Building Connections When You’re In and Out

Every teacher everywhere is lesson planning, or at least thinking about how they are lesson planning, throughout the summer. This past summer my lesson planning looked a little different than usual. I was going to a new school, and I was due for maternity leave in the second month of school. So I spent my summer considering how I was going to set the tone, to start off the year, so the students would know me, feel connected to me, feel supported by me even though I was in and out. 

Moving to virtual platforms this past week feels pretty similar to that experience. We are in completely new territory; we are all in and out. We don’t know how this is supposed to look like and how long it is going to last. And unlike my experience, where I had 2.5 months to plan for my expected leave, many of us had less than a week to get this up and running. So what did I learn from my expected leave that I can apply to what we are currently going through? How can we provide connection to our students during this unanticipated, unprecedented time?

Set the tone
This is what my first day of school looked like: I acted as if I didn't notice that I had a stomach that very evidently was about to pop! I ignored the fact that I only anticipated teaching for four weeks until I left them with a sub. I made those students feel that I was there for them and I was committed and I was setting the tone for my classroom. 

In a similar way, you can get up there on your online platform and set the tone. Don’t give away the secret that you have no idea how you are going to sustain this and you don’t know what is happening two days from now. You are assigning a test, but you have no idea what that’s going to look like and how the students are going to take the test virtually? Set the tone. Pretend you got this all under control. Don’t let the students feel your uncertainty; they have enough to worry about. Let them know that you got this taken care of, or at least, that you will have it taken care of. The tone is that you are here to stay, you know exactly what is going on, and you’re committed to seeing it through.

Give them something to remember you by
I was scared that my students were going to feel very unsettled with a sub-one month into the school year. So I made sure to spend lots of time going over procedures. I decided that the best use of my time was in setting up a classroom culture. Even though I knew the sub wasn’t and possibly couldn’t maintain my culture, I wanted to have a culture. I wanted the students to say things like, “That’s not how Mrs. A. does it!” I wanted to hear, “I wish we could do it Mrs. A’s way.” Yes, sorry to my sub (she’s a good friend of mine!), because I got them used to something knowing it couldn’t be sustained by her, but I did it because I was preparing them for when I got back. I was making sure that they felt grounded in our classroom culture. 

So do the same thing here. Your students are thrust into an unknown territory of online learning with different teachers, modalities, and all different methods. Make sure they understand what your class looks like, what the expectations are in your class, how YOU do things. Spend time setting up procedures; give them time to figure out the online platforms. Let them feel the style of the class. 

Remind them that you are a team
It was extremely frustrating for my students that I was leaving, and once I came back, they had difficulty with the fact that I had been absent. They needed to hear that I was there for them and that I was going to work through the frustrations with them. Now, especially, remind them of group goals and joint outcomes. You are a team learning to navigate learning together; make sure they feel that you are on the same team.

Include them in the process
As I mentioned, this was my first year in a new school. I needed to learn the ropes of how things were done in this 1:1 iPad school, something completely new to me. I let them in on this journey with me. “Teach me how to mirror my iPad, teach me how to do split screen,” “Sorry for the delay guys as I learn to utilize this app.” Setting the tone and pretending that I got this all together (as I explained in Step 1) only means that I don’t let them feel the stress that I feel with this uncertainty, but it does not mean that I am on my own here in this new territory. 

So too with all of us now. Yes, this is new, this is unfamiliar and there is going to be difficulty. Be open, be honest about it. Your students and their fellow generation Z’ers (or is generation Alpha’s) and their very tech-savvy minds will surprise you and surely help you out.

Now is a time to establish new connections with our students outside of the traditional settings. This is an unprecedented crisis: let’s help frame it for our students in a positive and responsible light. Let’s give them the structure and experience to learn in a healthy way so that through this platform, they can feel connected and secure. Maybe they’ll even get some learning in too!