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Classroom Connections

Connecting online through technology requires rethinking.

Sue Mylde | @missusem
July 20,  2021
Perspectives

The moment I knew I had connected with my students was when they saw I could laugh at myself. It didn’t happen early in my year – but closer to February, deep into the school year. It was a moment where I offered my ignorance about slangs used in Fortnite, a trend that was popular in my classroom. They offered to teach me, and it was ten minutes of unscheduled bliss. They taught me terms like ‘Lost like Atlantis’, ‘Dogwater’ (don’t ask) and more. I proceeded to use these terms in awkward and inaccurate ways (according to my class), much to their delight. They had a good laugh with (and probably mostly at) me and it was probably one of the best moments ever for me this year.  Welcome to my first year of in-class teaching.

I say ‘in-class’ because I spent my first year as a teacher, as an Ed-Tech Specialist in my school working across all the grades from K-6. The kids loved seeing me in their classroom because I was the fun typing and robotics teacher, and it was easy to build small moments of connection with each of them. By the end of the year, I knew most of the students’ names at my school. This year, however, wasn’t the same.

We teach in a mask, making facial expressions difficult to decipher, and non-verbal communication challenging.
We teach in a mask, making facial expressions difficult to decipher, and non-verbal communication challenging.

The interesting challenges that COVID has put before us, adjusting to the new position for me,  and my first time teaching grade six all had an impact on me. Teaching in a mask, and trying to read your students’ non-verbal cues while they are wearing masks only makes connection slightly more challenging. Sometimes I have to ask my students to repeat their words, so I can hear them. And in my classroom, I actually use a microphone so they can hear me better – and I don’t have to strain my voice.

As pre-service teachers, we are reminded of the importance of relationships – and I imagine it was imprinted on all teachers as they enter the profession. The idea of relationships, how we connect and build rapport with our students, their grown-ups, and of course, our own colleagues. But until you take a breath, take the time and actually work on these relationships, you won’t see their real, positive impacts. A lesson I learnt this year is that connection is not something you can take for granted.

Our connection to each other is foundational to the success of our classrooms – and really, to the success of our schools. Dr. James Comer (1995) said, “No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship.” Could my students learn from me if we didn’t have a strong relationship – yes, perhaps. But it is so much better when they are relaxed, when they trust you, and when they feel acknowledged.  Truly, I felt that the relationship we had as a class was going good – but that day, it went great! And, if I’m honest, it just got better from there.  After enjoying that day of relationship building, I proactively tried to find more opportunities for connection. More impromptu moments to connect – not just with individuals in the classroom but also the whole class together.

It is May 2021 and we are in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and as I write this, we are in our second week of lockdown here in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. If you’ve taught online for even one day this year, you’ll know  that connecting online has a different vibe altogether. You will know to say “unmute yourself” or the opposite “please mute yourself”, but also “please keep your video on” or the iconic “can you hear me?” Being proactive at making connections is important because – well, the students can quite literally turn you off. Teaching online requires a rethinking of how we connect with our students.

In our class, for this online period, I planned for days in which students took the ‘lead’ to organise – something simple as designating a day as ‘Crazy Hair Day’ or ‘Pink and Purple Day’ was simple and fun. One of the students took it upon herself to create a Trivia Kahoot for ‘Kahoot Day’. The class loved it – it wasn’t about teaching as much as connecting. It also felt empowering for students to know that they had some control over what activities we did during our time online together. It wasn’t just about the academics. It was much more important than that, it was about connections.

As we transition back out of this COVID-19 pandemic, and into in-person learning again – hopefully full-time, connection remains key. I really enjoyed the idea behind ‘Moments of Genuine Connection’ as coined by Dave Stuart Jr..  Dave tracks connections he makes with his students more proactively and while this may not be possible every day, I share Dave’s passion for making sure each of our students feel heard, and seen. It is a simple idea – and it works. Every day, as I greet my students, I remember that the simple act of saying their name in kindness is so important. It may be the only time they hear their name said that day.

Search Institute’s (2018) Developmental Relationships Framework, identified five distinct elements necessary to build relationships with youth. These are, “express care, challenge growth, provide support, share power, and expand possibilities.” The actions that fall within these elements are things that you probably do regularly as a teacher. The framework (video link) not only emphasises the importance of these actions, but helps us think about how the combination of these elements can help in encouraging a healthy relationship for us and our students, as well as help support their continual growth and development in our classrooms and schools.

Expand possibilities by talking about the global world. Take them to other places from your classroom.
Expand possibilities by talking about the global world. Take them to other places from your classroom.

Like me, you might already be starting your plans for the next academic year. Making connections will be at the top of my list. I will teach Junior High (Grades 7-9) in the fall and I am excited! Here are some ideas to bear in mind as you make your plans for connection:

1. Make connections early. Plan to get to know the students as much as possible, as early as possible. Their interests, their plans and even their pets. Plan to get to know families too. I love using a quick Google Form for this. It’s quick data gathering and you can set up your form so parents get to share as much information as they like.

2. Plan connecting times during class. Play games (like a get to know you bingo, or a scavenger hunt for interests). Set aside time early on for conversation, so your class gets to know you. Laugh, listen, listen, listen. Students love to be heard. Build trust early on. Remember – express care, challenge growth, provide support, share power, and expand possibilities (Search Institute, 2021).

3. Help students get to know each other. Classroom dynamics become easier if students get along. Solution oriented team building games will help. If you’re online, this might look different – use technology in your favour – breakout rooms, and even scavenger hunts. A little friendly competition with mixed ability groups can help foster team building.

Dr. Jody Carrington, author of ‘Kids These Days’, has a quote that I personally love. “When we are acknowledged, we rise.” Think about that. As grown ups, the moments that we are acknowledged matter so much to us – and the tiny (or not so tiny) humans in our lives are no different. In this acknowledgement lies the seeds of connection, of growth, and knowing you are seen by another. I continue to work on helping all my students rise. And if you’re reading this, thank you for your commitment to connecting with our students – our next generation.


Carrington, J. (2019), Kids These Days: A Game Plan For (Re)Connecting With Those We Teach, Lead, & Love, Friesenpress, Victoria, BC.

Comer, J. (1995), Lecture given at Education Service Center, Region IV, Houston, TX.

Search Institute, (2021), The developmental relationships framework. Retrieved from https://www.search-institute.org/developmental-relationships/developmental-relationships-framework/

Stuart Jr., D. (2018) Moments of genuine connection. Retrieved from https://davestuartjr.com/moments-of-genuine-connection-a-piece-of-paper-a-clipboard-and-a-goal/

Teacher and TEDx speaker, who is passionate about community, Sue (@missusem) is excited in all areas of education, but especially in the spaces where technology meets pedagogy. Originally from Singapore, Sue lives in Calgary, Alberta, Canada with her two children and the love of her life. She teaches at Rundle College (@rundlecollege).

: www.ourhomeroom.ca

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