Welcome back to a new and glorious year of learning! The setting and world situation for school year 2020-21 is a lot different from last school year. We are all undergoing collective trauma from economic and racial pandemics, various triggers based on personal experiences the last few months, and many anxieties in the face of an uncertain future.

It’s OK to not be OK, celebrate one victory at a time, and allow yourself more grace.

Specifically, many of us are welcoming students back online versus in person with steep learning curves on new technologies. Despite the classroom setting, one thing that will never change in our work as teachers is that of intentionally and strategically building relationships with our students.

As teachers, we are relationship builders, forging connections with families, integrating students’ strengths and interests into the curriculum, and creating a positive learning community between students and their classmates.

Understanding that some of our students just need a “hug” like this little fellow in the linked viral video, we are reminded to prioritize connection, commit to building safe and positive learning environments, and celebrate students’ strengths before speaking of growth.

As a teacher, I would recommend spending at least the first week building relationship rituals, routines for the classroom, and explicit instruction on resilience (online and face to face). The first assessment I would give is not an academic readiness assessment, but rather an interest inventory using a Google form (Teachers Pay Teachers offers dozens that range from free and up) to ensure relevant and engaging learning experiences.

I’m often asked, “How can I add social-emotional learning in a virtual environment?” My response is, “First, connect and build meaningful relationships with students.” Thus, I have prepared a back-to school article all about relationships.

My favorite three quotes on why building relationships before content is important:

“No significant learning can occur without a significant relationship.” — Dr. James Comer

“I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” — Maya Angelou

“It’s the little conversations that build the relationships that make an impact on each student.” — Robert John Meehan

My favorite three videos that highlight the important role a teacher plays in building relationships:

Rita Pierson: As a school team or independently, watch Rita Pierson’s TED Talk and consider the following questions: How can a teacher build relationships? Why are relationships important?

Dalton Sherman keynote speech: What are the results of investing in building relationships with the most reluctant learners? What do our students need most from us? How do you show a student that you care and have high expectations?

Ryan Speedo Green: What does Ryan attribute his success to? How can you become “that” teacher that a child remembers forever?

My favorite three instructional strategies to build relationships:

The beginning of class” matters: Two Word Check-Ins — Use emojis or visual supports to allow students to describe their feelings like Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions and provide students space to share how they are feeling, space to self-regulate their emotions, and what they hope to achieve in the class period. When students believe you care enough about their feelings to devote time and space to, they start to trust you and the learning process.

Student voice” matters: Using Padlet or Jamboard, encourage students to help create rules, norms, and collaborate structures for the class environment. Sort them, share them visually, and facilitate conversations on class expectations. When students believe they have a voice in their classroom, they are more likely to participate and engage in learning experiences.

“Self-efficacy and fun” matter: Find ways to celebrate students, like send snail mail with growth certificates, let students record Flipgrids sharing their successes, and have students tell you something/show you something exciting about their life. Include fun learning days such as wear your favorite socks or goofy hat, bring a sibling to the virtual classroom on Fridays, or eat lunch on Mondays together. When students feel good, they learn and remember instruction longer.

My favorite three resources on building relationships

Zaretta Hammond’s “Culturally responsive teaching and the brain: Promoting authentic engagement and rigor among culturally and linguistically diverse students” provides concrete and tangible ways to reflect on our bias and instructional practices and connect with all of our students.

ASCD’s Whole Child Network is full of free resources and tools for school communities to strengthen social and emotional learning.

Edutopia’s Power of Relationships in Schools shares videos and instructional strategies based on the neuroscience of belonging, connection, and relationships.

Just one intentional action can change a student’s whole day, invigorate them to keep going when they get stuck, or encourage them to sign in online when they don’t want to (we all have these days). As we all connect with families and students, let us remember relationships first, academic content second. Please continue to take of yourselves, so we can take care of our students.

How will you connect with your students today? We want to hear it! Tweet out your response on Twitter to @SavannaFlakes.