“No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship.” ~Dr. James Comer

Relationships matter. We know this. We’ve always known this.

In fact, it’s the exact reason many of us chose education as a profession. We believe in the power of connection in learning and in life. And collectively, we’re very, very good at cultivating strong bonds with students.

Since COVID-19 struck, though, it’s become a topic that has left many of us scratching our heads. It was hard enough to maintain relationships during emergency virtual learning plans last March. But now, we’ll have to build relationships from behind a screen with a brand new crop of kids we’ve never met face-to-face.

Here’s the good news, though. The key components of what makes a good relationship such as respect, trust, and support haven’t changed. And, we can still show genuine interest in their interests virtually. We don’t have to start from scratch either. Many of the relationship-building strategies we’ve grown accustomed to implementing face-to-face are transferable (with a little ingenuity).

Will it look the same? No.

Will it feel the same? Maybe not.

Will it be more challenging? Of course.

Relationships likely won’t form as organically, so we’ll have to be strategic. But, it can be done and done well! Also, because of the limited social interaction our students have had these past six months, many will be craving a connection. In fact, they need it. So, let’s capitalize!

Here are 33 adaptable strategies for fostering strong teacher-student relationships in a K-12 virtual environment:

  1. Screencastify Your Welcome Message: Pre-record a warm “welcome to class” message as well as a class overview using Screencastify. This tool allows you to record your screen, face, voice, and more. It’s a great way to show them how to navigate your virtual classroom.
  2. Establish a “Netiquette” Together: Using Padlet, ask students to share ideas of virtual class rules/norms they think are needed to build a successful online community. Group the ideas. Then, facilitate a conversation to guide the formation of your class netiquette. Their voice matters most in this!
  3. Morning Meetings: Conduct Responsive Classroom morning meetings for elementary or advisory meetings for secondary to cultivate community while reinforcing social-emotional skills. This article explains how one teacher transitioned his morning meetings to the online environment. All students, regardless of age level, need to feel safe and connected, especially amid a pandemic.
  4. Teacher Trait Wish List: What makes a remarkable teacher? Have students use a word cloud generator such as Mentimeter to share one or more traits they hope to discover about you this school year. Use their responses to deepen the dialogue. For example, you might say, “I see many of you wrote respectful. What are some ways I can show you respect?”
  5. Student Interest Inventory: Have students (or parents depending on age level) complete a short survey to gather insights about student interests. Google forms work great and will store their responses so you can easily revisit the data as needed throughout the year.
  6. Parent Expertise Inventory: Send out a short survey to parents asking them about their interests/areas of expertise. Find ways throughout the year to utilize their talents to support instruction. For example, if you have a parent who’s a writer, perhaps they could join a synchronous session or make an asynchronous video to discuss their writing process. This authenticates learning and creates rapport with parents.
  7. Virtual Q&A: At the start of the year, host a virtual meeting outside of regular school hours should students/parents have questions that need answering. Record and post it for later review if possible.
  8. Mental Health Check-Ins: We want to give students permission to feel and can do this by creating a safe, caring virtual environment. Prompt discussions about the ups and downs of daily life. Be sure to share yours. Students can share their roses/thorns, peaks/pits, highs/lows, etc. Help them name their feelings and expect varied levels of vulnerability. Students will gradually open up over time.
  9. EdCamp(ish) Breakout Rooms: Based upon the data you collected on student interests, create several general discussion topics (such as sports or music) and give students 5-10 minutes to share about their interests in small-group breakout rooms using Zoom.
  10. Refrigerator Decor: Create and snail mail a card (standard business or postcard size) including a welcome message along with contact information and a headshot for students/parents to easily reference on their fridge. This will be a daily reminder that you are a real person who can be easily contacted.
  11. Say Their Name: During synchronous sessions, greet each student every time. We can’t stand at the door, but we can acknowledge their presence. A quick, “____ (insert name), I’m glad you’re here” ensures every child feels seen.
  12. Tell Me Something Good: Start sessions simply by saying, “Tell me something good.” Students can say it or type it in the chat box depending on preference. This activity usually gets people smiling and will help you gather insights into their lives.
  13. 2×10 Strategy: Struggling with a student? The 2×10 strategy suggests spending two minutes a day for 10 days in a row connecting with them about their interests/life in some way. While engaging for two minutes may not always work in the virtual world, find quick ways to connect such as sending a private message during live video conferencing or writing a personal message along with feedback on a piece of their work. This can be a game changer!
  14. Meaningful Mementos: Using Seesaw or Flipgrid, have students show and tell about a personal artifact from their life. This is an eye-opening way for you to learn about students and for them to learn about each other. It also sends the message that you care about their lives and experiences outside of the classroom which supports culturally responsive teaching.
