When I first accepted a job with Florida Virtual School as a kindergarten teacher (almost 3 years ago), I thought there was no way I’d be able to make the same connections with my students as I did in a brick-and-mortar school. I don’t see my students every day and my role as their teacher looks different than a traditional classroom teacher. My students are home school students and I support the home educator, which is typically the student’s mom or dad (although we also have grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc. that serve as home educators). The main chunk of our curriculum is done at home by the student with their home educator. They do have the option to come to live lessons each week, but we recently changed our live lesson setup so my students may not see me each week (even if they’re going to live lessons). The way our live class times work now is the students can choose a live lesson based on the module they’re working on in the curriculum at home. The kindergarten team works together to offer multiple lessons every Tuesday and Thursday in order to reach the most students. This means the students see a different kindergarten teacher depending on which module/lesson they choose. We have rolling enrollment, so our students can begin/end at any time (as long as age requirements are met). Therefore, right now, I have students starting kindergarten and I also have students finishing kindergarten.
How can I possibly make connections with my students that I may or may not see each week? Below are some things I do to build meaningful relationships with my students and their families.
I send a birthday card to my students! Simple, right? I know kids love getting mail and it takes me just a minute to write a quick note to them and stick it in the mailbox. My students don’t live near me in most cases, so sending them something tangible is huge in building a positive rapport with them. And – is there anything more exciting than having a birthday when you’re 5 and 6 years old?!
At the beginning of each month, I write the students who are celebrating birthdays down in my planner so I remember to send them a card the week of their birthday.
(PS: Dollar Tree has very cheap birthday cards. I stock up and keep a bunch on hand so I can mail them easily.)
Notes & Postcards
In addition to birthday cards, I send out motivational postcards, holiday cards, valentines, etc. throughout the year. All together I probably send each student 3-4 pieces of mail while they’re in my class. I always get very positive feedback from the parents and this is a quick (and cheap) way to let them know I’m thinking of them. I also send virtual notes to them during the year, but I think there’s something special about receiving a handwritten note in the mail. I mean, I still get excited when I get a card in the mail!
It’s all in the details…
When I’m speaking with families for our welcome call, I always make sure to take notes about their family. I learn about their pets, family members, and hobbies. Then when I speak with them again, I have those notes to refer to and add to as needed. Let’s be honest, I’m not going to remember each child’s cat’s name and how old their hamster is. But these things are important to them. If I can ask my student how their baseball game went or if their goat, Piper, had her baby yet (yes, this really happened), that is going to mean something to them. When teaching in brick-and-mortar, I didn’t need to keep notes like this. I saw my kids every single day and it was easy for me to just remember these things. In the virtual world, it is a little more challenging for me to remember all the details, but it doesn’t make them any less important to me. I’ve experimented with different methods of taking notes, and recently I decided to go back to paper and pen (as opposed to an Excel spreadsheet). I spend a lot of time on the phone with my families, so having a note-taking system is something I’m working on perfecting.
I always encourage my families to send me pictures that they want to share. Since I can’t see my kiddos every day, I love to be able to see what they’re up to and the things they like. This past week I’ve gotten pictures of dolphins swimming in my student’s “backyard” (she’s so lucky…), a trip to New York and first plane ride, and an audition for a TV show – how cool, right? I have found my students love letting me into their lives. I share the pictures my students send me during live lessons and I also share pictures of my own family and our adventures. My students know my children’s names and how old they are and the things I like to do. If I do something fun, I always make sure to share a picture with them. Just like in a traditional classroom, your students love to hear about the things you do outside of school.
One very simple, yet effective, strategy for building relationships is just chatting with my kids. After class I’ll often turn their microphones/cameras on and let them tell me whatever they want to share. Just like in brick-and-mortar, a kindergartner loves to share what they did last weekend, that they have a loose tooth, or show you their pet or new favorite toy. Spending just a few minutes after our live class times makes a huge difference. I also have students that love to hop on the phone with me and chat. These moments are little harder to come by in the virtual world, so I have to create opportunities to just listen to my students.
Recorded Read Alouds
Something else I do is record a read aloud each week (most weeks) to email to my students. Sometimes it’s a book that goes with the current time of year or just a great book I want to make sure they get the chance to read. It’s sometimes hard to fit this in during our limited live lesson time. I love it because it not only exposes my kiddos to more books, but it is yet another opportunity to strengthen our relationship. If you want to know more about reading in the virtual classroom, check out my previous post here.
Why is it important to build relationships as a virtual teacher?
Just like in a brick-and-mortar school, students thrive on positive relationships. Our situation is unique because I’m not their only teacher; the students are working and learning with their home educators. However, having a strong connection with my students (and their families) makes my job more enjoyable (I love getting to know them) but also EASIER. When I have to make a more difficult phone call to a family about being behind in a course, for example, that call is much better received when I’ve established that positive foundation with them. My kindergartners are more likely to want to work for Mrs. Piper if they actually know who I am and know that I care.
Some future plans I have for the upcoming school year include starting a “lunch bunch” where the kids can come and have lunch with me. A few virtual teachers I know have tried this and it’s been successful. I really like this idea since my kids may not be with me in live lessons, depending on where they are in their courses. This will give me the opportunity to get to know them more and foster these valuable teacher-student relationships.
If you have any ideas for other ways to build relationships, please share below!