Teaching Online: Relationships are Everything
In Module 1, you will:
- Think about the importance of relationships in the design of learning activities for children and teens, especially online;
- Think about the ways that some instructional decisions support relationship building online while others undermine it;
- Learn how to develop and sustain relationships with learners in online course environments;
- Reflect on the ways that teachers you have known develop relationships with their students in bricks and mortar classrooms and create a list of ways that these methods could be operationalized in online classroom environments;
- Draft an email message to a parent whose child seems to be struggling with online learning.
Estimated Completion Times
Estimated Reading Time : 1 Hour
Estimated Reflection Time : 15 Minutes
Estimated Practice Time: 20 Minutes
Table of Contents for this Module
- Making the Shift from Emergency Pandemic Schooling to a Planned Approach to Online and Hybrid Learning: What Matters?
- Being Present and Checking In: Designing for Connection with Intention
- A Lesson in What Not to Do?
- A Master Class in the Ethics of Care
- Practical Strategies for Building and Sustaining Connections Online
1.1 Think Big
Making the Shift from Emergency Pandemic Schooling to a Planned Approach to Online and Hybrid Learning: What Matters?
When the entire province made the pivot to emergency online schooling in March of 2020, it was — quite understandably — a bumpy ride.
Nobody — neither our systems of schooling, nor parents, nor students, nor teachers — nobody had ever lived through or navigated the complexities of life during a global pandemic. Had this virus evolved twenty years ago, schools would have had no choice but to shut down for a time. We would have been forced to wait out the storm, to wait for direction from public health officials before resuming some modified version of schooling. But the Internet — the Internet has changed what is possible, hasn’t it? Spotty as it still is in many communities across Canada, the possibilities presented by globally connected digital networks for maintaining a certain level of continuity for children and teens seemed entirely do-able when the orders came from public health officials to close the schools.
In the rush to mobilize an entirely new and accessible infrastructure of schooling, everyone tried their very best. Many school leaders went to heroic lengths to ensure children and teachers had wifi, computing devices, and access to technical supports. In communities where the Internet was inadequate or unavailable, many school boards mailed out packages of learning materials to children each week, if only to reassure them that their schools and teachers were thinking of them. Teachers in Ontario, who were required to continue teaching, albeit in a dramatically different context, took on the challenges of new social, technical and curricular realities as best they could, knowing that their efforts would surely fall short of their vision, their hopes, and their desires to support every student in their classes. Many of them tried, for the first time ever in their careers, to mobilize fully online versions of the magic they usually create in their bricks-and-mortar classrooms for learners using digital technologies that introduced new and often unexpected constraints on their instructional planning and practices.
Importantly, as the Learn at Home program was mobilized, students were told by the Minister of Education that their grades could not go down as a result of the pandemic shift to online schooling. Although the intention was surely to relieve stress for everyone involved, and particularly for children and families, the messaging seemed contradictory, and raised a whole lot of existential questions about the purposes of schooling in the first place. Schooling mattered enough to mobilize a massive digital shift and the new allocation of emergency resources, but any new school work, completed during the pandemic shut down of school buildings, wouldn’t need to be evaluated, unless it helped…but if it didn’t help? Did the learning matter? Of course learning always matters…but…the grades?
Inevitably, and in the throes of those months from March through June in Ontario, with uncertainty and questions about when this would end, the cumulative mental health impacts of the liminal, in-between, life with nothing new ever happening except the incessant push notifications of bold-print Google Classroom alerts, started to show. The kids, their parents, the teachers — we were all.just.exhausted by systems that felt so far from ideal with no sight of a return to the places and social connections that sustain us.
The good thing about this moment is that systems of schooling have learned from months of emergency online teaching — and there is a little time to breathe, to think and to plan for next steps now.
As you begin this MOOC on Online Teaching, Module 1 is designed to help you think deeply about the most important issue at the core of our work as teachers: relationship building.
Noddings (2012) writes, “In talks with teachers […], I am often asked how they can ‘do this’——establish a climate of care——‘on top of all the other demands’. My answer is that establishing such a climate is not ‘on top’ of other things, it is underneath all we do as teachers. When that climate is established and maintained, everything else goes better.” (p. 777).
Whether we deliver face-to-face, online, or some hybrid version of in-school and online instruction this year, the 2020-2021 model of instruction in schools will likely shift over time. It will certainly require everyone to adopt public-health protocols and make accommodations. It will most likely involve the design of online course materials. This course will take you through a range of how-to tips and recommendations. But before you design a single online lesson, it is important to step back and think about how you will create the conditions in your online and hybrid courses that will enable your students to feel safe, supported and connected to their teacher(s) and to their peers. As Noddings reminds us, a climate of care, when established and maintained, enables everything else to go better.
