How are you? No, really think before you answer. How are you?
This could possibly be the most over asked and under answered question of all times, couldn’t it? Some Harvard researchers tag it as the three most useless words in the world of communication.
Oftentimes, we ask not because we really want an answer, but just to politely say hello or start a conversation. But in a world where there is so much anxiety, stress, uncertainty, and disconnect; I would argue that these three words are pretty significant to better understand those around us or those on the other end of a computer.
Educators: many of you have been thrown into an unknown world of trying to learn new programs, technology, lesson plans, platforms…the list goes on and on and on. Many of you have stepped into a “second first year of teaching” in your career and you are just trying to survive. I’ve had an opportunity to talk with educators over the last several weeks as they’ve jumped head first into this new world. The lack of time given to prepare and learn this new normal in education is heartbreaking. Chaotic is a simple way to describe it.
Some of it makes sense, right? We are in the midst of a pandemic…we are all responding to a crisis. In a crisis, decisions tend to be made quickly and without all of the information. No doubt, education leaders were under a lot of pressure, but the result perhaps led to quick decision making and poor planning. Unfortunately, planning, structure, and predictability are often where teachers and students thrive. To take it a step further, our brains can’t learn or perform in the same way when we are stressed. So, we are all navigating a new way for our students and kids to learn while we are learning a whole new world of technology, communication, and delivery. That is an incredible amount of stress!
It’s probably no surprise that I’m curious about the kinds of relationships (or lack of relationships) our students are building with teachers and one another through a virtual environment. I have three questions:
- How can we ensure students are feeling connected and motivated to come to the computer to learn?
- What are teachers doing to build rapport and trust with their students?
- Finally, how are education leaders providing opportunities and check-ins with staff to have a pulse on emotional and mental wellness to prevent burnout?
I believe these are important questions to be asking if you are in education and keys to a successful virtual learning community for everyone.
Educators know the importance of relationships in learning. Many of us understand it is foundational in our practice. It just may feel a little uneasy and tricky to figure out how to connect and develop strong relationships with students through a screen. The good news is the keys to good relationships (respect, trust, and support) can still come through loud and clear virtually. While there are challenges to overcome, if one is intentional and strategic, it can be done. And done really successfully!
Below are some ideas and strategies to consider to help develop good relationships with students, if you are navigating virtual waters:
- One on One Sessions with Students –If I could shout this from the top of the world, I would. I can’t emphasize enough the value of having one on one virtual check in sessions with students. You will be able to gain a pulse on how they are feeling and learn the struggles they might be having adjusting to the new virtual learning environment. These 10-15 minute sessions can go A LONG WAY! I know there are pressures to focus on academic curriculum, but trust me when I say students can’t be successful without being comfortable with who they are learning from. If you have to, schedule these sessions over the course of a couple of weeks. Offer independent reading or “get to know me” activities for the rest of the students while you host these sessions. It will make you, the students, and the families feel much more at ease with this process and prevent issues down the road.
- Establish Morning Meetings – A good practice to get into is to offer time at the beginning of each day for students to join and check in. During this time, you can offer quick tips and encouragement and gain an overall sense of how students are doing. Students will begin to feel as though there is a designated part of the day to offer their thoughts and concerns. It’s also important to allow students to say hello and catch up with one another. Remember, kids are used to having time to chat on the bus or in the hallway before their day begins. We all appreciate time to ease into the day.
- Conduct a Student Interest Inventory – Use Google Forms to create a quick and easy way to learn more about students individually. Kids love to talk about and share their interests. By providing a place for them to do so, you are showing your interest in wanting to know more about them. In school, you often have activities or unstructured times (recess, cafeteria, dismissal) where some of these conversations naturally happen with students. In the world of virtual learning, you need to be intentional about asking.
- Establish Community Expectations or Norms – It’s always important to be clear on what you expect in a traditional school setting and, absolutely critical, in this new virtual world. Including students in establishing these expectations can be an important way to build a sense of responsibility and community. You are all building a TEAM that is learning how to work together.
