How Can We Build Community During Virtual Learning?

Voices from the Field   09 September 2020
By Josh Ecker, Salisbury Township School District


…Even if we can’t help students solve every problem they face, or be with them in person, we can show we care and that we are one of many people in their community of support.

Josh Ecker

As a student, this time of year always provoked in me a nervous excitement about the promise of new opportunities and new teachers, tempered by the stress of uncertainty. Would I have classes with my friends? Would there be even more homework this year?

As a teacher, I’ve learned these feelings don’t really go away. Who will I be teaching? How will I provide powerful learning experiences?

The events of this year have only amplified and complicated these emotions: a global pandemic, protests in response to racial and social injustice, and a deeply partisan and divisive political climate are all contributing to the emotional burden felt by teachers, students, and families.

Compounding this heightened anxiety is the fact that we can’t safely engage in face-to-face social interactions—undoubtedly the best tool for establishing emotionally supportive relationships. But, the absence of face-to-face interaction doesn’t mean we can’t still build those relationships and a sense of community with our students.

I’ve had the unique opportunity this year to see how this can be accomplished both as a student (enrolled in an online graduate program) and as a teacher. Here are some of the strategies I’ve found helpful in building a strong and supportive virtual community.

Supporting students holistically as they adjust to online learning

We all must begin this academic year by acknowledging how individually challenging life has been for everyone. And, the many new challenges that will inevitably be tied to the start of this school year. Providing an open space for this individual reflection and collective connection signals to everyone in the learning community that you are, in fact, a community. With this foundation in place, we can broaden our focus. 

It will take time for learners (especially younger learners) to adjust and build the skills they need to successfully navigate learning in an online environment. More than ever, learner-centered educators need to support students in developing self-regulation skills, which is vital to cultivating independent, empowered learners. 

This support extends to helping students design their virtual work environment and organize their time—while being present to the unique circumstances each learner is facing. Maybe they are lucky enough to have their own room where they can set up a work space, or maybe it’s as minimal as them putting on headphones and going to the quietest corner of their house or apartment. Whatever is available to each student, be a collaborative partner in ensuring their physical environment is the best possible option for their learning journey this fall.

Regarding time management, think about how we can encourage young people to develop the habit of learning at their own, manageable pace. Be intentional about removing the pressure to maintain what we all know to be an unsustainable level of focus and engagement throughout the day—learners need time to recharge and refocus, not to mention play, stretch, eat, and engage with others in their household. 

Lastly, consider how you might help learners effectively communicate their needs to you and their parents. The most important thing is that, even if we can’t help students solve every problem they face, or be with them in person, we can show we care and that we are one of many people in their community of support.

Engaging families like never before

Imagine being a first-year teacher, except you haven’t received any formal training, and, worse, you didn’t even sign up for the job. This is the reality many parents and guardians have been thrust into and why, understandably, many are as stressed as teachers about this school year. 

We can’t expect them to provide constant hands-on support for their children, especially those who have to leave home for work every day. Still, families are inevitably playing a larger role in their child’s education, and their involvement is vital to sustaining a supportive community around young people. We need to help parents navigate this new role by providing the resources to effectively and efficiently guide their children.

There are many ways of connecting with families; the key is to make the effort and reach out. Pick up the phone and call. Sent to voicemail? Leave a message and call again tomorrow. And, the next day. And, the next day after that until you are able to have a conversation and gain an understanding about the support each family needs. Keep that connection going throughout the academic year as all of our contexts—pandemic or no pandemic—are constantly changing.

Using technology to make online learning more human

In our current global context, in which many of us cannot safely share the same physical space, technology has the power to keep us connected and humanize virtual learning. Our learners are the YouTube generation —digital experiences and making virtual connections are a normal part of their lives. How can we lean into their expertise and experience to improve distance learning? 

As a student myself, I feel more engaged when watching educational videos that include the speaker’s face in a little box or bubble. Maybe it feels more like being in an actual conversation; maybe it’s being able to pick up on a speaker’s nonverbal communication cues. Either way, seeing the human behind the lesson is a simple, yet meaningful, way for learners to feel a stronger connection with their teachers (even if the lesson is pre-recorded).

Initially, recording myself on video and sending it out into the world felt uncomfortable. It requires vulnerability, and talking to a camera in an empty room is disorienting. Once you understand that the initial discomfort is part of the process and has a greater purpose, you’ll discover it’s worth it. (Bonus: consider how talking to your students about overcoming your own discomfort will help build community as well.)

We need to help students (and families) feel like they know who we are and feel like they’re interacting with another human being, not just a computer. It will get easier and more natural over time, but the only place to start is by pressing record and repeating what you want to say a million times until it sounds (and feels) normal and complete.

Is this year going to be challenging? Yes. Will we be figuring out a lot along the way? Definitely. Will we strive to support every one of our learners to the best of our ability and then some? You bet. 

This is a kairos moment in which we have an opportunity to redefine how we build community, and if we leverage this moment, we can make our educational communities stronger and more connected than ever before.

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