After twenty-two years in the same position, I needed a change. The reasons included recent staffing changes in my building, a desire for a new challenge, and logistics. So when the opportunity presented itself, I took a risk and changed jobs. I left my classroom “home” and moved from a brick-and-mortar setting into a virtual world. All technology—all the time.
Not surprisingly, it was challenging at the beginning. And, although I knew I had made the right decision, I struggled with the disconnect that tends to happen when teachers are not physically present with their students. But despite this limitation, I was determined to find ways to develop and maintain meaningful relationships. I learned a lot about connecting with my students throughout this transition—principles that apply to both online and brick-and-mortar schools.
Over time, I developed and implemented the following practices that allowed me to establish a lifeline with my students and create important connections despite our lack of proximity…
- OFFER ACCESS — Students are more likely to make connections with adults when they feel seen and heard. When I am with my students, I try to be as attentive as possible and communicate that they are important to me. In addition, I log in a few minutes before class and reserve time after simply to talk with students. By offering our presence, our students realize that we are accessible if they need a little extra support or attention.
- SHARE — Forming genuine relationships with students requires a willingness to be vulnerable (while always staying within appropriate parameters). In an effort to do this, I’ve found ways to incorporate stories from my life throughout lessons. On the surface, they illustrate biological concepts during lessons such as, how I unknowingly used the scientific method to resolve car trouble as a teenage driver or how I developed a deeper understanding of ecosystems from my rattlesnake misadventure. But there’s more to what I’m sharing than just my stories. I’m sharing my struggles, mistakes, and setbacks (often with a small dose of humor). And if God allows, I’m also connecting with a child who might relate to my past challenges. My willingness to share might even offer hope to a student who might be feeling hopeless.
- STABILIZE — Students often come from chaotic (even dangerous) environments. The tougher their situations, the more they need a solid education, a structured world, and the reliable presence of an adult who cares for them at school. I try to stabilize the learning environment and establish trust by setting and consistently maintaining reasonable expectations for academics and behavior. If standards for grades, deadlines, and behavioral expectations waver, my students may start to worry that my concern for them is faltering, too. They may complain about strictness at times, but my students grow to appreciate the consistency that the steady presence of a trustworthy teacher brings to their lives.
- PRAY — Once students log off their computers or leave our brick-and-mortar classrooms, they are not truly out of reach because the presence of Jesus can meet them wherever they are. So, I bring my students’ cares to Jesus, the Great Teacher who can reach beyond the computer screens to be present in my students’ lives. I have prayed for school acceptance, interviews, sick grandparents, and troubling home lives. I’ve prayed for humility, wisdom, and deliverance from evil. I don’t always know exactly what to pray, but I trust Jesus to properly handle those prayers. And, as I pray for my students, His presence changes me. He usually softens my heart towards the more difficult students (we have those even in the virtual world) for whom I’ve been praying.
While both in-person and virtual classroom settings present their own set of challenges for connecting with students, the truth remains: our students need our presence. But regardless of our location or proximity, our intentional efforts and care can provide the meaningful relationships our students so desperately need.
Paul Johnson taught biology for twenty-two years in a brick-and-mortar classroom. He is now in his second year of online teaching.
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