Even in Virtual Classrooms, Teachers Build Bonds that Help Students Learn
By Daniele Massey
A little over a month ago, Shanice, a senior in my Financial Literacy class, shared with me her fear that she will most likely not graduate with her class. Retaking a math class for the second time, she was still not passing. Since the class is required for graduation, Shanice told me, "I have lost hope."
I felt frustrated, sad and limited in my ability to help her. This year is my first year as a virtual teacher; I have never met Shanice or any of my high school students face-to-face. They all live in a different state than I--most are different countries. While Shanice poured out her heart to me in an email, I desperately wanted her to feel my compassion for her struggle and my commitment toward her success.
Twelve years of teaching in a brick-and-mortar school has proven to me that building relationships with my students is critical to their learning. Now, in a virtual school, I struggle to build a meaningful student-teacher relationship reaching the same impact in digital environment. A flood of questions came over me as I composed messages to Shanice. Could she, perhaps, feel more comfortable opening up to me through the anonymity of our virtual relationship? Will she know how much I care about her?
All year I put forth every effort to connect to my students. I make personal video messages to every student from my home office to give them an opportunity to get a glimpse of who I am as a person beyond being their teacher. (My kindergartener even made a cameo appearance). The videos aren't perfect, but I send them anyway because it is important for the students to know me as more than an email address.
It does not matter that I am teaching online, or a new grade, or a new subject, it is the students that drive the different approach. Teaching online has been a catalyst for me to reexamine the ways I build relationships, but has not altered my commitment as a teacher, to make sure every student knows I am there for them every step of the way. I will continue to challenge myself to keep relationships at the top of my priority list to ensure success for my students.
That moment with Shanice forced me to question my role as a teacher in a virtual classroom, wondering if I am making real connections. It was not until a few days later that I had clarity. She wrote to me, "You gave me hope when I was ready to give up. You were there when I was at my lowest, and now you're here when I'm shining."
Shanice graduated Sunday, May 29.
Daniele Massey is the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) 2013 Teacher of the Year. She currently teaches financial literacy to military connected students around the world at a virtual school in Quantico, Virginia.