As distance learning becomes the norm for 850 million students around the world, teachers and students are experiencing a new way to interact with one another. Educators are facing an incredibly challenging time; they are being asked to transfer their practice to a virtual space, often with little to no online teaching experience. In addition, despite their level of comfort and agility with technology, the virtual school experience can also be a challenge for students, particularly those who are already struggling either academically or emotionally in school. Many students are asked to remain in homes that lack family support and may even feel unsafe for some. During this uncertain time, it is imperative for educators to find ways to emotionally connect with all youth and particularly with those at-risk. The entire school community – not just the teachers – need to engage in work that establishes a sense of community and builds in a human connection to the distance learning experience.
Create new ways to connect virtually
It is essential to consider how educators personally connect with students. One option is for school counselors establish virtual check-ins for students who are already identified as struggling (either emotionally or academically). Email correspondence, phone calls, texts chains or video chats are ways for counselors and other support staff to reach out to those students who may need extra emotional support during this period. Establishing even a brief, 5 minute exchange can send the message, “we care about you and want you to know we are here”.
Unfortunately, for most districts in the U.S., the counselor-to-student ratio poses a challenge (1 counselor servicing around 450 students). To address this, schools and districts can create peer support networks. In groups of 3-5, students can be given the responsibility to check in with one another on a daily or weekly basis. Zoom rooms, face-time video calls and audio calls can be used to connect with one another. Mentoring networks can also be set up in which older students are connected with younger ones within their school or district. Additionally, parent volunteer groups (PTAs, etc) can create phone trees or other two-way communication tools to engage students in weekly, casual check-ins.
Show your personal side
Creating communication systems is not enough, however. Quality, genuine interactions are essential. Sharing authentically with your students through personal video diaries, email newsletters, and – for those with no internet access – brief phone calls with individual students allow teachers to show vulnerability and create common ground with students. Sharing personal anecdotes during this uncertain time allows students and teachers to connect at a deeper level. Principals, teachers, support staff and other building personnel can also create conversations and share ideas with students (and with each other) for keeping creative and productive. For example, what routines have you set up? What are you finding helpful? What are you struggling with? Educators must also be compassionate to themselves. This ambiguous time is a learning process for everyone and the more teachers allow themselves to acknowledge their own experiences and struggles, the more they build resilience and model healthy behaviors for their students.
Develop experiences of collective joy
Modern technology can provide many ways to create joyous experiences for groups of students and teachers that may not be together physically. Creative group projects such as collaboratively creating a poem virtually or posing a question and sharing video responses are micro-moments to share joy among classes, grades, or districts. Additionally, revisiting recent collective moments of joy (distributing a video clip of a festive school gathering, musical or sports event) can remind students and educators alike of shared joyous experiences and remind them that are still part of a community, even if physically separated. Moments of collective joy are essential to our well-being and help bring a reminder of community and togetherness to those that feel alone.
We are experiencing a global crisis that has forced our everyday lives to shift dramatically. We need to adjust the way we interact socially and support one another emotionally in new and innovative ways. By taking small steps to add social connection and interactions into our distance learning repertoire, educators can help provide emotional support in a time when our youth need it the most.
Actively engage staff in ongoing dialogue around what is working and what could be improved in relation to maintaining connections with students. Are there any successful techniques that could be implemented at a larger scale?
Take 5-10 minutes out of your class time every few days to engage in a nonacademic conversation with you students. Ask questions and really listen to what they say.
Keep tabs on your child’s virtual learning experience. Ask questions around the content AND the experience. What do they like? What is frustrating?
At the end of your school day, take a moment to reflect on your virtual learning experience. What went well for you? What was frustrating? Share your experiences with a caregiver, teachers or another friend.