those programs! I have seen teachers pretend to be “the Hamburglar” and steal student’s great paragraphs in writing only to be replaced with a candy hamburger. Your kids need to feel genuinely excited to see you – so get creative.
- Don’t lessen the expectations too far – We have all had to adjust to the amount of work students will actually complete, the kind of work they can do independently, and what barriers students will have to getting their work done. We all understand it would be very different in our “old” pre-pandemic classrooms. But our kids need to know, we believe in them and expect them to achieve. They need to know we still care about their behavior and community interactions. I am still holding virtual class meetings, creating group norms, meeting with students that are struggling virtually, and making sure I let them know that I know and expect that they can do this.
- Change your mindset – I have seen consistently that educators who have flipped their thinking from the negative, this is so hard, look at what we are missing mindset to a what CAN I do that will work and be successful mindset are doing some amazing things.
All of us need to feel connected right now. Connected to each other even when we are unable to hug, hang out, or comfort each other in person.
Our kids need that connection – even surly teenagers who might act like they don’t care. So, make today a renewed commitment for the end of this school year (YEP – it IS going to end, we ARE going to be back in school someday like it used to be) that you are going to build relationships with your students. Because, after this is all over and our kids remember this time where the world stopped spinning – will they remember the lesson you taught, the test you gave, or the plans you made or will they remember that you got to know them?
Make that decision today…our kids need YOU!