So you're starting the school year as a distance educator and you have no idea how to build strong relationships with students you've never met in person. Before the hyperventilation kicks in, let's center on a few grounding principles.
Grounding Principle 1: You know things that work for building relationships in normal circumstances.
First, you know a lot about building relationships with students at the start of the school year. Grab a notebook and write down a few go-to practices you would use if you were going to be starting the school year normally this year.
My list would include:
- Memorizing all student names by the first Friday of school, specifically using this method. (And no, that method wouldn't work remotely as it currently is. But focus on the task! We're brainstorming what we'd normally do!)
- Challenging myself to create a moment of genuine connection with each of my students by that first Friday of school.
- Having my students tell me about the kinds of people they want to become using this simple index card activity.
- Having my students complete a simple survey or activity about their interests outside of school.
- Doing all that I can to project a warm, authoritative, trustworthy presence to my students — in other words, to demonstrate for them that I am a credible teacher.
- Working through my roster with positive parent phone calls as I observe students doing or demonstrating things that I appreciate about them.
Nothing crazy. Few bells, few whistles. Efficient. No savior-level efforts required. I get to see my family each night.
Grounding Principle 2: Relationships aren't the point of school, but they are one of its highest rewards and strongest currencies.
I've written before about how it bothers me when professional educators say, “It's all about relationships,” because it's actually not.
But with that said, we still want and need strong relationships with our students because these relationships 1) will stoke the fires that keep us going and 2) will be helpful as we help our students stoke the fires that keep them going. Relationships are fun and affirming and surprising and beautiful. So, we want them.
And finally, good news:
Grounding Principle 3: Just as relationships are not automatically created when we're in-person with someone, they are not automatically hampered when we're not in-person with someone.
That one could use shortening, but you see the point. The work we're used to doing will be different remotely — and in some ways harder — but it won't be impossible. And the sanest place to start, in my opinion, is by thinking about how we might remote-ify what we know works in-person.
After thinking through and planning for that, then we can go searching on the Internet or perusing excellent books on the topic (e.g., Hattie, Fisher, Frey's new one). Just don't miss that “after” part — it's important for your sanity and your sense of efficacy to begin with what you already know, pushing for clarity and adaptation from the place of your current expertise. Then go for added support, holding specific questions in mind as you do. This is a way of training yourself to become a pro in a way of teaching (remotely) that you're currently a novice at.
Before we move to practices, a pause for clarity: what are we after when we say teacher-student relationship?
The United States teaching profession is (by my observation) more driven by values than it is by research. That's not a totally bad thing, so long as we're clear on the difference between statements/objectives/strategies that are values-driven and statements/objectives/strategies that are research-driven.
So I think I need to upfront my values here and clearly define what I'm after when I seek to build strong teacher-student relationships in my work. I'm after building the kind of interpersonal circumstances that promote motivation, engagement, and productivity.
- By motivation, I mean the internal beliefs that naturally lead a person to want to engage in a given kind of work (e.g., reading, writing, studying, etc.).
- By engagement, I mean the during-work conditions that allow a student to get lost in the joy or thrill or peace or fulfillment of learning.
- By productivity, I mean optimizing the cognitive and noncognitive outcomes of whichever course I'm assigned to work in with my students.
In general, I find that the interpersonal circumstances that promote these things are professional (e.g., they are distinctly teacher-student rather than friend-friend or peer-peer), amicable (i.e., they are built on a warm, mutual regard), and earnest (i.e., there is passion in the relationship to see the learner grow).
So there we go: interpersonal circumstances that are professional, amicable, earnest, and that promote motivation, engagement, and productivity.
With that all sounding rosy, let's get to brass tacks. How do we do it?
Practice 1: Build your knowledge of your students by memorizing their names and interests rapidly. To do this, quiz yourself.
Knowledge has a way of begetting relationship. If you and I meet and I learn your name, that's a start — we've gone from stranger to shallow acquaintance. But if we do a bit of digging and we learn we both have children, or we both like to read books on practical theology, or we both like running, or we both teach high school… now we're finding little platforms upon which to build a relationship.
At the start of your remote teaching year, do three things right away:
- Get a stack of index cards.
- Place the name of each student on one side of the cards.
- Place information about the child on the other side. This could include:
- Data you collect from a start-of-year survey (just make sure that it's information that differentiates and humanizes the student to you)
- Photo or drawings that the child creates or that your school attendance software gives you
- Information the child shares about who they'd like to be (this is my tried-and-true start of the year index card prompt)
As soon as these are done, start carrying around class stacks of the cards and quizzing yourself on their contents. This is a good activity to pair with a walk break or some other physical task that takes you away from the computer. The more you quiz yourself on the cards, the quicker you'll memorize the students and some information about them.
Now, memorizing trivia about children isn't the whole of building relationships, obviously. So let's move into remote-ifying our core relationships-building practice here on the blog: moments of genuine connection.
Practice 2: Create a tracking mechanism for moments of genuine connection, then decide on a pace and format that makes sense given your constraints.
Moments of genuine connection (or MGCs as card-carrying, long-time readers tend to call them) are the core of my relationship-building strategy with students. They are:
- Brief — usually no more than 30 to 60 seconds.
