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How to Reinforce the Teacher-Student Relationship, Even When You're Apart

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How can we capitalize on the relationships that we built with students when we were in school to encourage them to engage deeply with their distance learning?

One of my favorite TED Talks ever is by Rita Pierson, a lifelong educator who summed up a lot of teaching wisdom in one sentence: Kids don't learn from people they don't like.

Rita's point was not that we should put on a show for our students or praise them to the heavens or pretend we're hipper than we are.

Rita's point was, simply, that teaching and learning are all about relationships. Students learn best from teachers who care about them. 

For years, I've been talking to expert educators who say exactly the same thing. And there is solid scientific research that, in fact, stronger student-teacher relationships predict both higher academic achievement and fewer disciplinary problems.

Now that you can't high-five students as they walk into your classroom or catch them after class to ask how they've been doing, how do you send the message that you care? How do you tell them that because you care, you want them to engage deeply in learning—even when doing so is for many students dramatically more difficult at home than in the classroom?

I think the most straightforward approach is the best. Tell your students directly what's on your mind. Be explicit. If you've been losing sleep about how little learning you see, tell them so. If video calls with your students are the highlight of your day, share that at the start of your next one. And if you know a certain student can do better, send them an email with suggestions for improvement, adding, "P.S. I'm giving you this feedback because I have high standards and know you can achieve them."

I'm going to let Rita, who passed away not long after that wise and wonderful TED Talk, have the last word: 

Teaching and learning should bring joy. How powerful would our world be if we had kids who were not afraid to take risks, who were not afraid to think, and who had a champion? Every child deserves a champion, an adult who will never give up on them, who understands the power of connection, and insists that they become the best that they can possibly be.

Angela Duckworth, the founder and CEO of the education nonprofit Character Lab, is a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. You can follow Character Lab on Twitter @TheCharacterLab.


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