Building Relationships Remotely

As a teacher of 25 years, it took me an embarrassingly long time to realize that relationships with each and every student were crucial. I’d been taught HOW to teach, but I come from the era when teaching was something that we did TO students, not WITH. I come from the era that was taught to call students by their last name, and I come from the era that was told that we shouldn’t smile until Winter Break!

Thankfully things have changed and I now know that I have to be 100% there for 100% of my students. Since that realization, teaching has become more rewarding, and I am more passionate about education now than I was at the start of my career.

Students who have a connection with an adult in the building, those who feel like they are a part of the school community, are more likely to engage in healthy behaviors and succeed academically. Those same students have better attendance, remain in education for longer, have a reduced incidence of sex, alcohol, drugs, and violence. This is all the more important for our at-risk students, with those at greater risk for feeling disconnected being students with disabilities, our LGBTQ+ students, students who are homeless or any student who is chronically truant due to a variety of circumstances.

Connecting with students during a stay-at-home period at the start of the new school year is causing teachers much anxiety and there are repeated calls for ideas and activities on social media. If you are looking for the ONE activity that will allow you to build a great relationship with your students, then you have come to the wrong place. Relationship building is important and has to be done right. It’s not a one-and-done activity, it is a continual process that is refined after every interaction with your students. At the start of year 25, I will be spending more time on relationship building with my students than ever before. I’ve always put heart before head, connection before content, and see each lesson through a relationship-building lens.

Getting Started – Let’s Talk.

For the first time in my career, both my students and I will have had similar experiences, and it’s important that we spend time addressing that. I want to hear from my students how their pandemic experience has been. I want to know how it shaped their learning at the end of last school year, how it has impacted their family through the summer, and how we can use that information to move forward this year in health class. I also want to allow my students to address the recent protests and encourage them to have difficult conversations about race and inequity as you can be certain that I will be looking at the social determinants of health later in the school year!

Should you talk about the pandemic in your class?

Setting Expectations – Together.

At the start of the school year it’s important to identify shared zoom and classroom rules and expectations and I believe that these should be created with our students, and not before our students arrive on day one. It never ceases to amaze me the number of teachers who proudly display their laminated class rules posters on social media before the school year starts. Although I commend these teachers for being so organized, I do question the power dynamic that these posters set up. I believe that these posters inform students that I the teacher have created these rules and you the student will abide by these rules, without discussion.

I want my students to be successful and I want them to take ownership of that learning. I do not want to police my students, give them a Zoom dress code, insist that they make eye contact or even keep the Zoom camera open at all times. I want my students to be comfortable, become passionate about my subject, and look forward to engaging in my lessons.

This activity NEVER lets me down. It allows me to work WITH my students to set up the conditions in which we will be successful in our time together. It works wonders in the classroom and can be done in small Zoom break out groups allowing students to have their voices heard and be involved in decision making.

STILL looking for Zoom expectations? I like these from Joey Feith.

Introductions – What’s YOUR Philosophy?

In the first lesson I make sure that all students are present and that I know their preferred name. This blog post explains how and why I spend so long getting to learn every student name.

I used to think that sharing personal details about myself was irrelevant but now I let students know a little about journey as an educator (my British accent inevitably leads to questions!). It’s also important for me to let students know about my passion for my subject, why my subject is important and a little about my teaching philosophy. By the end of our time together my students will be able to tell you that I am guided by a quote from a student of mine who said “In Health, it’s not just about getting an A in class, it’s about getting an A in life”. I teach the long game. I’ve moved away from playing the short game, hoping for a successful semester, and now focus on the long game, preparing my students for a successful lifetime.

This ‘Virtual Meet the Teacher’ presentation from Kim Huls is a cool way to introduce yourself to student.

Surveying Students – What Do We Have In Common?

Things I want to be mindful of when surveying my students include – is my survey relevant, am I asking pertinent questions, and will it help our initial relationship building? Do you have any pets, what’s your favorite color etc might be of interest, but do they REALLY help move your relationship forward in these early days? You are likely to find that type of information out as the school year progresses.

Here is an amazing tool from Panorama Education for surveying students. It takes about 10 minutes of your time to complete the survey as a teacher and then you forward the link to your students who take the same survey. As soon as they click ‘send’ they are given a short report identifying FIVE THINGS THEY HAVE IN COMMON WITH YOU! They are asked some follow-up questions to consider our future relationship and you as the teacher are informed of a new response that looks something like this (I asked my wife to pretend to be an incoming student!).


As each response comes in, the teacher is asked a different reflection prompt. This immediately gives you an opportunity to start a ‘warm’ conversation, or find ways in which I can incorporate a student experience or response into my lessons.

Reflection Questions – Tell Me More.

As these initial lessons for many teachers will be online, another way in which to get students thinking about how they want to engage in my class is to give them discussion prompts that could also be turned into written reflections. I’ve taken 5 questions from this blog post by George Couros and added two of my own. I like these questions because they’ll allow me to get a sense of the class as a whole. I’m particularly interested to hear about previous experiences of health class so that I know which approach I need to take in my initial lessons. Does this group have an advanced appreciation of what health is, or is their view quite simplistic?

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These questions make for good writing prompts, but could also be used in small Zoom break out groups with the group reporting back on their views to the class as a whole.

Five Minute Chats with Students – Smaller Settings for Bigger Results.

