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Virtual teaching can offer educators newfound flexibility in lesson planning and open exciting new pathways to student growth. Whether you’re new to teaching or adapting to a virtual environment, it’s essential to understand how to build authentic connections with your students to engage them in learning.
After three years of exclusively teaching virtually across math, science and social studies, here are my go-to tools for building meaningful connections with students in the digital classroom:
Develop a virtual “Meet Your Teacher” activity
Giving a presentation about yourself when the school year begins can be a great way to start building connections with students and help them feel comfortable around you. A number of programs can help you make slideshows, infographics and other visual media that pop off the screen. Put some information about yourself into a template you like – you can say as much or as little as you want – and share with your students. You could include things such as your background, your hobbies, where you’ve traveled, your favorite foods, etc.
I always like to do a “20 Things About Me” presentation at the start of the year that mentions the subject I struggled with most in school so that kids know it’s OK not to be perfect. Also, I keep a one-page infographic about me in my Announcements, in case kids want a refresher or join my class in the middle of the year.
Find activities to match students’ interests
Get curious about your students! In the same way that telling them about yourself helps them trust you, finding out about their interests reinforces the trust you’ve built and helps you plan lessons that will resonate with them. This can also make students more agreeable to subjects outside their interests. If you get creative, you can find many links between your kids’ passions and the material you’re trying to teach.
As an example, I grew up in North Carolina, where the wild horses of the Shackleford Banks island are a popular tourist attraction. If I’m trying to teach eighth-graders about how plants and animals adapt to their surroundings over time, and I know some of those students are interested in horses, bingo! The Shackleford Banks herd would be a great way to introduce the topic.
Tell me something
Students need connection, and sometimes their teachers are the only positive connections they have. Don’t underestimate the power of showing empathy for their experiences and listening deeply. It can be challenging to build connections in a virtual space, but it’s not impossible.
Start by asking them daily questions. How was your weekend? How are you doing? Over time, they will start to open up and share information about themselves. If you want to ask a series of questions, I’ve found it useful to use an online whiteboard tool that they can interact with on their tablets.
Seek collaborative-learning resources
Wherever possible, I like to bring resources into my class that teach subject matter through game playing and interactivity. These types of resources allow relationships to grow not only between students, but between teachers and students as well. Online textbooks, videos, exercises, flashcards and experimental projects are all examples of tools you can use to help students exchange ideas and contribute their insights to group discussions.
Some museums, such as the University of California at Berkeley Museum of Paleontology, have websites that explore academic topics through user interaction. I’ve found these can be great resources for promoting engagement and getting subject matter across to kids in a way that excites them.
Sending out a weekly newsletter – a number of templates are available – is a great way to show parents and students that you care. Each week’s update doesn’t have to be a major undertaking. You can simply share a quick learning strategy, maybe highlight a student accomplishment or provide information about upcoming developments in your classroom.
Virtual education has moved us all to adapt our teaching in many ways. What hasn’t changed, however, is the importance of the relationships you nurture with your students. Using these tools can help you bridge gaps within the virtual classroom and create an environment where learners stay engaged, continue to grow, and feel supported.
Dawn Comer is a virtual instructor with Proximity Learning, teaching students in grades six through 12 across math, science and social studies. Prior to joining Proximity Learning, Dawn taught in brick-and-mortar schools for 30 years.
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