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Uncategorized   |   Sep 15, 2021

9 tips for making personal connections with students in a digital environment

By Elisa Waingort

Middle School Spanish

9 tips for making personal connections with students in a digital environment

By Elisa Waingort

As a teacher of 30+ years, there are many aspects of teaching that I do without thinking. When I’m teaching, I’m on autopilot.

However, there are those times when I’m trying something new and I need to slow down. Not knowing doesn’t deter me or make me feel less prepared to teach. I am always becoming the teacher I want to be and that means that I am always learning, experimenting, and exploring better ways to teach my students. For me, it’s the journey and not the destination that matters.

So, when I entered the world of virtual teaching this year, I did it willingly. I was primed for a challenge and I figured I would learn along the way. What I know now, and couldn’t foresee way back in September, is that not only were there things I didn’t know how to do (you can always learn what you don’t know), but there were also situations I couldn’t anticipate and was not prepared to deal with. The hardest of these has been the silence that often characterizes online classes. Not knowing whether students are present (mentally and physically) behind the square with their name on it, continues to be a challenge for me.

Some of the questions that arose early on were:

How do I manage Google Classroom so that it is easy for me to post and for students to find and submit assignments? 

How am I going to teach everything I normally teach to a group of 8 – 10-year-olds in no more than 1 ½ to 2 hours of synchronous instruction a day? 

How can I design the most effective synchronous and asynchronous learning experiences for students? What exactly does that mean anyway? 

Will asynchronous assignments be too much or not enough? Too long or too short? Too complicated or too simple? 

And later: How am I going to respond to all of the parent emails that ping my inbox 24/7?

Assessment? Where do I even begin?


Every day I am taxed with new problems to solve. Fortunately, I am not the only teacher in our virtual classroom just as I’m not the only teacher when we are in-person. Through this experience, my students and I have become knowledgeable about how to use different platforms and teach each other how to navigate them.

I feel like a brand new teacher all over again and I’d forgotten how taxing that is.

Creating meaningful relationships in an online environment has been a trial and error process. I needed to figure out what was going to be the same and what was going to be different teaching online from teaching face to face. The realization that I needed to develop relationships with students I’d never met in person hit me hard when I struggled to connect with a few students. I had taken for granted the ways in which I had been doing this when seeing students in person every day. How was I going to get to know them if their cameras were turned off or if I never heard their voices in class?

First, let me say that it has not been easy. But I do not shy away from difficult situations. In fact, I tend to embrace them. So, during the spring and summer (and to this day), I read books, articles, and blog posts, and I participated in Zoom sessions (too many to count) that addressed, among other things, how to build authentic connections and relationships in online spaces. Everyone had advice to offer and it all sounded doable until I got in front of a computer screen.

The best advice someone gave during one of these engagements, and that has guided everything I do, was to remember that what is important in-person is still important online. Creating spaces for students to feel safe, seen and challenged is as important online as it is in the physical classroom, perhaps more important, but it needs to be adapted to this new environment.

With these initial ideas in mind, I began to explore ways to develop meaningful connections and relationships with students. The good news is that it is possible to do this online. The hard truth is that this is not easy. Every day I have a razor-sharp focus on developing relationships with my students; some days I am more successful than others. When something doesn’t work, I try something else. And, when that doesn’t work, I try something else entirely. Same as in the classroom.

Lessons learned:

  • Students need multiple ways to communicate during an online class. This is not rocket science and is not different from what I would do in person. In my class, students know they can respond by using emojis, hand signals, the chat and/or their microphone. If I’m presenting and I can’t see the class, other students use their microphones to let me know if someone is raising their hand or has typed something in the chat. Which leads me to lesson #2…
  • We are all teachers and we are all learners in our online space.  No one knows everything and everyone knows something. So, we teach each other how to problem solve tech situations, but we also model positive behaviors and remind each other of what matters when we are together.
  • Students need opportunities to nurture their social wellbeing. I make sure that the chat is available for kids to greet each other or to share tidbits of information at the beginning of class. I make a point of greeting students and posting instructions in the chat for students who may be late to class – this happens more often than in-person. Students have also used the chat to provide encouragement and support to their peers. I am learning who encourages others, who has news to share every day and how students communicate with each other. It’s not a perfect source of data, but it’s something I pay attention to. For example, I know that Joe (a pseudonym) loves playing video games and is often looking for a classmate to join him in a game.
  • During online learning, it’s important to use a variety of ways to communicate with students. I use email, and the commenting features in Google docs, Padlet and other online platforms. At times the feedback is immediate and at other times it is asynchronous. These documents and platforms are shared spaces and everybody is privy to the ways we talk with each other. I try to use these as models for how we can best support each other in respectful ways.
  • The time I have for online classes is not enough to help me reach all of my students so I created 10- to 15-minute one-on-one or small group sessions with students every week. This has been one of the best ways I’ve found to get to know my students as people and learners. During these sessions, I ask students how everything is going, including about any hobbies or outside activities they are involved in. I ask them if there’s something they would like to review, ask me or get support in. If they do, I go with that. If they say everything is fine (some do say that), I always have something I can address that week that is a whole class or individual goal. During these sessions students are more communicative than in online classes, which allow for deeper connections.
  •  I constantly remind myself of the power of authentic connections, of letting down our guard, of laughing and joking and just letting kids be kids. I laugh with my students when I see that the chat is all about the expressions I use and that kids find amusing. Other times, I shake my head when the conversation gets derailed. But the truth is more of the former and less of the latter is happening now. So, I welcome pets, younger siblings and anything else my students want to share. Instead of seeing these as interruptions, I see them as opportunities to make connections and build relationships.

