As millions of students start the school year remotely, many of them have never met their teachers in person.
Yet strong student-teacher relationships are linked to both short-term and long-term improvements on multiple measures: higher student academic engagement, better attendance, better grades, fewer disruptive behaviors and suspensions, and lower school dropout rates. These effects hold true regardless of students’ individual, family, and school backgrounds. And experts say strong relationships will be even more important this year, as many students grapple with trauma brought on by the pandemic, the economic downturn, and recent high-profile police killings of Black people.
That means teachers need to find ways to form connections with their students via computer screen.
“I was convinced it was going to be awful because I love building relationships with kids, and I was like, ‘How am I going to have those conversations and those little inside jokes and stuff if they’re not here?’” said Jennifer Atkins, a 7th grade English/language arts and reading teacher at Howell Middle School in Victoria, Texas. For the first three weeks of her school year, students were completely remote. Now, her district has moved to a hybrid approach to instruction in which some students are coming into school a few days a week. But some of her students have opted to remain virtual, and she still hasn’t met those kids face-to-face.
Even so, Atkins and other teachers say, they’ve still managed to form solid relationships with their students this year.
“I almost feel like I know them better than classes previously, even my in-person, because I have taken more intentional time to get to know them,” said Caila Smith, a middle school English/language arts teacher in Illinois. “This is one of the things I won’t go back to doing, quote, the normal way.”
Here are some tips from Smith and other teachers who are figuring out how to make this work:
1. Relationships come before content.
“At the beginning, I felt a lot of pressure to jump right into curriculum” to make up for a disrupted spring semester, Smith said. But she quickly realized that “I have to spend more time than I normally would building relationships with these kids. In some ways, it’s more important than content.”
After all, teachers said, students will be more engaged in class when they feel a camaraderie with their teacher. That’s especially important this year, as students grapple with the adjustment to remote or hybrid instruction and the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic. A recent nationally representative survey from Education Week found that 56 percent of teachers, principals, and administrators said student morale is lower now than it was before the pandemic.
“If you don’t have a relationship with that kid, there’s no learning that’s going to happen,” Atkins said. “If they think you don’t like them, they’re done, and they shut down. They work for the teachers they respect.”
2. Get to know students’ interests outside of academics.
Making time to get to know students on a personal level is important every year, but especially this one, said Tony Gentile, a 5th grade teacher in the Papillion La Vista Community school district near Omaha, Neb. His district has resumed in-person instruction, but he’s teaching the students who opted to stay entirely online.
At first, Gentile said, he missed the little unstructured moments to chat with students in the hallway, at lunch or recess, and both before or after school. He’s tried to replicate that over video calls—he uses the moments as students are logging into class as opportunities for small talk. And he gave his students a presentation about his own interests, hobbies, and family.
And of course, pets are a great way to bond. Gentile shares pictures and videos of his yellow lab and golden retriever with his students, and they’ll hold up their own pets to the camera. Students’ siblings might also pop up on their webcam, and students can easily share their favorite things from their rooms during show-and-tell.
“I have found that I know more about my students’ personal lives now than I did [when we were] in the classroom,” he said.
3. Give personal feedback and notes.
Teachers say it’s especially important this year to give students one-on-one attention. For example, Atkins asked her students to share what they liked the most and the least about her English/language arts and reading class. (Most students said their least favorite part was poetry.) She responded to every student individually.
Megan Taylor, a 7th grade social studies and language arts teacher in North Carolina, has been sending a handwritten letter home to every student since she started teaching. “It’s an extra personal touch,” she said. “You took the time to sit down and write a letter saying you’re proud of something they’ve done in class, or it’s great to have you in class—just a little bit more personal relationship building.”
This year, she thinks the letter will be especially important in building community, since students are completely remote until at least the end of October. "[I’m] making sure they’re all feeling welcome and comfortable and making sure they’re just feeling like they’re being noticed right now,” she said.
4. Inject some fun into class time.
Atkins said she tries to use her Bitmoji avatar as much as possible to give students a sense of her personality. She also has built four Bitmoji classrooms, which are colorful repositories of links and information that teachers say let them create a sense of familiarity and connection with their students from afar.
One of Atkins’ Bitmoji classrooms is “Harry Potter” themed, to go with her class reward system. Every year, including this year, students are sorted into the four Hogwarts houses featured in the series. Students can score house points for going above and beyond in their work or just making a witty comment that makes Atkins laugh. The competition has made students more likely to participate in class discussions online, she said.
Also, Atkins has assigned her students who are still entirely online the responsibility of coming up with a daily fun fact to share with the students who are doing hybrid instruction. That way, they are building community with their peers even when they haven’t met each other.
That’s important, said Gentile, the 5th grade Nebraska teacher, because students don’t have the same opportunities to chat with their peers online as they would in person. “Find every opportunity that you can to have the students share about themselves and then talk with each other,” he said.
Image via Getty
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.
A version of this article appeared in the October 07, 2020 edition of Education Week