Being present and checking in : Designing for connection with intention
Although technically the provision of content that is accurate, organized and informative does, indeed, align with some elements of our shared Standards of Professional practice in Ontario, online modes of instruction require us to consider how learning happens for children in their homes, and in contexts where there may not be an adult available to support them. The Ethical standard of Care in the teaching profession includes “compassion, acceptance, interest and insight for developing students’ potential. Members (of the Ontario College of Teachers) express their commitment to students’ well-being and learning through positive influence, professional judgment and empathy in practice” (OCT.ca).
But how do we do this online? Online, we cannot use the same methods of in-the-moment observation that often allow us to create a dynamic set of learning conditions for learners in our bricks and mortar classrooms every day. Instead, we need to carefully curate experiences that welcome learners into their online classroom, and prepare them to engage with ideas. During times of trouble, trauma and uncertainty, children and teens are especially sensitive. They are likely to need more reassurance, more support, and connections to adults who can offer them a sense of stability and attachment (Brunzell, Stokes & Waters, 2016; 2019). Online, we can do this — but it requires us to be intentional in new ways.
A lesson in what not to do?
If our instructional methods exacerbate feelings of overwhelm, confusion, stress, or worry, we know that children won’t be able to learn at optimal levels (e.g. Hariharan, Swain & Chivukula, 2013). Online (during a pandemic when stress levels are higher than usual) this is especially important to remember.
If you opened this inbox, how might you feel?
This is a screenshot of my nine year-old daughter’s Gmail inbox, full of unopened items asking for her attention and action. After four weeks of trying really, really hard to keep up, she became overwhelmed, in part, because with every update to her Google Classroom, she felt more and more behind. She stopped participating in her math class online. She stopped submitting assignments because the incessant push notifications, and the steady diet of worksheets , coupled with Google meetings with 50+ students, left her feeling disconnected, disengaged and anxious. It was healthier for her to just not participate. School, which has always been a challenge for her, became even more difficult. She just wanted it to stop.
Contrast this with the following example.
A Master-class in the Ethics of Care
As part of a research study I am co-leading on issues of digital equity for children in Ontario, I spoke with a teacher working in northern Ontario who has 22 students in her grade 6 class. When asked about the levels of participation she was seeing from her students, she noted that 19 of her 22 students were participating every day online — the others, for various reasons, were not. Certainly the teacher had made contact with the three students who were not participating. When asked why participation in her online classroom was so high, the teacher noted a couple of things.
First, she said, all of the work she assigned was specifically designed, by her, to meet her students’ needs and in consideration of their interests, learning needs, and Internet speeds. There were no worksheets.
Second, she said that they had been working all year on a project that she called “classroom economy” where all of the children had jobs and specific roles in the class that contributed to the wellbeing and success of the entire community, and that earned each of them “money” that could be spent in a variety of ways in the classroom. When the pivot to online instruction was announced, the students expressed deep concern that they might lose their classroom economy, but the teacher called them together to develop strategies for shifting their economy online. Every child continued to contribute to this collaborative project and, the teacher noted, she has also been driving to each child’s house every week to drop off prizes.
She was driving to every child’s house to drop off prizes.
The love and the care that this teacher demonstrated in her practice bowled me over. “You must love your students very much,” I said. “And your students must love you too.”
“Yes,” she said. Absolutely.”
To be clear, this teacher, living in a small tight-knit community was providing a level of connection that would surpass anyone’s expectations. This is not the level of support that any teacher is expected to provide. And yet, the important lesson for us sits at the intersection of these two examples: some pedagogical design decisions can limit learning, while others can sustain it.
In the examples, we also see how the ethics of care inform pedagogical decisions that do shape learning activities and outcomes for children.
In 2014, I met another master teacher named Destiny who worked in a public school in Detroit, Michigan. She was a graduate student in a course I co-designed and taught called Teaching Students Online. Destiny, who was working in a system of schooling that required all learners to take one online course, or a combination of approved online activities to graduate from high school, agreed to participate in a study that I conducted with my colleagues, Dr. Anne Heintz, Dr. Liz Owens Boltz, and Dr. Leigh Graves Wolf (2017).
In that study, Destiny showed us what it takes to build meaningful relationships with students in a blended teaching and learning environment that was part online and part face-to-face. Her students came to school, but a considerable amount of their learning was designed to take place online.
This may be exactly the situation in which K-12 students and teachers find themselves this fall.
