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Nurturing Teacher-Student Connections in a Virtual World

It took a set of costumes, funny voices, and made-up characters for Jamie Ewing, a K-5 science teacher at P.S. 277 in New York City, to settle into a groove with video lessons, and rekindle a connection with his students after instruction shifted wholesale to remote learning this spring. 

Karl Lauer, a history teacher at James Bowie High School in Austin, Texas, found success reaching out remotely to students through his own set of goofy videos, featuring teachers lip synching popular tunes, like the theme song to the sitcom "Friends." 

And Mark Joseph, a 6th grade math teacher at KIPP Rise Academy in Newark, N.J., employed somewhat of a kitchen-sink approach: He pounded out more than 300 text messages a week to parents and students, harnessed an array of social media apps to "hype" his synchronous learning sessions, and held virtual movie nights and talent shows.

When the coronavirus hurled K-12 education into its biggest upheaval in recent history by forcing all learning to take place remotely, exposing inequities in digital access and tech-skill preparedness, teachers around the country reached deep into their bag of tricks to salvage bonds forged in-person throughout the school year. 

District and school leaders are confronting difficult, high-stakes decisions as they plan for how to reopen schools amid a global pandemic. Through eight installments, Education Week journalists explore the big challenges education leaders must address, including running a socially distanced school, rethinking how to get students to and from school, and making up for learning losses. We present a broad spectrum of options endorsed by public health officials, explain strategies that some districts will adopt, and provide estimated costs.

Part 1: The Socially Distanced School Day
Part 2: Scheduling the School Year
Part 3: Tackling the Transportation Problem Part 4: How to Make Remote Learning Work Full Report: How We Go Back to School

They made home visits. They sent cards in the mail. They sang Happy Birthday through webcams. There were countless text messages and check-ins on the phone. Virtual office hours developed into a de facto platform for deeper one-on-one conversations about the stress of living through a pandemic. 

"We're in the middle of a grand experiment here," said Mike Magee, the CEO of Chiefs for Change, a nonprofit whose members lead education systems serving 14,000 schools. "We're going to find out a lot about the degree to which relationships can be built online between teachers and students." 

Many school districts are already set to start the school year remotely as COVID-19 cases continue spiking, or they are offering parents the choice to keep their kids home and maintain instruction through online learning. Teachers are already preparing for the reality that they'll not only be meeting students for the first time through a video conference but that those bonds will need to be cultivated at a distance for the foreseeable future. 

Following are several stories and examples about what works and what doesn't to improve teacher-student relationships during remote learning. The stories and examples are organized by three key age levels in K-12 education: elementary, middle, and high school.  

Elementary School: Finding Your 'Personal Voice on Video' 

When school buildings closed in New York City this spring, Ewing, the K-5 science educator from the Bronx's P.S. 277, said he fell into a bit of a rut. His students were used to having humor and the theatrics of wigs and made-up characters woven into daily lessons, but Ewing said the instruction he provided for the first couple of weeks fell flat. 

So he started using the presentation platform Prezi Video to jazz up bland video lessons with graphics and slides. And then he broke out his kit of costumes and characters once reserved for the classroom. Class participation increased, Ewing said, after he "found his personal voice on video." 

"If you're going to post a YouTube video and some worksheets, you're going to lose kids in a day," he said. "But if you're not the type of person who feels comfortable throwing caution to the wind and doing silly voices, then don't. It needs to be authentic." 

What's the plan for this school year? 

"That's a huge thing weighing on my mind right now," said Ewing, who attended a workshop over the summer about engaging children. "I'm going to have to work twice as hard to create those interpersonal relationships. I realize now there were so many missed opportunities, so I'm spending this summer trying to integrate those pieces to make sure I can connect at a much deeper level this school year." 

In Samantha Westberg's 2nd grade class in Dickerson Elementary School in Chester, N.J., she used Flipgrid daily to post questions and videos during this spring's remote learning.  Her advice: maintain a strong visual presence with those young learners, and keep it consistent. 

Moving forward, she's planning to either teach live lessons on video next school year or have students meet twice throughout the day on video.  

Middle School: 'Don't Be Like a Bill Collector'

If relationship building remotely during the spring was measured purely in metrics, then Mark Joseph, who teaches 6th grade math at the KIPP academy, was off to a good start this spring.  Joseph said he successfully lured 80 percent of his students to Zoom video lessons daily. 

The secret? A whole lot of hustle. 

