Building Relationships with Students in a Virtual Environment

Delaney EarleyEvents, Teachers, Volunteers

A teacher in a grey sweater is pictured teaching virtually on a computer screen, the monitor is on a desk with plants, books, and a lamp

On March 25th, 2021, WITS hosted our Spring Education Panel: Building Relationships with Students in a Virtual Environment, sponsored by our partners at Aon and William Blair. The event ran for one hour and featured three Chicago Public Schools (CPS) Educators: Ms. Andert (2nd grade, Hibbard Elementary), Ms. Haeske (4th grade, McAuliffe Elementary), and Ms. Callico (8th grade, LEARN – Hunter Perkins). Each panelist discussed the importance of flexibility and social connection within remote learning, helped re-frame student engagement when cameras or microphones are off, gave advice for leading and empowering small groups, and provided strategies for setting students up for success when reading together. Their shared insight was both enlightening and inspiring, and we hope that the recording of the event is a valuable resource. Read on for more highlights.

Establishing Norms and Routines

Routines and norms are an essential component to any classroom and going to school remotely was something brand new for both students and teachers. Knowing how different this learning experience would be, we asked our panelists to share how they worked with their students to set expectations at the beginning of this school year. One takeaway—consistency is key. Ms. Andert shared that, “Predictable structures and routines are always important, even more so this year. They help teachers, students, and parents accept the inevitable frustrations introduced by this new setting.”

Remote Communication

The pandemic has changed the way we communicate, especially since social cues are now both shared and received through a screen. At WITS, we’ve often seen students have their cameras and microphones turned off in virtual program. Accordingly, we asked panelists to share how they engage with students when they encounter this in their virtual classrooms. Across the board, panelists agreed that creating space for authentic social interaction between students is essential. Ms. Callico noted that, “If you show and display your imperfections, students will feel more comfortable to be themselves. Once we become human to them, they’ll respond. When trust is built, some of that reluctance to engage disappears.”

Building Relationships with Students in a Virtual Environment: "If you show and display your imperfections, students will feel more comfortable to be themselves."

It is also important to consider that students are at home, learning in spaces they may not be comfortable or willing to share with an adult at school. We may not be aware of each student’s situation or at-home responsibilities, and it is crucial to extend grace and understanding when cameras are off.

Reading in Teams
Building Relationships with Students in a Virtual Environment: "Any participation is good participation!"

A new element of WITS programming this year is the creation of reading teams, in which mentors and students meet weekly in breakout rooms to build relationships, set goals, and engage in shared reading. Our panelists shared the importance of personalizing time in small groups with students through specific compliments and questions. Small groups are conducive to social interaction and connection, and Ms. Haeske shared that “Any participation is good participation! Before reading, you can prepare your students for success by going through the book, looking at pictures, and identifying and defining tricky words to build up confidence. Avoid overcorrection, as this can damper participation, particularly for students who are English Language Learners.”

The Joy of WITS

Through WITS Virtual Programming, students gain another small group opportunity, social interaction with a peer, and valuable time with a consistent adult who they wouldn’t normally see. Ms. Andert, Ms. Callico, and Ms. Haeske each shared that their students feel free to be themselves at WITS, and that having something they genuinely look forward to week after week helps increase overall participation at school. For more information on WITS Virtual Program and mentoring in a remote environment, please visit our Volunteer Resource Page.