Skip to main content

For teachers, physical absence is no barrier to emotional presence

By August 17, 2020No Comments

As we begin (or for our Australian colleagues, continue) a school year unlike any in memory, I’m reminding our partner schools that good instruction is good instruction regardless of the location or platform where the teaching and learning happen. Of course, “good” is a subjective term, so how do I define good instruction? One concept has been my guiding light and always will be, regardless of what challenges the universe throws our way: Relationships.

Practically everything that schools care about and can measure—including grades, attendance, engagement, and behavior—is associated with student-teacher relationships. Being physically distant from students may not be the way most of us would prefer to build relationships, but it need not be an obstacle either. If I had to choose between a teacher who is physically present but emotionally absent, or one who is physically absent but emotionally present, I’d pick the latter in a heartbeat and I think most parents would too.

Healthy relationships don’t form naturally just because we are in the same room; they require effort. So in the online coaching and professional learning sessions that I’ve led over the last several weeks, I’ve emphasized ways to view online learning not as a barrier but as a bridge to building relationships. Some of the techniques I’m recommending are:

  • Have a plan for checking in with students every day or every period. In secondary schools, where scheduling can be complex, students can be involved in taking responsibility for keeping communication open.
  • Be sensitive to family dynamics when managing synchronous and asynchronous lessons. If the adults’ work schedules are demanding, the oldest child has caregiving responsibilities, and all the kids in the house need to share an internet device, being a stickler for deadlines just isn’t going to help anyone.
  • Schedule “office hours” so students and caregivers can reach you as needed.
  • Ask students and families which “touchpoints” are most effective for them (text? email? phone? video chat?) and use as many as you can manage.

The most significant thing I share with teachers is the importance of student talk versus teacher talk. Creating opportunities in a crowded classroom for every student to be heard—including those simultaneously acquiring academic language and English—is a necessity for any teacher. For ways to accomplish this I’ve been leaning heavily on my colleague Jane Hill’s work on fine-tuning McREL’s Classroom Instruction That Works® for English learners. Jane teaches the importance of academic talk, and this can still be the norm when teaching and learning in a virtual setting as students collaborate in breakout rooms. The great part about having students in virtual breakout rooms is the teacher can rotate in and out of each room, listening to students talk as they process their new learning.

Jane also emphasizes the value of using nonlinguistic representation, which happens to translate splendidly to online learning because there are myriad online platforms where every student can create and share their understanding of concepts, vocabulary, and content. And to circle back to the significance of relationships, the purpose of all this talk is not solely to absorb x amount of content, but to build a great learning environment.

This school year is going to be unlike any we have experienced. Remember to prioritize your students’ interests and the power of the student-teacher relationship as you create learning opportunities and special memories that will last a lifetime.

Cheryl Abla is a former elementary school teacher and now develops workshops and trainings with McREL International for K–12 teachers on research-based instructional strategies in the areas of instructional technology, English language learners, and culture and climate. She also consults on technology integration, technology leadership, and classroom observations. She is a co-author of Tools for Classroom Instruction That Works, which takes the research and provides easy-to-use tools to help get the strategies into the classroom on a daily basis.

McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.