Distance learning went from a possibility to a likelihood to a necessity faster than most of us could imagine. With the pandemic unconcerned about our timelines or habits, few parents, educators, or students were ready for the transition, and many questions remain. Perhaps the most salient one relates to classroom connections: how can educators form meaningful connections with students while teaching remotely?
I’ll develop my own working definition of a “meaningful connection” so that we can evaluate each suggestion’s ability to help construct one. Let’s say a meaningful connection is a relationship that is mutually encouraging and conducive to a positive learning experience. Really, any teacher-student connection that improves that student’s ability to learn, I’d argue, constitutes a meaningful connection.
Such connections can already be difficult in pre-pandemic teaching, and in the current situation, they can seem out of reach. Almost all of us, even if we are not parents, have friends or family with a school-age child, friends or family who teach, or who are parents and teachers. We’ve all seen struggles to adapt, but more and more experts and educators have guidance to offer about keeping school as focused and positive as possible during distance learning.
The first point writer Sarah Gonser makes is that those struggles are deeper and murkier than technological issues alone. Gonser quotes Mays Imad, a professor of pathophysiology and biomedical ethics, when he says as much: “Right now, it’s all about the technology—the mechanics of how to teach remotely. But when I speak to my colleagues who are high school teachers, it’s about: ‘How are we going to hold our students’ hearts?’”
Put more directly, many of the problems of connecting with students in a remote environment are not about physically connecting. The technology works, for the most part, and is improving continuously. The problems have roots in psychology, emotion, social growth, and similar disciplines that require fixes that run deeper than reliable internet connections and apps.
Gonser’s first suggestion might seem obvious, but that makes it no less important: “Try to say hello frequently, if you can,” she urges. How can you say hello across distance? With a great video, such as this greeting video from educator John Thomas.
Notice in Thomas’ video how little his language has to do with technology and how much it has to do with students’ feelings and situations. It’s not a minute of dry tutorial on the video-conferencing that students will need to use—it’s a minute on “fun things to do at home,” checking on the setup of the students’ room, encouragements to keep reading, and more.
Of course, technological concerns are not without merit, and for those who struggle with online connectivity, Gonser suggests a phone call. Relating the sentiments of a sixth-and-eighth-grade teacher, Cathleen Beachboard, Gonser explains that “Taking the time to reach out and call each kid takes forever,” but that with some effort put into the practice, Beachboard now “[has] 98 percent attendance.”
Whether or not each student is technically savvy, then, a little reliance on older methods of communication can create similarly meaningful connections as those that can be achieved with video. Video, however, will always be ideal for certain elements: seeing the face of one’s instructor, and the effort that goes into a video, reaches a level of personal connection that should certainly be the goal whenever possible.
The psycho-social ramifications of connecting in remote learning settings is also not a purely teacher-student issue. “We all learn better in social contexts… transitioning to learning from home is complicated by the impact of being cut off from peers,” Gonser explains.
As an educator, you can facilitate these intra-learner connections by promoting breakout rooms after Zoom instruction, or take the less technologically-dependent route and promote pen-and-paper correspondence, or phone trees, between students.
So far, many of these suggestions apply most to activities on the periphery of learning: introductory videos, follow-up communication, and encouraging extracurricular communication. Let’s focus now on making those meaningful connections during instruction.
Perhaps the most interesting suggestions come from letting students express themselves and show their personalities during remote learning. Having each student build a blanket and pillow fort, and learn from their little shelters, can be a fun activity; so can letting students give a virtual tour of their favorite part of their home.
Let students submit jokes or riddles, or have days when students can dress up as superheroes or other fun costumes during class. Scavenger hunts, show and tell—there are a lot of great ideas, and certainly more that you can imagine. As long you’re fostering that sense of togetherness, of learning in a group of fellow learners with a teacher who cares on a personal level, you’re maintaining meaningful connections—even at distance.
Video, discussed previously as a great introductory tool, can be more than that, as well. Aida Conroy discusses a great way to bring outdoor experiences into the virtual learning space by making videos of outings like zoo or museum trips. By sharing their videos during instruction, students can feel not only like they’ve completed an assignment—they’re meaningfully imparting their experience, as documented by them, and connecting with other students through discussion of the event.
Distance learning requires a lot of technology to coordinate, even those technical needs require using non-video methods from time to time. At the end of the day, though, meaningful connections remain achievable. The trick is knowing what makes those connections meaningful, and why the improve learning.
Meaning comes from interpersonal connection. It comes from a sense of belonging, and a sense that one’s instructor and one’s peers share the same goal, and the same respect for one another. Make no mistake: there will be hard days, where it seems engagement is fleeting and connections aren’t being made. That, however, is true of any learning experience.
With video, phone conversations, and injections of creativity into virtual meetings, you can still create and nurture the meaningful connections needed for positive and effective learning.
How have you worked to maintain connections with students in a remote environment? Have you employed any of the tricks above, and if so, how have they worked for your students? Do you agree that most problems are more psychological/social than technological, or are you more concerned with the technical aspects of remote learning? What might be one new technique you could try with your students?