As schools reopen this fall—whether for in-person, hybrid, or virtual learning—the primary focus of administrators and teachers is building relationships with their students.
While assessing students’ knowledge to meet them where they are academically will be a priority for educators, many of them agree that creating personal connections with students, which takes both intention and time, is taking the lead.
“What We Learned About Building Relationships Virtually,” our recent EdChat with district leaders from Pueblo School District 60, highlighted how to build meaningful relationships with students in a digital environment, and it reminded us of a powerful conversation our Chief Academic Officer Jean Sharp had with Tom Vacanti, the Online Learning Coordinator for the City School District of Albany, New York.
During this conversation, Vacanti shared his approach to:
- Building student relationships.
- Fostering student engagement.
- Ensuring effective communication.
- Driving consistent and authentic connections with students.
The City School District of Albany serves more than 10,000 K-12 students, and for nearly a decade, Vacanti has been instrumental in supporting both students and teachers with effective strategies for navigating online learning. How does he do it? He says, “it requires getting back to the basics.”
Building Student Relationships
“Creating that personal connection with students is the first and perhaps the biggest thing to keep in mind when it comes to the basics,” Vacanti says. He says one of the most effective ways to make this happen is for teachers to schedule one-on-one time to meet with every student each week. “In my opinion, the best way to conduct these meetings is with video cameras turned on. Just seeing their face, and them seeing yours, is important. And, if you can’t make that happen, get on the phone and have a conversation.”
Vacanti says both research and anecdotal feedback from teachers clearly show that when educators have a personal connection with a student, they will have better academic results. How can teachers establish these connections?
- Focus first on the student.
- Engage them on a personal level by asking them what is going on their life.
- Let the conversation unfold naturally from the student’s perspective.
- “Not all conversations have to focus on curriculum and assignments, but that will flow from the conversation,” says Vacanti.
Fostering Student Engagement
Many students in his district are showing up and getting their work done, says Vacanti. “We have a lot of students who are succeeding and finding they actual enjoy an online learning experience.” But some students are struggling. “They have many challenges to overcome, and the issues they deal with on a daily basis make remote learning difficult.”
Vacanti says ensuring students are supported and also held accountable has been one of the biggest struggles, and a nagging concern he has is that students across the spectrum of age and ability have expressed they simply don’t feel like they learned a lot last year.
“Many students find themselves going through the motions, but they are not really engaged in the learning,” he says. “It’s easy for kids to detach when they don’t feel they are a part of the learning. Many kids are simply missing the connection to the learning.”
Increasing student engagement by building on personal relationships is key, as is appreciating the vital role teachers have in all learning settings.
“One of the greatest fears in remote learning, specifically when it comes to the use of robust instructional software, has been that these programs are going to take teachers’ jobs and replace teachers,” says Vacanti. “I would be hard pressed to find anybody right now that thinks that’s true. Because if there is one main thing we’ve learned from this period of time, it’s that teachers are crucial—beyond critical—in getting students to learn. That’s been a great lesson.”
Ensuring Effective Communication
To foster communication and connection, Vacanti leveraged the concept of “pods” where each teacher or counselor was assigned a caseload of 10-12 students who they were expected to communicate with on a regular, ongoing basis.
This initiative has worked out phenomenally well,” says Vacanti. “We have basically been able to get the results as if we were in the classroom with the kids. We are getting about three-quarters of the kids engaged, doing the work they are supposed to be doing, feeling comfortable with their classes and with their ‘caseworker.’ And teachers are enjoying the relationships with the kids. That’s huge.”
Although students often want to simply get through an assignment and move on, Vacanti says teachers are able to help students appreciate the value of education beyond the assignment and the grade.
“That goes back to the personal connection,” says Vacanti. “A student is not going to pick up what you’re laying down if you don’t have a personal connection with them.”
Here are Vacanti’s three strategies for ensuring effective communication between students and teachers:
- Consider creating pods of 10-12 students who are assigned to a teacher or counselor.
- Initiate conversations with students about their personal wellbeing, not just about school.
- Adjust your budget to compensate teachers for up to 10 additional hours per week.
Driving Consistent and Meaningful Connections
“We always knew that personal connection was important,” says Vacanti. “And, in difficult times, it is more important than perhaps we thought. In fact, you get nowhere without it.”
What has become clear for Vacanti is that social-emotional learning is foundational.
“Everything builds on top of that,” he says. “It’s like the base of the pyramid. If you don’t have the supports systems built in, you can’t expect the results at all. It is essential that kids feel comfortable with you, particularly when you’re working with them at a distance.”
Teachers recognize that their job is a mix between the role of teacher and that of a social worker says Vacanti, and teachers need a diverse toolkit of resources and strategies to connect with students. He has coined the phrase “aggressive advocacy” to help teachers drive meaningful connection.
“Aggressive advocacy means you are unrelenting in your pursuit of what is key to the success of your students,” explains Vacanti. “I want my students to know I am available to them whenever they might need it. Most of my colleagues have found the same thing to be true. You can’t set up ‘office hours’ for an hour a day and expect students to come. You have to be ready for students when they are ready, and that requires us to be flexible with our time.”
Vacanti’s final piece of advice to teachers?
“Just have fun,” he says. “Let’s face it: everyone wants to enjoy their work. The pandemic, however, has produced anxiety and frustration. We need to relax and stop worrying about all the details. We need to ask, ‘how am I going to enjoy what’s happening in the digital classroom? And how are the students going to enjoy what’s happening?’ I try not to get caught up in all the small stuff and instead, find some enjoyment in all this.”