Here are methods that Destiny used to connect with her students in ways that supported their growth, their learning, their emotional well-being and that sustained her as well:
- Destiny intentionally integrated photos of her class, and of herself with her students into the online learning environments that she created. She said, “A big picture was on the front (homepage) — it was a picture of me and some of my kids — they loved that because they felt like, “Oh hey, we were part of this, I remember that day.” (p. 477).
- Destiny created, and moderated discussion forums where her students could interact, and discuss issues of importance to them. She used this as a pedagogical space. She said, “They also enjoyed the fact that there was a discussion forum and they could talk back and forth to each other, and I’d pull that page up, and we’d talk about the comments that kids were making.” (p. 477)
Sometimes, teachers worry that students will post inappropriate messages on the discussion forum, so they shut down conversation or avoid the use of discussion forums altogether.
Destiny showed us that, when moderated, discussion forums can become an important context for learning to participate in online conversations. By calling up students’ contributions and using their comments to inspire ongoing discussion, Destiny also honoured their contributions and their voices. Importantly, in our recent research (Cotnam-Kappel & Hagerman, 2020) Ontario teachers have told us that (a) they now recognize how important it is for students to learn to communicate in online spaces such as discussion forums and in collaborative documents and that (b) their students have not yet had sufficient exposure or modelling to develop online communication skills. So, in addition to using these spaces to build connections, teachers can also scaffold much-needed foundational participatory digital literacies practices.
- Destiny invited feedback from students about their online learning environment. She talked to them, invited them to tell her what was working for them and what was not. She used that feedback to improve the online elements of her course.
- Destiny used humour. She worked to hide little “easter eggs” of humour around the online course environment. For example, on a webpage where students needed to click a button to continue she added a cheeky instruction, “Press here (you know you want to)” (p. 475).
- Destiny made linguistic choices to honour her students’ lived experiences, languages, and cultures. As a Black woman teaching English Language Arts to students who were also mostly Black, she shared a love and a deep appreciation for the place of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) in her community. Even though she “wanted students to learn to use standard English” Destiny also embraced the joy that comes from code-switching across linguistic boundaries, and she modelled this for her learners. “[…] I’m very well aware of how we interact as African Americans with Black English — it’s very important to who we are. I’m very — I’m known for code-switching, so I can go from being very, very standard, to being very kind of urban, and I code switch when I teach. You want to do that; you want kids to be able to switch things up, because I probably would.” (p. 475). Here, we see that Destiny modelled the use of expressions and language that connected her to her students — and in so doing, she reinforced the shared cultural values and experiences that enabled her learners to feel supported, respected, and seen.
Although, as teachers, we may not share in the cultural heritages, the experiences of racialized oppression, or use the same languages that our students use, we can always create classrooms contexts where linguistic boundary crossing is encouraged, and where students’ nuanced language choices are honoured. We can invite our students to use expressions that bring them a sense of joy, and that cultivate a sense of belonging. We can always show students that we value their voices, their ways of thinking, speaking, and expression. We can always encourage students to embrace their bi/multilingual identities; and to proudly explore the ways that we can weave rich linguistic tapestries as a learning community that enrich the thinking of every person in the class. This can also be an intentional method for decolonizing our classrooms — online and in face-to-face environments.
- Destiny acknowledged to herself that part of her role as teacher was to be present for her students in the ways that they needed. For Destiny, providing social and emotional support to her learners became part of her identity as a teacher. “I don’t know who I would be without that” she told us. (p. 470).
Other scholars have identified a range of practices that can also support the building of relationships and the establishment of an ethics of care in K-12 online classrooms. Borup, Graham and Velasquez (2013) found that activities that promote dialogue, and that enable teachers and students to establish “social presence” seem especially supportive of relationship building. Defined by Garrison (2009), social presence is “the ability of participants to identify with the community (e.g., course of study), communicate purposefully in a trusting environment, and develop inter-personal relationships by way of projecting their individual personalities” (see the Community of Inquiry Model for more information about Social Presence). Importantly, Borup et al. (2013) also found that meaningful relationships were supported in online learning when teachers confirmed students’ “better selves” by providing positive praise and encouragement, helping students to recognize their mastery experiences, and correcting students’ misbehaviour while simultaneously recognizing their good intentions (pp. 191-192). Modelling, too, is important for the building of relationships (Borup et al., 2013). When teachers show students how to interact, how to approach new learning, and how to communicate effectively online, this forms a foundation for meaningful relationship building.
Practical Strategies for Building and Sustaining Connections Online
Keeping these research findings in mind, here are a few practical strategies that you could try in your online course designs.
