Classroom Strategies

Building Strong Relationships in the Virtual Classroom

Reflections on why relationship-building is a must

The following is an interview with Keenan Lee, a first-grade teacher in an urban school district in Pennsylvania. In this interview, Keenan shares how the pandemic has changed relationship-building in the virtual classroom and what other educators can do to strengthen their relationships with students. 

As an educator, building meaningful relationships in the classroom is key in engaging students in their own learning. Pre-pandemic, how did you go about gaining students’ trust and confidence?

In my classroom, my philosophy is that we build our relationship first and then focus on academics. I believe that students who build trust with their teacher will have the ability to gain the confidence needed to succeed at all levels. I personally build relationships with my students by finding common interests to spark conversation. For example, when the students showed me how to do the “Savage” dance, I went home that night and practiced in the mirror in hopes that I could imitate their dancing. I found myself listening to some of their TikTok songs such as “Savage Love” so I could sing along with them throughout the day. I found that the students were shocked that I knew the songs and that I tried to do the dances. I also share aspects of my life, both past and present, to make connections with the students to show that I am relatable.  

How has relationship-building with students changed for you since the onset of the pandemic?

Since we have been virtual all school year, it has been difficult but rewarding to build relationships. I am a hugger and love to give out high fives.  Although it has been challenging, I have been able to manage to teach my students how to give virtual high fives via Zoom. It is so fun to see them high fiving their cameras. On the positive side, I’ve met many students’ family members that I may have never met in the traditional school setting.  To build and strengthen the relationships with my students, I have found that engaging siblings and parents in conversations helps. In my personal classroom, I like to learn one unique thing about each child–the students love when you remember something special about them or their family.    

What techniques have you employed to keep students engaged in this new era of remote instruction?

One of my biggest technology tools to help students stay engaged in learning is Flipgrid. The students love when I ask questions and they have time to respond. Allowing students to answer on their own terms and in their own element gives them confidence in speaking and listening. It also allows for the students to show their creativity by creating a special video. I would say my first graders loved when we had “Flipgrid Show and Tell” or when I had an open forum to share whatever they wanted to tell me. I liked to follow up the next day by asking more questions face-to-face.  It shows students that I took the time to watch their videos and that I care about what they have to say.

What challenges have you and your students faced in connecting with each other now that the classroom is virtual?

The biggest challenge for me is the lack of face-to-face and in-person contact. Students, especially in primary grades, need those high fives, those hugs to feel safe and secure in their learning environment.  

How have you seen your relationships with students evolve during these first few months of the 2020-21 school year?

I believe that over the past four or five months, my students and I have grown together in so many ways. I have seen their confidence and their willingness to do great work rise. I have also noticed that they have taken more interest in my personal life. For example, I was out of school for two days because I was sick and when I returned, they wanted to know if I was okay and if my roommate took care of me while I was home sick. 

What, if anything, from in-person instruction have you been able to carry over to remote instruction in terms of relationship-building?

I have carried over the power of positive praise. Students love when they are praised for working hard and showing up to school. When you give out positive praise, students are more likely to want to continue to hear those positive affirmations, which will lead to them being successful in working. I also work on having my students give out positive praise to one another. I want my students to be empathetic and show kindness to one another, not only in my classroom but also out in the real world.

Do you have any tips for educators looking to strengthen their relationships with students as remote instruction continues?

I have three tips for educators: 

  1. Continue to build relationships both face-to-face and virtually. Students need to feel connected, especially during this unprecedented time.  
  2. Find time to have meaningful conversations. Curriculum and academics are important, but they should not be the only priority.  If you don’t have a relationship with your students, they are less likely to be engaged in learning. 
  3. Just know you are making a difference even though it may not feel like it. 

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About the Author: Mr. Keenan W. Lee, M. Ed, is an African American urban educator in Central Pennsylvania. Mr. Lee specializes in curriculum and instruction with a concentration in Early Childhood Education and is also a certified English as a Second Language (ESL) specialist. Growing up a low socioeconomic area as child, Mr. Lee brings a unique perspective to teaching children and uses his experiences to develop a unique way to build relationships with his students. Currently, Mr. Lee teaches first grade in his urban school district with 6 years of experience with teaching children pre-kindergarten through first grade. Through the use of social media, Mr. Lee has used his platform to bring awareness to the lack of funding in education, social/racial injustices in schools, and the importance of networking with peers to develop a fundamental professional learning community.