Building positive relationships with your new students virtually

With schools starting to go back, some in a blended learning style and some only virtually, getting off to the right start with building positive relationships will be even more crucial than before. Building these relationships with students will be one aspect but also building the family links to support the on-line learning will be another. As educators we know that if you have a positive relationship with the parents/family you are more likely to be successful with the student.  

This is the time of year when open houses would be happening, where you would be meeting your new students, the families and beginning to make that relationship. An open house is a great way to show students and families, what you expect, how it is and the expectations in your classroom and also show that you are more than a teacher at school, all the elements to start a positive relationship.   So, would a virtual open house tour work, showing students and parents that desk that they might be sitting at after Christmas if the infection rates are down, is probably not the best use of anyone’s time. As an Elementary school teacher, my classroom with COVID 19 control measures in place is not something that makes it feel like the warm welcoming place I want students to commence their relationship with me within, yes I know it’s for everyone’s safety and there are ways to get that welcoming feeling, but it’s not the starting point I want.    

The Open House is very good to establish expectations with students and parents alike what you require of the students from their work, behaviour and general attitude in school and how the parents can be touch if there are problems. In the world of on-line learning this is as equally as important to do but it is finding the right forum to do it.   Making a video of these expectations/mini open house might be one way, but it could quite easily become quite dry and a bit like a list of rules. You could ask your students or parents to submit questions before hand and then these could be used as a Q and A style video. You could hold a virtual meeting with the families, but that has the potential for a few parents to dominate and the first interaction they have with the new teacher is politely told to give someone else a chance to speak is not the best start to the positive relationship. During the time that schools have been shut within my school weekly contact has been made to each family just to check in on what was happening, this was co-ordinated so the family received one call from one of their child’s teachers on an agreed day each week between certain times. The teacher would also know about the siblings within the family and would specifically ask about all the children and feed this back to the relevant class teacher. A difficult system to get up and running but once it was, it worked extremely well and our families welcomed the call. A phone call to each family might be the right alternative to an on-line open house.

With online learning, there are still expectations of the students and families to convey about when work needs to completed by, how the work needs to be submitted, what happens when the work does not get done, how the parents can help the students, how the work will be graded, how to get help to complete the work, etiquette around the commenting facilities on some platforms, how groups working sessions might work, how to attend live lessons, etc. Some of these things will be covered in instructional videos that the district will produce (hopefully), but there will still be questions and how these get answered will also support positive relationship building. As the educator you might not have all the answers but its OK to say that you will get back to the parent once you have an answer and as we know like with the students the getting back and responding is an equally as important as the answer itself.    

Learning on line can be quite a lonely experience for students, my fourteen year old nephew has struggled hugely with the fact that he can not easily talk to his friends about what he is learning, which is how he explores his thinking and helps it to stick in his head. He has access to really good learning resources, videos, live lessons etc. but it is that incidental chat when the puzzled expression on a peer’s face appears and you have a go at explaining to them to try and help, this could be in the lesson or just as they are moving around the school or even on the bus home. As a educator trying to plan those type of activities online is again another challenge, but also by listening into those chats (and supporting them), it fosters a positive relationship with all students as they see themselves as part of the process rather than teachers have all the answers.   A little action but a very powerful one for some students in that relationship building experience that is not available online.

So we have moved passed the open house, how do we keep that positive relationship building going through the online environment? A lot of the focus of has been on getting the right learning activities, lessons and tasks on line but not much emphasis on the relationship building that is needed to support students to feel safe enough to take the risks they need to learn something new.   Within my school the teachers were highly encouraged to share everyday questions on the stream facility we had on the platform, simple things like it’s lunchtime now and I am just about to make a sandwich, what flavour could you suggest for me to have ? or what’s your favourite filling? The students would love to contribute and ‘talk’ to each other in this forum. Word of warning to start with it had to be moderated with a few targeted older students having individual conversations with their teacher, but after that it was successful.

Another success was our teachers recorded mini assemblies where they were presenting certificates and awards for the students who were engaging well with their learning and it was great fun to watch other teachers’ videos and see the effort they put into a five minute video to engage their class each week. Some of my colleagues have really missed their vocation in life as they would not look out of place explaining the number four to the cookie monster on Sesame Street.

Another simple way of building that positive relationship was with grading of work and the comments that were made on submitted work, being positive and using the right language to ensure that the students would continue to submit work but also make sure they were learning what they needed to. As educators we take our cues from all sorts of behaviours about whether a student has understood the learning they have been presented with, not just the piece of paper they hand in, but with online learning this is not possible. It may be the what has been submitted has been completed independently or it might be that the student’s parent has done the majority of it, so our feedback has to be careful and measured and positive as possible so that the student returns to online class tomorrow.

Our most successful engagement of the whole school community was a video that involved all members of staff being somewhere at home doing something they loved, catching a roll of bathroom tissue, looking surprised then throwing it out of shot. It was carefully edited by someone with some catchy music in the background and an introduction by the principal, even our therapy dog got in on the act. It was our staff being silly, able to have fun and bring a smile to some very worried families, quite powerful in building positive thoughts about our school.     

With blended and on-line learning being our learning environments for the near future, there is no easy way to use that simple smile and eye contact for a struggling individual in your classroom to make a positive relationship, to be translated to the virtual world of learning but I am sure as educators, we will always find a way to build positive relationships that promote learning for our students, even through a computer screen!