Listen to my interview with Dave Stuart Jr. (transcript):
If you’re reading this in August of 2020, you’re most likely in the midst of juggling a hundred different things right now. You’re managing all the messy details of starting a new school year under constantly changing circumstances. You’re scrambling for resources. You’re debating the pros and cons of various reopening scenarios. You’re wondering how any of this can possibly be accomplished, and deep inside you’re pretty sure it can’t.
As all of this swirls around us, it can help if we stop, get very quiet, and focus on one thing, arguably the most important thing we need to accomplish as we move forward into the school year: building relationships with our students. While this goal is important during any school year, in 2020 it’s crucial. This virus has robbed us all of the human connections that help us to grow, support us through hard times, and make life on this planet so rich. For students whose home lives are not always safe, lockdowns have introduced trauma that regular school attendance may have prevented. We’re all still hurting. And we’re still not out of the woods.
If you’re one of many teachers who will be starting the school year online, or if you end up returning to online instruction at some point during the year, making those connections will be more challenging than in a face-to-face classroom.
To help you navigate this change, I invited Dave Stuart Jr. to share one of his most effective strategies for connecting with students. Stuart is a high school English teacher who helps teachers do their work better through his website, books, and online courses for teachers on student motivation, time management, and classroom management. His newest offering is a free mini-course, 10 Tips for Staying Motivated When Teaching in Times of Uncertainty. You can find all of his courses at cultofpedagogy.com/dave. (I am an affiliate for all of Stuart’s courses, so if you enroll in any of his paid courses through my link, I receive a small commission.)
I have been a fan of Stuart’s work for years now. Not only is he a really likable guy, but he goes pretty deep with his work, making sure he understands the research behind the principles he encourages in the classroom.
We’re going to focus on one specific strategy Stuart uses for building relationships with his students. He calls it making Moments of Genuine Connection (MGCs), which are just one small part of his overall approach to building trust in his classroom. First we’ll look at the strategy in general, and then we’ll explore some ways to make these moments happen in remote teaching situations.
What are Moments of Genuine Connection?
Stuart developed this approach out of necessity. He knew how important relationship building was, but the time it took to do it well was overwhelming.
“The first three years of my career,” he says, “I would spend 10, 15 hours per week solely focused on building relationships with students…before school, after school, during lunch. Massive amounts of time, time that I could not invest into feedback on student work or planning lessons.”
Needing a more efficient approach, he started experimenting with shorter interactions, limiting them to just 1 to 3 minutes, and tried to see how many students he could realistically and genuinely connect with in a day. It ended up working really well, allowing him to make many more students “feel valued, known, respected, and safe.”
Now, years later, Stuart has established clearer protocols for MGCs. To work best, your MGCs should fit these criteria:
- MOMENTS. In other words, brief. No more than 3 minutes each.
- GENUINE. You have to mean what you say. “We as teachers work hard in our hearts to actually want to connect with our students, to actually like them,” Stuart says. “Not every personality fits nicely with every other personality. MGCs call upon the teacher to do some inside work, some self-examination when negative feelings crop up with students.”
- CONNECTION. “What you’re after in these encounters is that set of feelings: valued, known, respected,” Stuart says. “So we call out specific things that we notice about the child, specific things that we know about them from information that they’ve given us.”
- EMBEDDED, NOT EXTRA. The moments are embedded inside the work you’re already doing as a teacher. “So they’re before class, right after class, during independent work.”
- TRACKED. Stuart keeps track of the MGCs using a class roster on a clipboard—jotting a few brief notes about the encounter—and doesn’t allow himself to start a fresh sheet until he has attempted an MGC with each student. Notice the word attempted: Stuart doesn’t insist on a successful connection every time and knows they may sometimes be awkward; he just holds himself accountable for trying. “We can’t control the emotions of a child,” he says. “We can just try to influence them in a direction that’s going to help them and us.”
- PERSONAL AND ACADEMIC. Attempt connections about both personal and academic topics.
Ways to Create MGCs Online
Zoom offers a feature called Waiting Rooms, which allow a moderator to hold all participants in one space and only admit them into the conference one at a time. If you conduct synchronous class meetings, you can use this feature to have quick chats with a few students as they enter the larger space (this may work especially well with those who arrive early) or use the private chat feature to welcome them and add an MGC while you’re at it.
If you’re using another videoconferencing tool, look for a feature similar to this or brainstorm with your colleagues how you might creatively make something like this happen within your current platform.
Brief Office Hours
Consider requiring students to attend office hours via videoconferencing a few times per semester. If you schedule students in small batches, maybe alphabetically by last name, you can meet with each student for just a few minutes at a time and make those meaningful connections that way.
Embedded in Feedback
When you give students feedback on their work, many digital tools will allow you to attach audio or video clips to that feedback, and audio feedback in particular has been found to have a much more powerful impact on student work than its written equivalent.
So instead of setting aside extra time for an MGC, just add it on to the feedback you’re already giving to students. “Give audio feedback on student work,” Stuart says, “and go ahead and tag at the front or the back of that, Hey, I really appreciate the growth that I’m seeing in your writing, and I’ve noticed it.“
Stuart picked up this idea from community college instructors who have years of online teaching under their belts. It’s built on the idea of “video postcards” teachers send to all students at once. “It’s you in a place outside of school, going about your life where you just say, Hey, I’m thinking about all of you guys.”
These videos could be done occasionally for individual students. Although Stuart admits this would be more work than other methods, it may be worth the effort every once in a while, and creative, tech-savvy teachers may be able to find ways to make it more efficient.
For students who do not have reliable internet connections, or with whom other attempts have not been successful, your best bet may be to pick up the phone and call.
“They don’t need to be long at all,” Stuart says. “They can simply be a Hey, I’m checking in. Is anything getting in the way of your learning right now? And then, I just want you to know that I was thinking about this thing that we talked about previously. Or, I think you’re really going to like what’s coming up due to the interests that you shared on your survey.”
If you’re struggling to wrap your head around the upcoming school year, check out Dave’s free mini-course, 10 Tips for Staying Motivated When Teaching in Times of Uncertainty. You can learn more about all of Dave’s online courses at cultofpedagogy.com/dave (affiliate link).