I want my students to see me as more than just their teacher; I want them to get to know me in the same way I am trying to get to know them. That is why I laugh at myself often. I smile, they smile. I laugh, they laugh. We struggle and we persevere. We make mistakes and we try again the next day.

All of this makes teaching and learning online not only bearable in this indescribably challenging year, but also reminds us that we can still get to know each other and care about each other even though we’ve never met face to face. And, that realization is what keeps me coming back to the computer screen day after day.

As this school year comes to an end, there are many people giving advice about online learning. There have even been books written this year about teaching online. In addition to the lessons I have learned, the ideas shared below are at the top of my mind as I finish up this unprecedented school year. So, if you end up doing some version of remote teaching in the coming year or even if you only teach in person, I share the following tips and suggestions, in no order of importance, in the hopes that at least one of them resonates with you.

1. Assume the best from kids.

Communication in an online class can be frustrating for teachers as sometimes students may not participate in lessons or do assigned work. If I teach online again, even if for a short while, or even when I am in person, I will schedule weekly check in times with small groups of students to make sure they understand instructions to assigned projects, especially ones with several steps that require time management to complete. Although I have done this informally in the past, I plan to be more intentional moving forward.

2. Ask clarifying questions.

When students submit assignments asynchronously or say something in an online class that is unclear, it’s important to ask questions. Even though this is common sense, I am embarrassed to admit how many times I caught myself assuming negative intentions or faulty understanding without pursuing it further. So, it behooves us to seek clarification. Don’t hesitate to ask as many questions as possible or to respond with the phrase, “Say more”, until you can clearly paraphrase what was said or there is an aha moment of understanding for the teacher, the student or both.

3. Be patient and kind to yourself and to your students.

Although this is an obvious reminder, it can be difficult to put into practice. Teachers are our own worst enemies. We are unduly and unrealistically hard on ourselves. Instead of acknowledging mistakes and learning from them, we often beat ourselves up about what we could have done or should have done, but didn’t do. It’s time to stop that. We are all trying our best to do the impossible: teach kids online through a pandemic. Give. Yourself. Grace. 

4. Meet with kids in small groups (outside of regular synchronous classes) or one-on-one as often as possible.

One of the best things I did this year was to institute one-on-one sessions with students. In fact, I have always preferred them to small group sessions when teaching in person. This is where individualization, personalization and differentiation truly happens. Letting kids know in advance the focus of the one-on-one conference, for example addressing a particular assignment, has allowed me to really understand what students are comprehending and are confused about. Moving forward I will do them in the early stages of an assignment and at the end to provide students with face-to-face feedback, virtually or in person.

5. Provide multiple online spaces where students and families can find information.

I have fluctuated between providing too little vs. too much information and, of course, just the right amount of information is what we should be aiming for. My best advice is: don’t spend too much time aiming for perfection because that’s never going to happen. Instead, provide essential information and then let it go. It will never be perfect. Some will understand right away and others won’t. Trying to please everyone or to address everyone’s level of understanding at the same time is almost impossible. And, that is where the one-on-one sessions come in so you can provide targeted support.

6. Use shared Google apps often.

I wish I had realized this sooner. Google has a suite of apps that can do just about anything you want them to do and there are many teacher techies out there who are willing to help you navigate them. For example, I used shared documents weekly for kids to write their goals and to track their independent reading and writing. I used the commenting feature to provide feedback and ask questions. Eventually, the comments served as a record of a running conversation between myself and each student that other students could also engage in, if they wished. As an unplanned perk, students started responding to each other.

7. Use a few versatile and flexible platforms, rather than getting drawn into the marketing tricks used by the creators of flashy new apps.

My top three platforms for creating content for, with and by students are: Google (docs, presentation slides, Jamboard and forms are my top go-to Google apps), Padlet, and Flipgrid.

8. As a Spanish bilingual teacher, I have discovered that online classes work well to engage students in back-and-forth question-response type conversations with me and with each other.

A recent addition to our Spanish time has been to use a shared Google Doc to write about our weekend plans on Fridays that is then updated on Mondays. We practice future and past tense, as well as subject-verb agreement through talking, writing and commenting. Finally, we summarize the weekend activities of our classmates orally and in written form.

9. Keep everything as organized as possible.

Finally, out of necessity, I invented two hacks to help keep everything organized, or as organized as possible. First, I created a Google Doc with all of the links I needed for teaching online during the week. (I will continue this habit during in-person teaching.) Google has an app — Keep — where you can do this, as well. I found that having a Google Doc pinned to my browser allowed me easy access to anything I needed during the week without having a gazillion windows open. Second, I created templates for just about everything: the weekly schedule, one-on-one sessions, independent writing and reading tracking sheets, goal-setting documents and more.

I loved teaching online AND I am truly looking forward to being back in person with students. However, because of everything I learned this year, and especially because of all of the mistakes I made, I am now more prepared to move into online teaching, if necessary, and I can use this huge learning curve to enhance teaching in person.

My hope for teachers is that the upcoming school year is replete with experiences that uplift and nurture our teacher spirit: it is long overdue.

Elisa Waingort

Middle School Spanish

I am a Spanish Bilingual teacher writer who teaches middle grade students in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. I have taught in a variety of countries and situations throughout my 35+ years in education. My biggest asset is the students I have...
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