Teachers, as an instructional coach, I hear you when you ask, “What do we do about those kids who didn’t show up to remote learning sessions last spring if we are still teaching remotely in the fall?” How do we get them to show up, to do the work—in essence, to comply?
My daughter was one of those kids who, because of anxiety, refused to participate in virtual learning. Some of her teachers may have figured that she was one of those noncompliant kids, and of course, it looked that way. But for her, the issue wasn’t about compliance. It was about feeling safe and understood.
Most educators understand the importance of establishing respectful relationships with students, but it is often difficult to put that theory into action without a model or plan. The five steps below serve as a relationship framework for teachers to consider as they prepare for the possibility of remote learning this fall and when trying to establish lasting and meaningful relationships with their students.
Step One: Let’s Get to Know One Another
A personal connection makes us feel as if we matter. Building relationships on a human level is the first and most powerful move we can do as educators, and it is fairly simple to do. Write a letter. Send a survey that you will later respond to personally, or simply call students to say hello. Help them to understand that you’d truly like to get to know them, to establish a rapport and mutual respect. Getting to know our students as humans will give teachers a better understanding of what makes them tick and perhaps help us understand why remote learning may be tough for them.
In my shy daughter’s case, she absolutely loved her teachers but had massive anxiety around whole-class Google Meets and all those people seemingly staring at her. Luckily, her fourth-grade teacher knew the value of putting aside work in order to prioritize the students’ need to feel safe, seen, and understood. They spent several days on one-to-one Google Meets chatting about our child’s pets, her love of writing, and their mutual admiration of all things Harry Potter. Seeing that her teacher was truly interested in who she was and how she was doing made her willing to try, albeit in small ways, to participate in virtual learning.
Step Two: Using What You Know About Students to Spark Engagement
If teachers know who their learners are, they can find texts they will read and tasks they will care about, thereby motivating them to participate. My daughter’s band teacher did this masterfully. After discovering our tween’s current Star Wars obsession, she gave our daughter the trombone music to Darth Vader’s theme song, “The Imperial March.”
For the first time in weeks, low and warbly blasts of bass permeated our small home as our thrilled and motivated child immersed herself in perfecting the piece. Embedding learning within the structures of something she cared deeply about became a potent way to get her involved and to ease her wariness of remote education.
Step Three: Student Partnerships Can Advance Participation
Teachers inherently know that peer relationships are just as important as teacher-student relationships. So how can we use that knowledge to help students move on to the next step in our relationship framework? Once again, teachers should rely on what they’ve learned about the student, but this time in order to create meaningful partnerships.
Our daughter’s writing-club teacher used what she knew about our child’s favorite pastime—writing comics and short graphic stories—and facilitated a beautiful online-writing partnership with one of her friends, an equally enthusiastic writer. These relationships with her teacher and her writing partner made her feel valued, and that was beginning to make all the difference.
Step Four: Using Small Groups to Increase Engagement
The power of a partnership naturally lends itself to the next step in the framework, which sets out to get students to interact remotely in larger peer groups. These groups should be highly engaging in order to motivate students to attend. For example, some teachers hold fun days where kids get together to play games online.
When our daughter was still having anxiety attending whole-class meetings, her teacher created a book club in which our daughter took part. The more she attended club meetings with a few trusted friends, the easier it was to share her ideas. She had come a long way in a short time, and that was directly correlated to the effort her teachers put into establishing a genuine connection with her.
Step Five: Checking In and Letting the Students Lead
It’s important to remember that a genuine connection has to be seen as an ongoing process. In the final step of our relationship-building framework, educators should leave space for lots of scaffolding and practice. They should find ways to remind students that they care about who they are and what they need, all year long. This can be accomplished with periodic check-ins.
On her first try at participating in a whole-class meet, even with the beautiful relationship she had built with her teacher and the knowledge that her writing partner and some of her reading-club friends would be attending, our daughter didn’t make it. When she heard the teacher begin speaking, she ran out the front door. When her teacher reached out to ask her what she needed to feel safe, the thoroughness of the first four steps of this relationship model meant that our daughter felt secure and could articulate what she needed.
In his book Personal & Authentic, Future Ready Schools founder Thomas C. Murray says, “The best thing we can give kids this school year is not a new curriculum or technology. It’s an empathetic heart that sees and hears theirs.” This five-step relationship framework aims to achieve just that: educators with empathetic hearts seeing and hearing their students—taking the time to know them utterly and completely.