How teachers can build warmer connections with students online

How teachers can build warmer connections with students online

For many teachers, educating students remotely has been challenging on a number of fronts, whether it’s the burden of shifting their school’s teaching and learning programs online or the loss of those all-important ‘up close and personal’ aspects of teaching.

Indeed, the value of face-to-face teaching for both student and teacher has been demonstrated through greater engagement, wellbeing and outcomes, whereas remote learning has been hurt student outcomes.

One teacher who knows this all too well is Penny Vlies, a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney and an award-winning secondary school teacher.

Vlies, who has received the NSW Minister for Education Quality Teaching Award, works with schools to design learning that is built by and for teachers to embed critical and creative thinking into classroom practice.

She says that when first starting to teach online, the “fixness’ of proximity, me and the screen”, meant resisting incidental small talk conversations.

“These are the sort of conversations you would have as you walked into class or as you got stuff out of your bag,” Vlies told The Educator.

“Online seemed all about the business. Teaching in the Service Learning in Indigenous Communities course at the University of Sydney forced me to pause and locate myself not only through acknowledging the Country I was on, but also sharing stories about ‘getting’ to the lesson”.

As this habit began to form, Vlies and her students got a sense of each other as they were on that day.

“It was just a little closer to what we may have experienced in the physical face-to- face setting of a classroom,” she explained.

“It's these wandering and wondering conversations that need to be explicitly included. They can give permission for students to think”.

Reports have shown that many teachers have reported feeling exhausted and overwhelmed by the transition to remote and flexible learning, but Vlies believes there are ways for educators to manage these challenges and still maintain a strong connection with their students.

Vlies recently published an article on The Australian Association for Research in Education website titled: ‘How teaching online during COVID-19 lockdown made me think deeply about how physical presence matters’.

In the article, she explained how the experience of online teaching, especially in a course that required students to take risks in thinking and feeling, spurred her curiosity on what teachers and students gain and lose when their proximity changes.

“Since remote learning, teachers have more than risen to this challenge. The hope when I wrote this piece was that it might open up a conversation where we start to share these insights,” she said.

“Teaching online is not good or bad but it is different”.

Vlies said the key opportunity is to find the “even better” from paying closer attention to the insights from teachers and then “bottling it” so that the learnings can later be shared through professional networks.

“I know there are thousands of teachers who can better answer this and it is through gathering their comments and ideas that we can ensure young people continue to feel heard and valued online or in class,” she said.

“There have been a whole heap of articles published around the world that have now begun to unearth these insights”.