Connections: Linking Talented Educators
Connections: Linking Talented Educators

Building Relationships in the Online Classroom

July 28, 2020

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By Lauren Jensen (NY ’15)

With schools across the U.S. starting the school year online due to COVID-19, teachers are concerned about connecting with their new students. No problem, says English teacher Lauren Jensen (NY ’15), who moved to a virtual classroom before the pandemic. She shares the strategies that worked for her.

March 2020: You leave school on a Friday afternoon, not realizing that, by Monday morning, you will not share the same physical space as your students for the rest of the year. This was the reality when the COVID-19 pandemic swept the nation last spring, instantly shifting teachers and students across the country from their classrooms to distance learning.

Last year, at least, teachers and students had been together for months, building relationships that helped bridge the transition to virtual instruction. As the 2020-21 school year looms, educators may feel more comfortable with the technology of distance learning, but they’re starting from scratch with students they hardly know.

I made the transition to teaching AP Literature online in Virginia’s Fairfax County Public Schools in the fall of 2019, long before COVID-19. My move from the classroom to virtual instruction was planned and by choice—the schedule worked better for my life as a new mother. But after 15 years of standing in front of my students in the classroom, I faced exactly the same issue: Without seeing my students face to face every day, would I still be able to forge connections and build relationships with them?

The short answer: yes. It’s not the same as building relationships in the classroom, but it’s not that different, either. I was able to foster a sense of community and belonging despite being loosely tethered to my students through their computer screens. I had the benefit of being able to experiment without the pressures of a pandemic. Here’s what worked best for me:

Tip 1: Set the foundation first.

Distance learning does not come naturally to most students or parents. Consider opening the school year with an orientation for both. Try a digital scavenger hunt, a simple Q & A or a virtual back-to-school night. Despite the rigors of the AP Literature curriculum, I did not start with content from day one. It was more important to me that everyone felt comfortable with the platform before the learning began.

Tip 2: Create a safe space.

If students aren’t worrying about being judged, they will be more likely to participate and share their ideas. I spent a significant amount of time showing my students that there was no one right answer, that my interpretation was not the only interpretation. In fact, they frequently offered analyses that were more insightful than mine. Offering students opportunities to share ideas with each other in advance of whole-class discussions via tools such as Padlet, Flipgrid, and the Google Classroom Question feature was an effective strategy for honoring their ideas. Make sure students know that you value their voice.

Tip 3: Be authentic.

Don’t hide behind the screen. Bask in all your quirky glory. Let your students “see” you even if they can’t literally see you. Sometimes I opened my synchronous chats each week with a writing prompt unrelated to our curricular content. Other times, I opened with a photo and caption of a memory from the previous week. I shared the ache I felt when our weekly synchronous chat fell on the anniversary of my mom’s passing. I shared photos from my daughter’s first (quarantine) birthday party. In those moments, my students saw me as an individual, not a curriculum writer floating through cyberspace. By letting them into my life, my students let me into theirs.

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Tip 4: It’s not all about the curriculum.

It’s okay to get off topic sometimes. Participating in students’ side banter humanizes you. It also ignites laughter, which is good for the soul. Once I let go of trying to control the occasional witty chatter between students, and joined in, I also became the occasional target of the wisecracks. And frankly, I didn’t mind. Instead, I laughed alongside my students (and even threw a few quips their way).

Tip 5: Make your course as interactive as possible.

The more space you create for students to collaborate and interact with you and each other, the stronger the classroom community will become. There are a number of ways I constructed social contexts for learning. Flipgrid is a great tool for amplifying and empowering student voice. I used Flipgrid for reader responses, as well as peer revision for writing. This tool allows students and teachers to respond to each other when “real time” discussion isn’t available. Students also participated in online discussions about literature through the Google Classroom Question feature. One of the most effective ways I connected with students asynchronously was via weekly recorded video updates that included explanations of upcoming assignments and general announcements. This provided extra support beyond the brief explanations during synchronous chats.

Tip 6: Be present outside of scheduled synchronous learning.

My relationships with my students are part of my instruction, not an afterthought. Strong connections yield higher student motivation and enjoyment of school (whether in-person or online). Let students know you are not only part of their learning journey, but are a resource beyond the camera or microphone. For me, this meant timely and frequent feedback on their writing, digital office hours via Google Meet, staying “after class” on Blackboard Collaborate for students to ask additional questions, and even answering emails at obscure times (oh, the joys of a newborn’s sleep schedule!).

Tip 7: Check in on your students.

On a bi-weekly basis, I emailed each of my students just to say “Hey.” It was not academic. It was not about grades. It was not about assignments. It was simply about them. A short note letting them know I was thinking of them underscored the value I place on them as individuals outside of the virtual classroom walls.

Tip 8: Embed small gestures of kindness.

Every year I create “good luck goodie bags” that I distribute to my AP or IB students on the morning of their exam. I may not have been able to hand-deliver goodie bags this year, but I got creative and digitized my well wishes. I created a personalized bookmark for each student, with a few words of wisdom catered to their personal strengths and weaknesses, and emailed them to each student. Nearly every student responded that the bookmarks provided a sense of comfort to them as they took their exam.

The start to this school year brings a unique challenge: on the one hand, teachers will not need to pivot mid-year to a new space, quite literally, for instruction. On the other hand, they will need to start the year without the standard face-to-face ice breakers (name game, anyone?) that build community from the first day of school. But bonding will happen. Be kind to yourself. Show compassion to your students. Remind everyone to have a little grace. And perhaps let them in on why you’re sipping a third cup of coffee at 10 a.m. There’s only one thing worse for your sleep than an all-nighter, and that’s a teething toddler.

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