4 Steps to Connecting with Kids in Distance Learning

Back in 2008, when I first started teaching online, I honestly thought it was going to be a joke. I had no idea how online school would work–for high schoolers and much less for Kindergarteners! Starting mid-way through the year, I dove in to the work to figure out what on earth to do. I soon learned that in online schools, there was a wealth of information about students at my fingertips. Every time I called, I logged my call. One system captured my email communications between kids and families! I got to know my kids better than when I was face to face with them in a classroom. Why? Because I knew them as individuals rather than as members of a group. This initial experience of teaching online completely changed my perspective of what it means to really know students.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that shift that I made in my teaching practice and how much teachers have had to change their practice since March. Before Covid-19 shut down our school buildings, teachers greeted learners at the door as they walked in, shared their personality with their classes live and face to face, and worked on group dynamics all the time–changing seat placement, strategically setting up partners or small groups. Since the move to distance learning, all of those soft skills–relationship skills–have become things that educators need to consciously think about. All of a sudden, we can’t rely on a smile during passing period, or a quick chat during independent work time. Due to distance learning, we need to bring what we used to do ‘naturally,’ with little thought, to the forefront; we need to dive in to being purposeful and strategic in building strong, caring, professional relationships with our students.

Strong, caring, professional teacher-student relationships are critical to our learners embracing their potential. Relationships are the foundation of all of our teaching practice– from trauma-informed practices to culturally responsive teaching. Drop out prevention research has found that when students have at least one adult that they perceive to care about them, they stay in school at much higher rates. In fact, the number one reason students say they dropped out when asked was that nobody cared about them (National Council of State Legislatures). Additionally, the US Department of Education and the National Dropout Prevention Center both identify strong, caring, professional teacher-student relationships as strategies to prevent students from dropping out.

What does a strong, caring, professional relationship consist of?

BrenĂ© Brown defines genuine connection as “energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued” (The Gifts of Imperfection, 2010). As we build genuine connection with our students, we share specific, honest aspects of our humanity with students and in return acknowledge their own specific aspects of their personality, life, and humanity that we gather from information they share with us. I was discussing the concept of this post with an awesome teacher friend of mine, and she asked me to be sure to include that it’s okay to be vulnerable with our students–more than ever, we are all learning together.

Start by considering your own humanity and vulnerability. Do you have hobbies? pets? Are you comfortable with using Bitmoji? Do you love puns? Dad jokes? It’s important to ensure you’re establishing a professional relationship, so as you think about who you are, be strategic about what you share. As you create this list of the things that make you human, consider how you might share them with learners to begin to create genuine connections with students.

Armed with your list, identify tech tools that you can embrace to showcase your own personality. Collect appropriate memes to share for humor, or use Flipgrid for vlogging. What might you use to share your love of play? One teacher used a combination of Flappy Bird (a video game) and Flipgrid to create a challenge for PE! Be kind to yourself and explore one app… a week? a month? Determine what is right for you.

Next Steps…

Now that you have dug deep into what makes you human and how you can share that with learners, consider how you will connect with them regarding what makes them human. There are many great strategies that you can use to track the information you receive about your learners–which is so important to ensure equity. I love the 5 x 5 method that Todd Finley shared! Spending 5 minutes per day digging in to what you know about your learners will surely pay off! I created this Connections Tracker to use as a tool to capture what you learn about your learners. Download your class list(s) onto a spreadsheet and jot down what you learn about your students! As you track your connections, review the entire class list(s) periodically to ensure you are working toward establishing a connection with every student.

Planning is everything with distance learning! As you think about your lesson plans, what connection activities have you planned? Are there learners you should invite to an office hour because you haven’t connected yet? What story might you share with the class?

When you bring your humanity to your practice–including your compassion and empathy for the humanity your learners bring–you will develop those rich, strong, caring, professional relationships that will catapult student learning in your class.

Next week, my blog will discuss what you might do if you feel stuck when making that connection your learners called “The Beauty Between Us.” Subscribe below so you don’t miss it!

Notes for School Leaders

I hope that with distance learning you have been able to set up Advisories or Homerooms for students to support their health and wellbeing. The Connections Tracker can help Advisory or Homeroom teachers track their relationships and connections with their caseload. Sometimes, however, for a variety of reasons, we aren’t able to implement ideas like Advisory/ Homeroom. As an alternative to an advisory program, you might consider the following: When I worked in a school building, every fall we created a massive Connections Tracker with every student on the school on it–separated by grade level. Teachers would then type their names next to students they had a strong connection with. For the students who did not have an adult’s name next to them, we worked as a team to identify who would strategically and intentionally reach out to that student. Our goal was to have every student connect to at least one adult on campus.

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