Erin Ryan

Educators share their best ideas for building relationships remotely

Blog Post created by Erin Ryan on Jul 28, 2020

When school restarts in the coming weeks, teaching and learning will take on a different look than ever before. Depending on the district or state, schools may completely reopen for instruction, resume teaching and learning at home, or some a combination of the two. With uncertainty around a resurgence of the virus, educators are essentially tasked with making plans out of sand, unsure of when a tide of potential closures could wash in.


But this hasn’t stopped teachers from preparing for the school year. With school ending abruptly in spring and some students not starting fall classes in person, the primary challenges may include establishing relationships and fostering school and classroom community. How do you accomplish that from behind a screen, or with just two or three days a week in a classroom?


I reached out to teachers from across the country to hear their ideas and share some of my favorites with Show of Hands readers.


At press time, Jane S.V., a second-grade teacher in Minnesota, is unsure whether or not she’ll be at her school or teaching remotely this fall. Either way, she’ll lean on diverse literature to help students feel welcome in her classroom and the community.


“Living in Minneapolis, diversity in our literature is huge this year,” she says. With picture books like Jacqueline Woodson’s The Day You Begin, “We can have a shared reading experience, make connections to the text, and get to know each other.”


Cindy B., a veteran middle school teacher in Wisconsin, is prioritizing routine and structure to give kids the boundaries they need (even if they push back).


“[Safety and predictability] are two things kids will really need, and this is one way I can give it to them as there are so many factors I cannot control in terms of the safety and predictability of the world.”


To foster that feeling of safety, especially in the wake of COVID-19 and state violence against Black and Brown people, Cindy plans to give students the additional time and space to process big feelings and current events.


“As a history teacher, I always tell my students that they are creating history every day, and that one of the key reasons for learning history is so that we learn from it and hopefully don't repeat history's mistakes,” she says. “I will give them guiding questions but also allow for open-ended writing.”


She hopes the activity will inspire reflection and give students the opportunity to share what they need from her, too.


For high school earth science teacher Annie P., building relationships is more of an art.


“Many of my students told me straight up that they only did my work because we were ‘cool.’” Annie says.


To create those relationships in a remote environment, she plans on doing warm-up free-writing questions that help her get to know her students better—nothing related to science or what’s happening in the textbook. She also invites students to share on what she calls Fun Fact Friday, with questions like: What was your best Halloween costume?


“They all say they hate [it] but get mad if we forget or interrupt [it.]” Annie says. “Non-academic stuff really hooks my students.”


The transition to middle school is challenging even without the backdrop of a pandemic. That’s why Amanda P., a sixth-grade teacher in Washington, D.C., begins building community ahead of the school year.


“[The] sixth-grade team [is] setting up 15-minute virtual sessions for parents/students to sign up for so we can get to know each other prior to the school year and properly welcome them to middle school,” she says.


They’re also sending cards signed by the teachers to each student, and dropping off treat bags with their teacher’s favorite candy, a pencil, and the grade-level motto. The community building continues throughout the early weeks of school with Joy Week, an entire week of sessions focused on happiness with small-group activities, icebreakers, and get-to-know-you activities prior to launching a curriculum. Students will also use digital discussion boards to share photos and videos of summer activities and their home workspaces to help get to know each other.


Heather B., a high school Spanish teacher in Nebraska, leverages digital tools to connect with her students. From a get-to-know-you survey about how students learn best in “normal times” to using breakout rooms on video meeting platforms like Zoom and assigning each group specific tasks. And because keeping it personal is always a hit, she had Bring Your Dog to School Day, a feat that’s much easier when school is at the couch or kitchen table.


Georgia W., dean of curriculum for a Florida charter school, learned a lot from her teachers and colleagues during the spring shutdown, especially when it came to community building.


“The most successes I saw in virtual learning came from the deep relationships teachers formed with one another and families,” Georgia says. “Home visits with social distancing often helped our kids more than any lesson. We must not forget the social aspect of school if we go back to virtual. This goes for adults and kids.”


To continue to foster school community at home, teachers joined in on each other’s lessons to help with moral support and online classroom management. They also kept students engaged with socially distanced fun, including pep rallies, dance parties, and online movie nights.


“We even had our end-of-year ceremonies, which meant so much to kids and teachers,” Georgia says. “This year this must be a focus in order to keep the love going.”


And that’s the whole ball game, isn’t it? There’s no telling how the school year will unfold, but if it can begin with a foundation of caring, welcoming, and joy, there’s a good chance the kids will be alright.




Erin Ryan joined NWEA as senior writer in 2018. A former teacher and student of education policy, she enjoys sharing stories and new ideas to support student learning.