Distanced But Closer: Changed Relationships

Distance learning has offered rewards and challenges that I’m sure no educator could have seen coming their way. As our school year’s end is approaching, I’ve been spending a lot of time reflecting on  the overall experience of distance learning for myself and my students. While I could probably write for days about all of the ways distance learning was impactful, I wanted to highlight one in particular.

In many cases, my relationships with my students changed.

At the onset of this wild ride, I was mostly worried about my teacher-student relationships changing, and not in a good way. I worried about how removing the social interaction of being together in the same room would negatively impact our relationships. I worried about the loss of our high fives, inside jokes, and the ability to play with each other. I dreaded the thought of simply assigning work from behind a screen while they completed it alone. Luckily, that’s not all how this turned out.

I was pleasantly surprised with how well I was able to maintain special, personal and close relationships with my students even over distance learning. I teach grade 3/4 and worried that my students’ lack of proficiency with technology and even just typing on a keyboard would add increased barriers to our communication. They floored me with their ability to adapt and overcome that. Every day, I exchanged instant messages with my students and was able to maintain the same banter and tone that we would if we were right beside each other in the classroom.

However, the most impactful change to our teacher-student relationships came from outside of the curriculum, outside of my planned program, and outside of anything either of us were expected to do.

With many of my students, the ability to stay in touch digitally and in real-time (we’ve been using SeeSaw as our main platform) allowed me to become a part of their daily life at home. Many of my students welcomed my presence with open arms into their daily activities and this opened up a new way for us to interact.

After a few weeks of getting used to online communication, my students started to send me photos and videos things that weren’t school work. I was getting pictures of Lego creations, arts and crafts, forts made out of cardboard boxes, or handmade jewelry. One student sent me a photo of lunch that she had cooked by herself for the first time. Another sent me a photo of flowers she had planted in her garden. Another student sent me a photo of a fox he saw in his yard. The other day, a student sent me a photo of herself doing a handstand in her pool that she had just mastered.

These offerings from my students acted as a catalyst for what I think was our most valuable learning together throughout this whole thing. Personalized, authentic and real-time exchanges that were child directed. A chance for me to engage them in critical thinking, prompt independent inquiry and point out their learning in one-on-one manner.

It might have been easy for me to fluff that off as typical kids being excited to show things off to their teacher, but there’s a Kindergarten teacher in me. And that Kindergarten teacher’s heart jumped with joy because my students were allowing me a window into their learning through real, authentic, hands-on learning and play. With them sharing their small projects, interests and curiosities with me, I could add to their experiences by noticing or naming academic concepts, prompting wonder, and pointing out their growth through their exploration.

It reminded me so much of teaching kindergarten, where the same relationship of observing a child’s play and drawing the learning from it was my main approach to teaching. This can totally still happen in grade 3 and 4, but when the world for them to explore is expanded beyond our limited classroom walls it is so much more enriched. To illustrate this, I had an entire conversation with one of my students about the things she noticed and wondered while she and her family explored a creek in a forest. That’s not something that can happen often in a primary/junior classroom (unless you’re lucky enough to teach near a forest!).

As time has progressed, I’ve shifted my approach with some of my students to simply building a relationship with them through what they are engaged in and interested in doing. It has added so much value to distance learning for those that have been struggling with engaging academically. We now have a class blog that I will post their offerings to, as well, so they can see what their peers are doing and accomplishing. Many times, other students will try something similar and send me a photo of it to post on the blog in response. This has led to inspired, busy, and most of all socially engaged kids.

Yes, my class’ overall engagement with the assigned work has declined significantly over the past few weeks – a trend I’m sure we are all seeing – but the one thing that hasn’t declined is the daily sharing of things they are proud of.

And, to me, is that better than them completing their assigned math? Of course it is.

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Updated: June 16, 2020 — 8:03 am

The Author

Laura Bottrell

Laura is a Grade 3/4 teacher with HWDSB. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Youth & Children's Studies and is a Registered Early Childhood Educator. She believes in the power of play and inquiry-based learning, no matter the grade. With a passion for the arts, Laura is an advocate for the arts in education and is currently the director of a theatre performance program for Kindergarten aged students!

4 Comments

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  1. Aviva says:

    The kindergarten teacher in me loves reading this post. I just wonder, if this other learning is superseding your assigned work, what if this other learning became the assignment? Are there enough connections to academic expectations to make this possible?

    Aviva

    1. Laura Bottrell says:

      I wonder the same thing, Aviva! My most successful assignments during distance learning have all involved a hands-on and play aspect, but as I’ve noticed, when the instructions are taken away the students really take the lead and the rich learning happens. This is where I think we’re missing the power of the Kindergarten approach in older grades. It can sometimes be trickier to distill curriculum expectations from the “other” in older grades, but it’s definitely there. For some, it takes time and a bit of a mind bend to become visible! It’s definitely something I want to continue pursuing in my practice in the older primary and junior grades.

  2. Joan Aird says:

    Congratulations Laura on a well written article.
    And you continue to be devoted to your students, whether in the classroom or from afar.

  3. Gord Conroy says:

    Well-written…and oh so true. A friend let me know of your article, Laura. It made my day. The power of play and self-directed learning…not bad, not bad… It reminds me of what Mark Twain once said: “Don’t let schooling interfere with your education.”

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