As a grade-level chair at his school, Joseph is in touch weekly with the families of more than 100 6th graders attending that KIPP academy. Pre-pandemic, it was typical for families to receive one text message a week. Once school shifted to remote learning, Joseph upped the contact to three text messages a week, often pinging students directly on their cellphones.

He also used his personal social media accounts and those tied to the school to "build energy and momentum" for his online lessons by having students post and repost their virtual class experiences on Instagram. "It creates that hype when kids see their friends posting something like that," Joseph said. 

"It's easy for an administrator to say don't do social media at all, but that's a missed opportunity for communication," he said.

For the upcoming school year, Joseph said he might set up virtual home visits via video before classes begin to lay out expectations and to get to learn a bit about his new students and vice versa. 

One tidbit he offers educators: "Don't be like a bill collector," when contacting parents about grades during the ongoing crisis. Steady communication, he said, needs to be fostered without academics in mind before hounding about missing assignments.

Pren Woods, a 7th grade teacher at Alston Middle School in Summerville, S.C., found this out the hard way. Woods maintained steady checks on students by video, phone and email during the spring, shifting the focus of his lessons to social-emotional and reflective instruction once classes moved to a remote setting.

But when he called to prod parents on grades or assignments, it didn't go well. 

"It was not fun. It was not unique or a Mr. Woods thing. There were other teachers that got burned by trying to help like that," he said, noting that some responses from parents were profanity laced. "It's tricky if parents don't hear from you, but you have to frame it in a way that's showing sensitivity that we're in a pandemic."

Woods said he noticed elementary teachers successfully stopping by the homes of students for in-person visits, and if classes this fall are moved to a hybrid or virtual setting "that might be something to steal from the elementary school playbook, if a parent thinks it's OK to come by." 

High School: 'Being Honest With What's Going On'

Asked by an instructional tech coach to come up with a video that would put a smile on students' faces, Karl Lauer, who teaches history at James Bowie High School in Austin, Texas, landed on having teachers lip sync the theme song from the show "Friends." He had them record 10-second clips mouthing the song's catchy hook "I'll be there for you," at a time when the district had learned classes were staying online for the rest of the semester. 

The video was emailed to all students and teachers, and posted on the school's social media. 

"The feedback was great, and it seems like morale went up," he said. "The big point was to just show them we're here. We're trying to be as normal as we can be as teachers by making this silly video." 

Over the course of those months in the spring, Lauer said his relationships with students "didn't decay, but some did grow distant."  Self-described as sarcastic and a jokester, he's planning to record "a satirical, ham-it-up video" for his new students in the coming weeks as a virtual intro. 

"Hopefully it's a bridge to showing them my teaching style and personality," he said.

Teaching high schoolers in the midst of a pandemic that has upended the economy also means understanding that some of those students are going to be picking up new jobs or extra hours at work to help out with finances at home. 

Taylor Ohlstrom, who taught math in Denver's Northfield High School last spring, said she only she saw half her students at the most during those months. Some had conflicts with work or childcare.

"You have to be willing to talk to kids about being honest with what's going. Nothing is too little when talking through these things," said Ohlstrom, who is starting a new teaching position this fall at Lakeside High School in Atlanta. "I tried to connect with each one of my students and ask them pretty bluntly what's going on, and I tried to be as flexible as I could with them." 

Sometimes teacher-student connections didn't require any video. 

Michelle Peck Williams, an AP World History and Current Events teacher at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Lexington, Ky., said she ditched video platforms early in the process. 

Prior to the pandemic, Williams didn't do much in terms of online instruction aside from posting a few links in Google Classroom. But she had used an ed-tech tool called Nearpod, which facilitates class discussion through a chat feature. 

Not every student is comfortable learning through a webcam and a microphone, and some quiet students unexpectedly shined when classes were held on the chat tool, she said. 

"They drove the discussion way better than I could have expected," Williams said. "It was a whole other opportunity for these kids to learn and participate." 

Williams is getting advice for the upcoming school year from college professors who teach remotely full time, and has come to the acknowledgement that she's going to "have to add Zoom and make it work" to enhance her online lessons in the future.

That doesn't mean that fostering a true connection with brand-new students she possibly won't meet in person will be any easier.

"I'm a bit terrified overall, honestly," she said. "Not knowing the kids already and having to teach them online is going to be a giant barrier."

> For more on this topic, read: How Did COVID-19 Change Your Teaching, for Better or Worse? See Teachers' Responses