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Developing strong student-teacher relationships is an important part of effective teaching and learning and has been shown to lead to better student outcomes. Unfortunately, it is a somewhat overlooked skill. Here we talk about building social connections in a virtual learning or distance learning environment – why it is important, the challenges inherent in doing it virtually, and what teachers can do to build and strengthen virtual connections with and between their students.
THE IMPORTANCE OF POSITIVE RELATIONSHIPS
Positive student-teacher relationships can promote student success, which is a major end-goal for most educators. It is true that relationships alone do not guarantee that a given student will perform better, but students will be better positioned for success if they can more meaningfully engage with and have the support of a trusted and respected teacher whenever they face issues or challenges, whether academic or otherwise.
So how can you make sure your students will continue to engage with you? Make sure they have a reason to come to class. This can take many forms, from ensuring that class content is appropriate and fun, to interacting with your students in ways that lower their anxiety about learning and logging in for classes. We talk more about teaching tactics below.
CHALLENGES OF BUILDING SOCIAL CONNECTIONS IN DISTANCE OR VIRTUAL ENVIRONMENTS
Here is why it can be so difficult to build meaningful connections with your students when interacting with them virtually.
Having one-on-one conversations and holding small group discussions can be hard to do over a video call. Private chats are virtually impossible in such a setup because one-on-one time can be difficult to arrange for educators who are trying to teach and connect with dozens of students at a time.
You cannot interact physically or get a read on the body language of your students when working remotely. Your presence on the screen is also significantly diminished, and since you cannot see everyone all at once, it can be difficult to get a pulse on how well the class is doing as a whole, how specific students are faring, and whether you are getting through to your class the way you intend to.
While at-risk students face obstacles in attending school physically, they can face similar challenges in attending school virtually. If a certain student does not attend regularly for whatever reason –a lack of interest, a lack of internet access, or personal issues – it can be difficult to get to the root of any observed problems when you are unable to speak directly with the student about those problems in person.
how to build virtual connectedness
Here are a few ideas about how you can build relationships with your class – regardless of where they are or how you teach them.
Use a Soft Start to Begin Each Lesson
It can take some time for everyone to become mentally prepared for class. Don’t expect everyone to be ready the moment class starts, so consider using an ice-breaker activity until you feel everyone is ready to go. Ideas that are easy to implement in a virtual setting include reading an interesting article, sharing a fact, playing a learning game, or asking them about something interesting that happened to them recently. Be sure to greet everyone by name as well every day to establish rapport.
Perform Regular Check-Ins
You may have your class share a quick mental check-in during the week to gauge how everyone is doing by asking them something that is going well, something they are apprehensive about, or something negative that occurred to them. Doing this with everyone allows the entire class to share something with others, understand the feelings and hardships that their peers may be experiencing, and open the floor for positive encouragement and suggestions from others.
Vary Your Online Class Schedules
You don’t always have to supervise your students during online class time. You can get some students to work on offline tasks at set times and have them check in later with their progress. This will give you some downtime away from your screen and will allow students who may not always have an easily accessible internet connection to take a break from having to get online to attend class.
Perform Group Work
Cooperative and collaborative tasks can help promote student relationships – and learning. You can use tools such as Zoom breakout rooms to have groups of students work together or have them collaborate on shared applications such as Google Drive. This will allow them to interact informally and open up opportunities for creating new connections.
Introduce Students to Your World
Students love to learn about the personal side of their teachers. Tell them about your family, what it was like growing up, your fears and aspirations, and provide other relevant nuggets of wisdom. Class time does not always have to be class time. If you are more willing to open up and share with them, they will be more likely to reciprocate with you and with others in the class.
Ask Students to Share Something About Themselves
As an extension of the above, ask your students to share something interesting with the rest of the class. This will help you get to know them better and potentially tailor class content using subjects that your class finds interesting. It will also allow students to understand their classmates better, learn from them, and potentially form connections based on shared interests. You can also ask your students for permission to share their interests, accomplishments, or accolades on, for example, the school website or a community page to give them a sense of achievement and recognition within the wider student body. This will help establish a wider network of peers with whom potentially fruitful relationships can be developed over time.
Start a Virtual Club or Hold Group Activities
A virtual club or non-academic activity can be just the getaway your class needs. For example, you can start a book club that helps reinforce classroom material, hold an art show or show-and-tell, or play classroom bingo at a fixed date and time. You can even take your class on a virtual tour or field trip, which is something that more and more museums and other attractions (of both academic as well as non-academic interest) are offering students. The more you and your students can interact in an unstructured way around classroom activities, the more comfortable everyone will be when back in their (virtual) class.
Offer Virtual Office Hours
Make sure to be accessible to your students beyond the fixed timings of your daily school schedule. We talked about the difficulty of having meaningful one-on-ones above; virtual office hours can give you (and your students) the opportunity to meet and speak candidly about academic or non-academic matters and address potential issues of concern. If students do not seem too receptive to your offering of office hours, try scheduling them yourself for an optional meet-up and use the tactics outlined above to initiate a meaningful connection.
Developing strong social connections with your virtual class is partly an art and partly a science. Virtual tours and breakout rooms are great for collaboration and shared experiences, but will only work if students are engaged and motivated to come to class. Furthermore, students will likely only participate in class and interact with others when they feel safe, appreciated, and have the opportunity to be heard.
Providing office hours, greeting and getting to know your students as individuals, letting them get to know you, holding group activities, and regularly checking in with everybody are great ways to get everyone on board and feel that they are part of something bigger. With the right mindset and an approach based on the tools you have at your disposal, you will be able to build meaningful connections with your class, even if it is all done virtually.
In addition to building social learning and connectedness, now is the time to evaluate the IT tools and solutions you and your students have at your disposal. To learn more about how we can help, contact us here. A Kajeet Solutions Engineer can help you understand the challenges you face and devise a workable plan that will help you and your students get the most out of the remote learning experience.