First Contact

John C. Maxwell has a lot of great advice and I think of this saying every day! It really is the first step in teaching: the student-teacher relationship. Today I’d like to talk about starting to build that relationship in an online environment.

As a parent of two young adults now living and working on their own, we text regularly. But, it takes getting them on the phone and hearing their voices for me to really know how they are doing.  Being separated by a couple hundred miles from both of them during the covid shutdown, we started meeting weekly on FaceTime. I promised to keep our calls to 15 minutes on Sunday nights. This provided enough time to check in and share updates without burdening their independent lives. Their smiles gave me comfort and if something was wrong, I would be able to see it. They both admitted that they appreciated how mom and dad were checking on them. A text or email would not have done any of that.

As an online teacher, I need that contact with my students as well. I need to have a relationship with them outside of live sessions and the flurry of announcements and emails I send. The personal contact is the first sign of showing them I care. The initial outreach sets a foundation and continuous and consistent contact builds from there. It sets the stage for a positive, productive year. If issues or problems arise, I am a known and caring entity working for a solution.

With many districts planning on starting the 2020-21 school year with distance learning, teachers will be working with a new group of students and will need to get them on the right track quickly.  Teachers need to dedicate the first day of class to set expectations and time in the first week for students to get to know each other as well.

In addition, prioritize time to make welcome phone calls or hold video conferences.  This is a chance to initiate a 1:1 relationship as well as a time to determine a means for ongoing communication, gauge the student’s readiness for the online environment, and make sure the student knows how to get started.

Here’s some thoughts to cover:

Introductions and Welcome

  • A personal welcome sets the stage that you are available and approachable.
  • Your tone matters – smile while you talk.
  • Asking student interests and hobbies will plant some ideas for how to make content relatable to the student and extend to the class as well as identify common interests.

Establish the means to contact the parent and/or student and set an ongoing communication plan

  • Do you have phone numbers and email to reach the parent and what is the best way to reach them? Do they prefer text, phone calls or emails?
  • Are the parents using the school communication system?
  • Does the student have his/her own cellphone and will they use a Remind app or text?  
  • How should a parent reach out to you?
  • When and how will you be contacting them for individual follow up?

Gauge readiness for the school year and the online environment

  • Finding out how the student wrapped up the prior year will give you an idea of their preparedness for this year. If families refer to difficulties from the shutdown, provide reassurance on how you will help students get started this year.
  • Are they set up for distance learning? Do they have a working device and internet access? Have they taken courses online before? Have they set up their online accounts to access this year’s courses? Have they downloaded required software? Have they logged into their class(es) yet?
  • How much does the student use the computer for other purposes? Are they on social media or into gaming or video editing? This is helpful as a student who is new to distance learning but uses a computer for other purposes will be able to get up and running more readily than a student who hasn’t been using the computer much.

Discuss next steps

If there was anything unveiled that needs follow up, summarize your actions to help before ending the call or meeting. Also, let them know when you will be reaching out to them again, both in and out of class.

Take Notes and Follow Up

Since you will be talking to a lot of students and reaching them in different ways, it is difficult to remember the information they provide. Start a method for taking notes and updating them by student. I have many colleagues that use a hard paper/pencil approach and keep a binder with a tab or page for each student. Others use digital formats such as OneNote or Google documents. There are plenty of options but it is important for you to have a method that you are comfortable with maintaining and have it ready to use starting with the first contact.

A word of reality:

I know at the beginning of the school year, teachers have a lot to do to get up and running. Taking the time to reach out to every student/family is time consuming and it is easy to say you don’t have time or it’s not that important. If you think that, go back to the beginning of this blog and re-read the John C. Maxwell quote. Also, keep in mind that online teachers serve as facilitators, mentors, troubleshooters, and guides in addition to teaching. Your personalized outreach sets the stage for a productive year.

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