Back-to-School: Building relationships with students in a virtual setting

July 31, 2020 Sarah Williamson By Sarah Williamson
Back view of young girl sit at desk at home talk have online video call lesson with teacher

As school districts across the country are preparing for back-to-school using either all digital instruction or a hybrid model, one concern we continue to hear from educators is the question of how to effectively build relationships with students in a virtual setting.

If you are navigating a new virtual program, that alone can feel overwhelming. And after last spring, many students, families and educators are still adjusting to the right balance of how to connect with one another in a meaningful way.

Kari Feldhaus, a veteran online learning instructor at Apex Learning Virtual School, recently shared her recommendations for making positive connections with students and keeping them engaged.

One thing Kari makes clear is that she does not want educators to feel like they have to replicate classroom learning within the virtual setting. It’s a very different platform and it requires a very different approach. But that doesn’t mean it has to be harder. In fact, educators may find there are numerous benefits to teaching virtually. She explains more about what she means by this with her recommendations below:

1) Keep communication friendly and concise.

Most 6th – 12th grade students will have a different educator for each class, which means they will be receiving communication from multiple instructors on either a daily or a weekly basis. That could become overwhelming very quickly. One way to still connect with students, but not overwhelm them, is to provide one to two opportunities to “see” their teacher each week.

She suggests sending students a recorded video message and also scheduling one time each week to speak with students directly. These touch points provide them with the time they need to process their work on their own, but also lets students know an instructor is there to support them.

2) Virtual learning may require more time and the need for longer deadlines.

Clearly the virtual learning environment is different than in the traditional classroom when you can ask students to turn in an assignment the next day. It’s difficult to know a student’s home learning situation, so it’s best to err on the side of providing more time for due dates and sufficient time to plan ahead for assignments.

3) Create a central location for resources and schedules.  

It’s important for students to know where to go to access the class outline, calendar and deadlines. This can be in Google docs, or whatever platform you decide to use as long as it’s in a central location. Make sure everyone knows how to use the tools available, and if they don’t, provide training to help get them acclimated. But keep it simple. Ideally, it’s best to stick to a few basic tools and learn how to use them as efficiently as possible.

4) Stay positive when checking in on struggling students.

Most students who are behind already know they are behind. By calling or emailing to remind them of this fact, may not benefit the student or their relationship with their educator. It can be helpful to reach out and ask how the student is doing and check in to see how you can help them. By keeping the conversation positive and focused on offering help, they may be more willing to share what’s going on in their life or why they are struggling. They don’t need to be reminded that they are not on target. Instead, they need to know you are there to support them. 

5) Ask for feedback.

Asking for feedback is not always easy, but checking in with students and families to see how things are going, and really listening to their answers, can make a big difference in the success of a virtual program. This can help you understand what’s working and what’s not and what should be tweaked or improved.

6) Be available to students, but set boundaries.

Last spring, we saw many teachers attempt to provide nearly round-the-clock support as their students navigated online learning for the first time. That is not a reasonable expectation, nor should educators aspire to that schedule.  

By creating policies and setting boundaries at the start of the school year, you can decide how you will respond to questions. Will you reply to students within 24 hours, and will you have set office hours to answer questions?

And think carefully about whether or not you want to provide your cell phone number as that could invite unlimited texts and phone calls. These are considerations that should be evaluated before the start of the school year to ensure you will have a successful program. Whatever is decided, make sure it’s clearly communicated. Students will respect and appreciate whatever boundaries are set as long as they are clear.


To learn more, join us for our webinar next week on building virtual relationships with students:

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