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Building Relationships in a Contact-Free Classroom

A lot of the discussion surrounding back to school has been technical in nature - understandably. Obviously, we need to figure out the logistics of how to run schools safely and effectively in the midst of a pandemic. Beyond the tiny details and policies lies the question of how to create good educational experiences regardless of restrictions. I truly believe that in order to create these experiences, relationships are the key to EVERYTHING.

It feels counter productive to focus on teaching content without first establishing an environment where students feel safe and loved. The importance of building relationships goes back to the idea that kids don't care how much you know until they know how much you care. Research shows that students learn best when they are in an environment where they feel valued and safe, both physically and emotionally.

It’s been a hard year and students are going to need safety and belonging over curriculum. They need to feel safe in a completely new and unprecedented environment and we as teachers can help create that safe space in the classroom by building and maintaining positive relationships.⁠ Every interaction is an opportunity to make that connection and make sure we are meeting each students' needs as best we can.⁠

So knowing all this, how can we build these relationships in a classroom community that is required to be physically distant? Luckily, small actions can make a big difference! Here are a few things that have worked for in the past and some ideas on how to modify them for our new reality.

Morning Greetings

I LOVE starting the day with morning greetings! I started doing this three years ago and have never looked back. Studies show that starting the day with a personalized greeting promotes feelings of belonging helps all students feel valued. You never know how the student's day began at home, so giving them an opportunity to start the day on a positive note is super important. My normal morning greetings involve physical contact like high fives or fist bumps.

Obviously with social distancing policies in place, this is not going to work, but I don't want to cut it out entirely. After the past few months, making connections with students is going to be our biggest task as teachers this year.⁠ To be able to continue this practice, I made these Minimal Contact Salutations du matin with options like thumbs up, long distance hugs and air high fives! It's also editable so you can pick and choose which greetings work for you and your students. One study even found that when teachers started class by welcoming students at the door, academic engagement increased by 20% and disruptive behaviour decreased by 9% (Cook et al., 2018). With those results, seems like a no brainer to me!

Making Time for What Matters

It's so easy to get caught up in a race to get through all the curriculum and forget to focus on those small moments where we can make those student connections. I know we still have to teach the content, so it's important to reflect on your daily routine and see if there are any moments in your day that you can replace with 'making connections time'. I used to spend the first 10-15 minutes of the day having students do independent reading while I checked to see if there were any notes in the agenda, do attendance, all of that teacher admin stuff. I realized that this was basically 'fluff' time and focused on using this time more effectively to make student connections.

While I still have students come in and begin independent reading as an entry routine, I make sure that I spend only 5 minutes doing the morning admin stuff and then take the remaining 5 minutes to engage with my students. I originally followed the 2x10 plan (i.e., speaking to a student for 2 mins for 10 days in a row), but I found there was too much time between students. So instead, I aim to speak to 2-3 students every morning about their interests and what their weekend or night was like - there is nothing students love more than to find something in common with you! One of my students made me promise to wear Raptors gear with him for every playoff game once we discovered our common love of Kyle Lowry :) This is one of the few ways we can build relationships that we can do with no restrictions or changes during COVID.

Socio-Emotional Learning

Studies show that when students are able to identify and manage their emotions, they are more resilient and feel a greater sense of belonging. This can be challenging for some students, so having a routine established where students have a forum to talk about how they're feeling and discuss different coping strategies. Acknowledging that it's okay to feel what some people consider 'negative' emotions is so important, especially in today's current climate where students are potentially dealing with increased anxiety and stress even just coming to school.

One thing I like to do is have students talk about how they're feeling during our morning meeting. This way we get to work on oral communication, vocabulary AND build socio-emotional skills all at the same time. I use this Comment te sens-tu aujourd'hui? product where students get to choose the character that most resembles them and then they place it next to the poster saying how they feel. This year, I may do it a little differently where the student says how they feel and then I'll place their character for them to reduce students touching the same area. These discussions are a great time to practice specific coping strategies, like deep breathing or being physically active, together as a class.

Share Yourself

Storytelling is one of the easiest ways to connect with students. Students love to hear stories of when I was a kid and went through many of the same struggles they are currently experiencing. Even something as simple as sharing something that you like helps students feel like you are more than just an authority figure. I used to do competitive gymnastics and I often use stories of how many times I fell during a competition or bailed during practice, so that my students understand that challenges are just part of the journey to success for everyone.

I really didn't realize how much these little pieces of my life that I shared with my students were such an integral part of the teacher-student connection until distance learning happened last year. I sent home the 'Flat Teacher' project (or as we called it Mme Stair-plat :p) and so many of my students sent pictures of them 'drinking' coffee with Mme Stair-plat, doing gymnastics together with their Barbies or bringing Mme Stair-plat along on bike rides. Knowing these small, seemingly inconsequential details about my life helped my students feel connected even when we were far apart.

To Sum It Up

When you build relationships in the classroom, students work harder, behavioural issues disappear, and school becomes a much happier place—for students and teachers. This is going to be super important this year and we have to be creative in finding ways to connect with students in a contact-free world.

Stay tuned...

Next week, by popular request, I'll be sharing some ideas about how to move primary literacy centres OUTDOORS!

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