- Within the time I'm normally scheduled to be with students — just before or right after class, or during independent work segments of my lessons.
- Balanced between personal and academic — I want to connect with students around their personal lives or their academic lives, being sure to connect with all students in both ways.
- Tracked — meaning that I literally record MGCs on a clipboard to see whether I'm actually attempting them.
- Inclusive — before I can switch to a fresh MGC page on my clipboard, I must attempt an MGC with every child on my roster.
- Aimed at specific feelings — I want students to walk away feeling valued, known, or respected (and that is language I stole directly from Gregory Walton at Stanford whose work on belonging informs my practice).
- Attempted — meaning that I can't omnipotently force a child to feel valued, known, or respected, but I can ensure that I attempt to do this.
- Authentic — meaning that I allow my MGCs regimen to force me to detect when I do not desire to connect with a child and to work through that into liking the child again.
That sounds like a lot — and it is. MGCs are very deep. But they are also very simple. Stupidly so, honestly.
So if we've got to remote-ify MGCs:
- Some things stay the same (e.g., I'm still going to use a clipboard, but I could modify to a tech version as some of our wise colleagues have; I'm still going to seek a balance between academic and personal).
- Some things need to change (e.g., how do I recreate the efficiency of 30-60 second interactions before, during, or after class?).
How in the world do we efficiently build MGCs if we're starting the year remotely?
This doesn't need to be complicated.
- When Stacey from Wisconsin held her class Zoom sessions in Spring 2020, she used the Waiting Room feature to slowly bring students into the main class session. As she brought students in, she'd attempt an MGC with each one — 30 seconds apiece. She was the first to admit that this wasn't perfect — it's easiest to do MGCs when you're one-on-one with a child — but it was the best fit for her remote teaching situation at the time.
- In Fall 2020, if I end up remote teaching, I will assign certain parts of the alphabet to my required office hours for each week, and I will ask students to attend at least one office hour per month in person. I will teach them to use the office hours time as study time, but to be ready when I take them from the Waiting Room into the main session. For safety purposes, I'll do this with several students at a time — again, not as ideal as a personal interaction in the hallway outside of my classroom, but better than nothing.
- Other teachers plan to create brief, personal videos for each student each month — quick check-ins on something academic and/or personal. When doing something like this, I encourage you to keep the goal in mind: you want your students to feel valued, known, or respected.
- For my students with technology access issues, I will attempt MGCs using phone calls — brief, targeted calls for checking in and letting them know that they matter to me.
- Feedback to student work is another area ripe for MGCs — after you give feedback on a piece of remotely submitted student writing, many learning management systems will allow you to attach a brief audio or video file. These attachments can solidify the MGC and make it stick for students.
The key with these remote-ifications of moments of genuine connection is keeping them brief — they are moments — because that keeps them sustainable. Recall Grounding Principle #2.
Practice 3, for *extra credit*: Make positive phone calls to 3-5 parents per weekday (adjust frequency as needed for your sanity, but note that doing this for your roster is a long-term sanity aid).
I know — this one feels like one more thing, and that tightening in your chest, “I'm about to hyperventilate” feeling may be threatening again. If so, crank it down — all the way to one per week if you have to.
What you're after are positive interactions with parents — sort of like MGCs, except what you want to communicate to the parent is that you value, know, and appreciate their child. Almost always, such calls will have you hanging up the phone happy; almost always, when you do this for a whole roster of students, you'll have people in the community singing your praises and building your credibility without you doing a thing. But like MGCs, you're not making these calls from an inauthentic place — you're doing this from a place of genuinely valuing, knowing, and appreciating their child. Don't try to manipulate your feelings to get there; rather, inspect your heart to figure out what's getting in the way if you don't feel like this toward a child on your roster.
Too often we teachers are blinded to the reality that our fearfully, wonderfully wrought students are not only individuals — they are also human beings influenced by their social contexts. Taking five or ten minutes per day to call the parents of the children on your roster is a small effort that reinforces to children that they are valued, known, and respected. Some parents won't share with their child that they spoke with you on the phone that day, but most will.
Don't underestimate the power of this action, even for older students. Here's some practical guidance I wrote years ago regarding positive parent phone calls home.
Bonus: Tips I appreciated from Hattie, Fisher, and Frey's Distance Learning Playbook
This article has been my attempt to answer, “How can we build strong teacher-student relationships when we start the school year at a distance?” But the idea for the article came when I read John Hattie, Doug Fisher, and Nancy Frey's chapter on the topic in their Distance Learning Playbook*. These are a few more tips they shared that I intend to incorporate in the fall, from p. 51:
- Dress and groom professionally.
- Project an optimistic demeanor about them and you.
- Weave into lessons what you have learned about students’ pursuits through interest surveys.
- Begin synchronous and asynchronous lessons with a positive affirmation (e.g., favorite quotes, a silly joke, short video messages).
- Ask questions that mediate the student’s thinking, rather than asking leading questions.
I hope this article helped. Share your own expertise in the comments, or let me know where else you'd like help. Best to you.