If I was teaching in-person, I would be moving around the room, engaging individually with students, greeting them as they enter the classroom, or having more personal conversations with those last to leave the lesson. If you are teaching remotely, do yourself a favor and don’t try to teach all of the students all of the time. Consider teaching smaller groups synchronously while the others are working asynchronously. Utilizing the small groups on Zoom is a great way of making students comfortable talking within a less public setting.

This downloadable pdf provides a great template for you to have individual chats with your students. The document suggests that teachers should plan to connect with each student individually during the first weeks of school and periodically throughout the year.

Personalize the Curriculum – Can Each Student See Themselves?

I’m lucky that my subject can be personalized and everything we cover in terms of content and skills can be applied to students lives. With that in mind, I try and make all of my writing assignments open ended, encouraging my students to see themselves within my curriculum. I have a writing assignment that I do within the first two weeks that asks students the following question:

When it’s all done and dusted, and you’ve lived a healthy, happy and productive life, how do you wish to be remembered? What will people say about you, what words will they use to describe you, what will you have achieved that made the most impact?

The students responses are nearly always amazing and essentially what students have given me is what their “A in life” looks like. They’ve given me the rubric for their long, healthy and happy life. What I need to do now is identify the behaviors and skills needed to allow students to get that A grade and make sure that I address those in class. This blog post explains this task more fully and includes examples of student work and additional ways in which this activity allows me to tailor my teaching to the needs of my students.

I’ve also addressed this in my physical education classes and blogged about the experience.

Music Makes The World Go Round

I’ve seen it recommended that teachers play music while students are logging onto Zoom meetings. This makes the initial few minutes less awkward. Consider asking your students to contribute songs to a shared class playlist. See an example at the end of this blog post – songs contributed by my junior/senior class.

Zoom-Friendly Warm-Ups and Ice Breakers from Eugene Korsunskiy

Have A Routine

This will be the first time that I’ve greeted new students for the first time, while teaching remotely, AND my school just switched to a block schedule for the first time. I am going to be more planned this year than ever before and if I want students to feel comfortable, to feel like they know what’s going on, and to look forward to my classes I NEED to have a routine. I’ll start lessons the same way – perhaps use this ice breaker activity using cell phones – and chunk my classes efficiently.  Although tailored towards elementary students, this Edutopia article shares the idea of using morning messages to welcome students to school and help reinforce academic skills.

And while we’re talking about being planned and communicating effectively, I am going to ensure that not only do my students know what is coming up in class this week, I am going to reach out to families more regularly. I had more than a few occasions during last semester when students fell behind in their work. It was only when I called home that I found out that the student was saying one thing, and the truth was something completely different. Students need support and if we are still teaching remotely many of those students are without the regular support that they have within the school building.

Remember, Relationships Exist Outside the Classroom

I work hard to build community and I model relationship-building whenever possible. The ‘Plus-One Better Challenge’ is an activity that I do with my students which ALWAYS gives me the warm and fuzzies. It’s practically scientifically proven to boost connection and flood brains with feel-good hormones.

Once students have identified someone who a) would like to hear from them, b) they would like to hear from, or c) they haven’t heard from in a long time, they go through the simple steps of the challenge. EVERY time I do this activity the room is filled with smiles and laughter and the wonderful thing about this challenge is that students can stop me in the hallway at any time and reinforce our relationship by taking the challenge with me.

It’s the Little Things…

I’ll cut and paste two tweets that highlight how the little things can make a big difference. Birthday wishes and postcards.

Some Great Additional Documents

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a downloadable document with a wealth of strategies to increase students’ feelings of connectedness to school.

Belonging and Emotional Safety from CASEL.

Relationship Mapping Strategy from Harvard Graduate School of Education, a strategy that helps ensure that each student has a relationship with at least one caring adult in school. This can also be done virtually.

Reunite, Renew and Thrive: SEL Roadmap for Reopening School from CASEL. This amazing SEL Roadmap offers four SEL Critical Practices, each with 3-5 activities. Within each activity, users are guided through Essential Questions, Actions to Prepare & Implement, and Tools to Support the Actions.

Learn With Albert created an awesome document titled How to Build Relationships Virtually: The Ultimate Guide for Teachers.

How might I create safe virtual spaces where students feel accepted and connected? by Isabel Morales, EdD  (edited by Becky Foellmer to apply to Health & PE teachers)

4 Ideas for Building Relationships During Remote Learning by George Couros.

And Finally….

I’ve been impressed with the way in which organizations have provided free virtual professional development over the past few months. I recently presented for the Ohio Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance on the topic of Making Connections with Students in Health & Physical Education. There’s so much more on relationship building in this presentation and the slides have a wealth of links to extended reading. Below you can watch the presentation, and to view the presentation slides, click here.

Here’s that student-generated playlist. I love playlists!

5 thoughts on “Building Relationships Remotely

  1. Betsey Caldwell

    Brillant blog post and reflection, Andy! I’m right there with you. This year weather remote or hybrid, I have my work cut out for me in year 2 at my school, especially since last spring had such a monkey wrench in it!


  2. Pingback: Goal Setting In The Pandemic – #slowchathealth

  3. Pingback: 2020 A Year in Review – #slowchathealth

  4. Pingback: Meet the Teacher – #slowchathealth

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