  15. Share YOU: Students will let you into their lives if you let them into yours. Share your quirks and imperfections! They want/need to know you’re human, and it’ll help them feel more comfortable in their own skin while engaging in the virtual world which can be intimidating.
  16. Music Playlist: Have students send you their favorite songs (with clean lyrics) and find ways to embed them into synchronous/asynchronous instruction. Think of incorporating them as a soft start/end to class or when transitioning between activities. We may not be able to decorate the walls, but we can use little touches like this to instill a sense of ownership of their classroom.
  17. EduBlogging: If you teach reading/writing, have students create their own personal blogs in place of composition writer’s notebooks. Let them write about interests and topics of choice often. Edublogs can be easily shared with peers which motivates and builds community, but privacy settings can be adjusted when preferred, too.
  18. Pic of the Day: During the first two weeks of school, share a daily picture of yourself taken at a special event, with your family, while on vacation, etc. After students get a read on who you are as a person, start featuring one student pic per the day.
  19. Emoji Temperature Check: To gauge the mood of the “room”, ask students to quickly draw/hold up or private message you an emoji. Reaction tools can also help you assess the climate of the classroom.
  20. Connect Before Correct: Carve out time to call/email parents just to say something positive about their kid. This opens up the line of communication and means so much to students and parents.
  21. Virtual Lockers: Have students design a virtual locker to reflect their interests. Make a copy of this template from Inside Education, Outside the Box.
  22. The Art of the Handwritten Letter: Send a handwritten letter to a student. This is a lost art (and a time-consuming one), but there’s nothing quite like receiving one. Plus, it’ll make students feel like you’re real.
  23. Lunch Bunch: Schedule virtual lunch bunches either “just because”  or as an incentive as your schedule allows. Many divisions are prohibiting one-on-one video sessions (and secondary students may not want to do this), so doing them in partnerships or small groups might be more enticing. If you have young children you’re juggling, let them join! You can learn a lot about students and vice versa through normal, everyday chit-chat!
  24. Class Mascot of the Week: Celebrate pets! Spotlight one per week.
  25. Digital Photo Collage: Rather than posting pictures to a “Family Wall” bulletin board, create a digital collage of family/friends. Have each student send you a pic of a loved one and drop them into your Google photos. Then, go to https://photos.google.com/foryou and choose the collage option. Keep it some place that’s visible to the students from time to time.
  26. Open Mic: Once you’ve created a sense of community, provide a time/virtual space for students to share special talents. This is a great way to send students off after a synchronous session. Keep in mind, though, not everyone will want a stage, so make it optional.
  27. Celebrate Birthdays Their Way: Give students a few options for how they’d like you to celebrate their birthdays. Some may not want to be in the spotlight. Do they want the class to sing “Happy Birthday” to them? Would they prefer an eCard? Could they use a homework pass? Would they like to receive video messages from classmates in FlipGrid? Let them decide!
  28. Virtual Spirit Days: Think about special days to host such as Team Tuesday (to celebrate sports). Have students snap pics of their participation and post something about it in a discussion board thread.
  29. Brain Breaks: Integrate fun brain breaks into instruction to re-energize and refocus students. GoNoodle offers a variety of movement, yoga, and mindfulness activities for younger students. Secondary students could take a snack break or walk around their block. Let your hair down and join in brain breaks with students, too!
  30. Say Hey Emails: Send a quick email/video to each student from time to time just to say hi. Keep it casual and personal (not strictly academic).
  31. Gamification: Introduce game-based learning platforms to your students such as Gimkit, Kahoot, or Quizizz using “just for fun” topics such as pop culture trivia. Embed the game within a synchronous session so students can interact while playing. Personalities emerge during a little friendly competition!
  32. The Johari Window: Building relationships requires self-awareness. How open are you? This is a good thing to reflect upon especially as we enter this brand new learning space. We also benefit from seeking feedback about ourselves from students to minimize our blind spots. Check out this video on The Johari Window which explains four quadrants to better understand ourselves.
  33. Promote Equity: Last but perhaps most critical, cultivate a classroom environment that is inclusive and culturally responsive.  Many of our students, especially those who are BIPOC, have been impacted to the core by the recent racial acts of violence.  Keep listening, learning, and leaning into tough topics for growth. We can’t build relationships with every student unless every student knows we’re an ally.

And remember, the most important relationship to nurture is the one you have with yourself. The next several months will be hard (which is the understatement of the century). Make sure you’re being good to you!

As a former colleague used to always remind me, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.”

I hope these ideas help. You’ve got this! We’ve got this.

*For more resources about optimizing online learning, see my posts Virtual Learning: 20 Structures for Small-Group InstructionVirtual Learning: 25 Social-Emotional Learning ActivitiesVirtual Learning: Maybe We ARE Prepared For ThisVirtual Learning: 13 Tips for Zoom Breakout Rooms, and Virtual Learning: 10 Best Practices for Parents.

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