- This is ME activity – A simple way to establish relationships is to do an activity that focuses on each student…and YOU as the teacher. This can be as simple as using a template on the internet that provides information for a student to create a poster about themselves. As the teacher, it’s really important for you to do this as well. Students love learning about each other and their teachers!
- Build Relationships with your Parents/Families – Many parents are juggling careers and other responsibilities at home while helping their children manage their virtual schedules. A parent/teacher partnership can be so important to the success of virtual learning. Typically, relationships with parents develop over emails, in scheduled face to face meetings or during events the school hosts. Virtual learning provides a unique opportunity and window into the home. Parents are in this new world with you and many are uneasy or unsure how this is supposed to work. It’s totally fine to be honest and say you don’t have all the answers but be sure to stay connected with updates and ways to communicate. I also advise teachers to use tools or platforms to regularly connect with parents. Regularly let them know how their children are doing…struggles and celebrations! It’s important to build this rapport so that if or when you have a concern, there’s already a line of communication. Parents and families are a critical part of this new virtual learning world. A good way to include parents and build stronger relationships is to learn more about their jobs or skills. They might be willing to join the class as a guest speaker to share knowledge or expertise in a particular area. For example, if you have a parent who is a nurse or in the medical field, invite them to the virtual class to share information about their career. Have students prepare questions and reflect on what they learned.
- TEAM up with the School Counselor to do Mental Health Check Ins — Offering regular times (weekly, bi-weekly, or even monthly) for a school counselor to co-facilitate an open session of mental health check-ins with your class can be important to providing an outlet for communication and for students to check in with each other. These sessions can be ice breaker activities, team building activities, or you can collect suggestions from students on some topics they would like to focus on. It’s helpful to TEAM up with a counselor for these kinds of sessions to ensure you have support and follow-up in case anything concerning would arise. I would suggest creating boundaries and rules for the open sessions that include ways to connect with the counselor.
- Incorporate Regular Social Emotional activities and Integration into your Everyday Lessons — If I haven’t emphasized this enough, it’s important to lead with compassion and understanding while you continue down this path of virtual learning. Students should hear about the importance of skills such as problem solving and resilience while they work through spelling words and math. There should be daily and regular opportunities to teach social and emotional learning in small bites. TEAMology offers a free web-based app that provides easy activities and prompts that can be used virtually. Feel free to click here to check it out.
- Use Students’ Names Often – Being in front of a screen for long periods of time can be challenging, especially for younger students. By using students’ names often, you are helping to make a connection and regaining focus of students throughout the lesson. Additionally, if the start of the school year was virtual, kids are trying to learn who their classmates are. By continually using names, you are helping students learn each other’s names. It’s a very simple but effective way to build your class rapport. You could even do a fun game to try and see how quickly you can say all of the students’ names!
- Ask the question, “How Are You?” But mean it… – I want to end by challenging you to rethink the question, “How Are You?”
I hope you are mindful and consistently checking in with your colleagues, friends, and family to ask how they are doing during this incredibly difficult time. But, I really hope you are taking the time to genuinely ask your students regularly, “How ARE you?” Be sure to share that you are really hoping to learn more about how they are, what they like about virtual learning, what they don’t like and if there’s anything they need. Unfortunately, kids don’t often get the chance to talk about these things. Right now, maybe more than ever, our kids need to be asked, “How are you?” from someone who cares and is really wanting to know.
This is all so new…and so hard. But if we remember why we got into this teaching thing in the first place, it might just make it a little easier. Many of us wanted to make an impact on kids; we wanted to help them learn and build skills that would be foundational in their future success. Your students need you to show up every day. They need you to bring as much positivity as you have in you. They need to feel a sense of connection and build relationships in a way they never have before. If we can do that, we are still making an impact and we are still doing everything we can to build skills to get them through this.
Until next time…