How do you know if a student in your class is unhappy?
Sometimes, there are clear signs, right? Like challenging behaviour, fluctuating moods, incomplete work, or withdrawal from peers. We see it and we respond, hopefully discovering the root cause of the problem and finding a restorative solution along the way.
If you're teaching in a country in which schools have or will re-open as "normal," then you'll no doubt be hyper aware of these signs. You'll be analysing the behaviour of every child, asking yourself (and them) if they're happy and healthy post lockdown. You'll be there to spot the signs. You'll be there to catch them if they fall. But what about students attending virtual classes? Students who can mute themselves, turn off their cameras and drop in and out of lessons depending on their WIFI connection...or mood. How then do we look after the mental health of our students and spot any signs of struggle?
For those of us in this position, here are some ideas collected from colleagues, friends and trusted professionals.
1. Socialise first and foremost!
If you're teaching virtually, that means that you're in a country where quarantine restrictions still apply. This also means that your students have been in lockdown for months. Their "new normal" hasn't even started yet; they're still in limbo. So, before launching into your timetabled lessons, give children time to socialise with each other and to have fun with you. Build relationships, and make your virtual room a place where students want to be.
Practical Suggestions: Put children in breakout rooms after morning registration. Let them chat- exchange stories- bond. If some find this type of socialising tricky, post discussion points on your Google Classroom to prompt conversation. Things like:
What did you do at the weekend? What games do you like to play? Do you know any jokes? What was the last song you listened to? Have you taken part in any lockdown challenges?
Do the same after lunch. During these sessions, you could play games, practise mindfulness or do circle time. Here are some ideas and links:
- Play Skribbl.io; (online Pictionary. It's free and you can play with up to 12 players)
- Play Scattegories; (split the class in half and play using Google Slides)
- Set riddles and puzzles for kids in breakout rooms;
-Create a class playlist on Spotify and try Zentangle Art.
- Choose a mindfulness activity on Headspace to do together.
- Blast out a JustDance video and jive away with your class!
Summary: socialise in the morning, socialise in the afternoon! Make time to build relationships so that connections between you and your students are strong. Build trust so that they'll come to you with problems, and know them well enough to spot their signs of struggle.
2. Buddy Up!
Some students adapt well to online learning. They zoom in for lessons, see their friends, complete their work and zoom out. Some live in sociable, busy households, where, as soon as their classes end, they're called down to the kitchen for tea, invited to play with a sibling, or a guardian offers to help them with their online work. All good news. All very positive.
For others, however, logging into Zoom can be an entirely empty experience. No matter how many familiar faces they see on the screen, in however many intervals across a day or week, they still feel detached from the community they were once immersed in. When they end the call, they feel unseen and unheard, and as a result, the motivation to zoom in and repeat the experience the next day starts to wane.
The dangerous part is that with virtual life, it's extremely difficult to know which students fall into the former or latter category. Online, their signs of struggle are masked by a virtual background or a blank screen, and the chances of them emailing us to share a problem are much slimmer than those of them coming to us on the playground.
So, what to do?
Practical Suggestions: Buddy up your students in pairs or small groups, and encourage them to chat outside of school, check on each other, play (safe) online games.
When doing this, think carefully about buddy choices. Aim to place students with peers they actually want to socialise with. (This sounds obvious, but we all know that as teachers, we try to widen friendship groups, expand circles and be as inclusive as possible.)
Whilst whole class connection is still a clear goal, with online learning, smaller circles can be much more powerful. It's like this: we all know the feeling of being in a room full of people and yet still feeling alone, right? Sometimes, it only takes one person to make that feeling go away. One face in the crowd. So, let's give our students friendly faces to look for on Zoom. Someone they will look for when they join the class, and someone whom they know is looking for them. A safe, inner-circle, where the connections are strong.
Additionally, have one-to-one time with your students where possible. During your social sessions, make time for individual chats. Take the suggested Zentangle lesson, for example. Whilst the class are busy sketching and listening to music, you could ask everyone to turn their cameras off. Then, one-by-one, have students turn their cameras on and talk with you. The other students would still be in the class, but you'd be having individual conversations- a chance to build a personal relationship and have your students know that you see and care for them.
3. Share your Signs
Realistically, even with daily socialisation, buddies and one-to-one chats, it's still difficult to tell if and when our students are struggling online. So, how about we ask them to tell us their signs?
Whilst none of the above ideas provide "the answer" to the teacher-student connection gap, nor the solution to the virtual disquiet of the children in our care, they are a start. They are something. They are a way forwards.
I'll leave you with this thought. Complete the sentence below by adding a verb on the empty line.
Challenge _______________ opportunity.
What did you come up with?
Here are some of the ideas from my classroom:
Were your thoughts similar? Was your glass half empty or half full?
Whilst I certainly have days where the first one rings most true, I mostly believe in this one:
Challenge creates opportunity.
As teachers, we have never been more challenged than we are now. Virtual teaching is a struggle and being away from our students is a challenge. But for now, that's the reality, and so we must band together and find ways to create solutions. Even writing this piece makes me feel like we're in this together.
So, try the ideas above, experiment with other tactics and share your successes. Surely together, we can't fail.
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Be well, everyone and ingat!