- Post a short video to introduce yourself to students and invite students to do the same. Model for students how to introduce themselves. When they post their videos, watch each one. Then, provide a short affirmation to let them know you appreciated getting to know them a little bit and, if possible, share a small personal connection to the interests that they openly shared. For example, you might write, “Thanks for telling us about your interest in horseback riding, Rebecca! My daughter is learning to ride horses too and I love to watch her ride! I look forward to working with you this year in Grade 6!” With 35, this might take a few hours of work — but this is work that will return dividends during the school year in the form of shared connection, trust, and engagement. Many schools are using FlipGrid as a video platform for sharing introductions, feedback and for building social presence. Many learning management systems have video messaging options build right in to the platform too.
- Create a space in the course where students can interact with you and with one another. This could be a “water cooler” discussion forum where students can ask small questions about the course, and where you can both model and affirm effective communication for them. Although discussion forums about course content should focus on particular ideas, the “water cooler” can be an important space for relationship building because online, there are no in-the-moment opportunities for students and teachers to sort out a range of issues that matter to the community, and to the functioning of the class.
- Use multiple modes of communication to provide feedback on student work. Some evidence suggests that audio feedback may support the development of social presence, which in turn, supports student learning and engagement. You might also consider using video to respond to student work. Instead of stickers on student work…maybe use .gifs or memes to add a little humour and affirm the strengths in the work that students complete?
- Schedule 1:1 synchronous video chats or telephone conversations with your students. Even a few minutes of 1:1 focus time will support the establishment of trust and care. This takes time, but it is time well spent.
- Tell students how to get in touch with you when they have questions or need a little extra support. Also, be clear about how long they will need to wait before they should expect an answer. Ideally, the wait times should be as short as you can make them, but if it is unrealistic for you to get back to students within a short window of time (i.e., on the same day) don’t leave students wondering whether you received their question, or how long it will be before they hear back from you. From the outset, provide a clear policy for communications and stick to it. If you can’t respond within the normal timeframe, set an out-of-office reply that explains when students can expect a response from you on email.
What methods have you used in your work as a teacher to help kids feel connected to one another, and to you, as their teacher?
What methods have you observed other teachers use in bricks and mortar classrooms that help to build a sense of belonging and authentic connection?
Your reflection task for Module 1 asks you to think about strategies that you have used or seen used in face-to-face teaching contexts, but that could be modified slightly or repurposed in some way online. What would the online versions of these practices look like? Jot down your ideas.
Your practice task in Module 1 is to draft up an email that you could send to the family of a child who seems to be struggling in your online course. The child hasn’t logged in for a couple of weeks, and has assignments missing. You have emailed the child directly but they have not replied.
As you draft this email, consider these questions:
- How could you show this family that you see their child’s strengths?
- Could you identify one of their child’s unique qualities in a way that enables them to trust that you know and appreciate who their child is?
- How could you show this family that you would like to offer supports to their child on terms that align with their needs, or their situation?
- How can you use this email as an opportunity to show this student and their family your practice of the professional ethic of care?
Remember — many families are experiencing unprecedented upheaval at this time. And perhaps yours is too. However, as a teacher (whether you are preservice or inservice) you are part of a system of state-sanctioned power — and you are privileged to be working or being able to access higher education and advance your career goals when many adults have lost their jobs or are not yet working at pre-COVID levels. Moreover, although some families, historically, have been well served by systems of schooling, others have been oppressed by them.
Although this is a self-paced course, consider sharing your draft email with a colleague or with your PED 3150 cohort of colleagues. What questions does this exercise raise for you and for your peers?
Ready to move on to Module 2?
In Module 2 we will take on issues of equity a little more directly as you learn the most recent evidence on how to design learning environments that are inclusive, accessible to all, and that are informed by social-justice oriented perspectives that will enable you to create safe and supportive online learning environments for your students.
References for Module 1
Borup, J., Graham, C. R., & Velasquez, A. (2013). Technology-mediated caring: Building relationships between students and instructors in online K-12 learning environments. In Advances in Research on Teaching (Vol. 18, pp. 183-202). Emerald Group Publishing Limited. https://doi.org/10.1108/S1479-3687(2013)0000018014
Heintz, A., Hagerman, M.S., Boltz, L.O. & Wolf, L.G. (2017). Teacher awarenesses and blended instruction practices: Interview research with K-12 teachers. In A. Marcus-Quinn & T. Hourigan (Eds.) Handbook on digital learning for K-12 schools (pp. 465-482). Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-33808-8
Hariharan, M., Swain, S. & Chivukula, U. (2014) Childhood stress and its impact on academic learning and performance. In A. Holliman (Ed.) The Routledge International Companion to Educational Psychology (pp. 127-139). London: Routledge, https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203809402
Noddings, N. (2012). The caring relation in teaching. Oxford Review of Education, 38(6), 771–781. https://doi.org/10.1080/03054985.2012.745047