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Cultivating relationships in a time of social distancing at school

/ Kristen Sato

*This is an edited guest post written by Bobbie French, an educational leader, presenter and writer who participated in the WeVideo Leadership Roundtable.

The three most important words in education: Relationships, relationships, relationships. Now more than ever, during these times of virtual learning and teaching from a distance, it’s so important that we are intentional about building those relationships. We know it’s much easier to foster relationships with students, parents and colleagues when we’re able to see them face to face each day. It’s easier to get to know someone when you can see them, hug them, high-five them or simply read their facial expressions. This is what makes virtual relationship building difficult… but not impossible.

Bobbie French with students, taken before the pandemic

How have you continued to work on your own relationships or build new ones during the pandemic? We’ve all been faced with the need for social distance and limits on social gatherings. As for me, I’ve been making connections with others across social media and now on Zoom. I’ve been active on Twitter for several years, and there are many people that I would call friends that I’ve never met in person. This spring I also connected with another group through the Teach Better Administrators Mastermind which is a weekly Zoom meeting. I’ve developed a relationship and connection with these other educators from across the country without being face to face in the same room. It can be done, but our efforts must be intentional with students.

As educators, it is our responsibility to make sure our students feel safe and supported during their learning journey. Students need a sense of belonging at school, whether in person or remote. Prioritizing the social-emotional learning and developing authentic relationships with students needs to be at the center of our work. Deep learning occurs when students feel connected with their teachers, and safe taking risks with their learning. We know that students will need to take even more risks as they navigate school in new ways.

How are you building relationships with your students? How do you plan to develop relationships with parents, especially those that are struggling the most due to COVID-19? And what about with your colleagues? Many of you may still be teaching from home, missing the camaraderie of your teaching partners, teams, and other adults you usually work with in the school building.

The beginning of the year is the perfect time to start building your relationships and getting to know your new group of students. There are lots of ways to start connecting with your students. Checking in with them daily or weekly is an important first step. There are several different check-in forms that can be used for a variety of grade levels and to meet your specific needs. Here’s a beginning of the day check-in form shared by Jennifer Findley. I also created a daily check-in form you can use based on the Mood Meter or Zones of Regulation. It’s easy to modify either one of these to meet your needs and gather information from your students on a regular basis.

You can also have students check in using Padlet or Jamboard by adding an emoji or feeling word to a shared space. They can do this anonymously until you’ve established a safe class community. Using Flipgrid to have students talk about their feelings or the variety of feelings they’re having allows students even more expression. If you’re using Zoom, another strategy is to share your screen with a list of feeling words, pictures, or the Mood Meter to have students annotate with stamps.

You may also want to check in with students about how they feel about virtual learning, their different subjects, or a specific lesson. This gives them a voice within the classroom, which is one of the strongest ways to develop a relationship with your students. When using any kind of check-in with students, the most important thing is to follow up with them, especially those who have noted difficulties or struggles. 

Relationships with families are equally as important. I have used SMORE newsletters to stay in touch and keep them informed about what’s happening at school. Setting up virtual office hours allows parents to pop in to share concerns or celebrations. I use Google calendar with open appointment slots and a Zoom “office” link. Hosting routine virtual principal chats lets families know that you value their input and that you’re willing to set time aside to listen to them. Parents want to be heard, they want to know what’s happening at school to keep their children safe, and also what their children are learning. Whether you’re a teacher or administrator, having this “open door” approach, even while virtual, allows you to build meaningful relationships with parents.

This past spring, teachers had to go into crisis teaching mode. This fall, many things some teachers are teaching remotely and some are spending the majority of the day with synchronous teaching. This can be exhausting for both students and teachers. It’s important to build activities into your day that allow you to get to know your students as well as letting students get to know each other. 

Teachers are now intentionally planning their lessons (think: college lesson plans). Adding team building activities and just plain fun activities into the day will help you connect with students. I’m sure you’ve already seen lots of ideas, including scavenger hunts that get students up and moving as well as laughing together.

Other activities to try include using Flipgrid to have students introduce themselves to each other, decorating photos of lockers, backpacks, skateboards, t-shirts (anything you can imagine!). This allows students to personalize items that reflect their interests and personalities, as well as working on their technology skills. 

It’s easy to start the year with intentionally building relationships…. but what about when DEVOLSON (aka the dark, evil vortex of late September, October and November) starts to set in? Teachers will be more exhausted than ever trying to balance in-person, remote and hybrid teaching methods. They’re going to need all the support and grace we can give them. Just remember: keep relationship-building as a priority and you may end up with more engaging lessons that get your students to class every day.