When my students and I were in week 5 of digital learning during the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, we had already established a good routine, where some students would log on a little early, and we would chat about the last few days and how we were all getting through. Then, at the conclusion of our session, others would stick around for some familiar chat time like we used to do in the physical classroom, just before the late bell would ring. Online, we would chat just seconds before the next virtual class began; we were searching for normalcy while checking in on each other. Built into the foundations of our classrooms was a relational experience that established trust, respect, and a desire to embrace learning at an autonomous level.
Not everybody was handling the sudden switch to virtual learning, though. In the final weeks of school in early June, it was easy for teachers to recognize a student in need, whose patterns of behavior were inconsistent with what we had experienced in the first three quarters while in our classrooms. We were quick to contact counselors and administrators to let them know that something wasn’t quite right with a particular student, and we should follow up to see how they were doing.
Those three quarters that we shared together in the classroom was what made learning from a distance possible in that final, fourth quarter; it served as a grounding in relational experiences that, in the past, have been a natural part of the teaching process. As teachers, we had the opportunity to know our students as human beings early on; we recognized who they were and what they were capable of doing. We also understood that each child has a background that reaches much deeper than the content we’re covering in class.
It is this relational connection that allowed us to be better teachers for the individuals in our classrooms at the end of this school year. And, in understanding each child a little better, we were able to find ways to deliver curricular content despite the challenges they may have faced, whether that had been on an ongoing basis or due to the disruption of everyday life. The pandemic caused all of us to respond in ways we could have never imagined; for young children who no longer had that chance to meet with their friends, or their teachers, on a daily basis, school still served as their foundation, their normal grounding that gave them the confidence to grow and evolve into young adults.
We were fortunate to have that foundation established over those last three quarters of the 2019-2020 academic year; what concerns me is what happens if we begin the new school year in September without that opportunity for relational experiences to occur. The real danger exists that, if we are not careful, education will become nothing more than a transactional experience, where students and teachers become focused on percentages and point values rather than how the content relates personally to each of them.
I am not advocating for in-person schooling to occur if it cannot be done safely. Our first priority must be on the safety of our students and our educators. My argument is, simply, we cannot forego that familial foundation at the beginning of the year that is crucial to effective student engagement and ownership of learning.
Without it, a transactional education will allow many of our students to become mediocre participants in learning, and it will also put minorities and poverty-stricken children in an even more dangerous place. The absence of in-person, or relational, academics only contributes to the gap in learning in these at-risk groups. According to an article posted in January 2019 at Inside Higher Ed, titled “Takedown of Online Education,” online education fails when teachers and students have no real-time contact.
However, when there are opportunities for greater interaction with an instructor, especially in hybrid teaching models, students perform better and hold themselves more accountable for the work they produce.
Without that relational element, even on a small scale, online learning is transactional, at best.
We must find ways to have students own their learning, especially with there being limitations in our face-to-face meetings.
At the beginning of each year, I introduce the acronym WIIFM to my students, and I encourage them to embrace a very selfish “What’s In It For Me” mentality in everything we do. It invites them to own the material we discuss in class and make it relevant to their own lives: where they’ve been, who they are, and where they are going.
Throughout the year, my students tell me they are “WIIFMing” the material, or the point another student is making, or the epiphany they are experiencing in synthesizing content between English and other classes.
The question for teachers in my neighborhood, in my county, in our state, and across the nation is clear: How do we have our students embrace a WIIFM approach to education when the relational component established at the beginning of the school year is clearly missing?
In my other class, journalism, the students knew each other well, even though their ages spanned the four-year spread of high school. They understood their needs, their nuances, their strengths because they had worked closely together for 6 months in an environment that encouraged mutual trust and respect. They thrived in those last two months simply because the team dynamic was already firmly in place. It’s the relational foundation that made this possible.
If and when our classes begin outside of the classrooms in the fall of the new school year, and as teachers are meeting their students for the first time in little video boxes on aging school-issued laptops, we will need to be mindful of how we make education a relational experience. Some students will step up, embrace the WIIFM mantra, and take good care of themselves. But many will rely on a solely transactional relationship of points and deadlines, based on bare minimums in playing the game of pass and fail. We might be able to figure out the logistics and schedules of making sure everybody gets an equitable, educational experience, but the bigger issue we all need to consider now is how we make those experiences relational from the beginning.
An ideal scenario would be having students somehow meeting their teachers – in person – prior to or in the first week of classes. Even though the meet-and-greet will be an event that upholds all the measures of social distancing and the use of face coverings, we need an opportunity to meet our students, and they need the opportunity to meet us.
I’m throwing around a hundred different ideas that all seem ideal on paper, like each child sharing a 60-second infomercial on who they are, and what they look forward to in the coming year. But I know that this doesn’t work for all students, for many valid reasons. Technology, privacy issues, and home environments all lead to limitations that can’t easily be fixed for short home movies, not to mention the challenges we might face with authenticity and truth.
But we must find a way for that community to be built not on a screen but in real time, in a real place face to face (or even mask to mask). Our learning environment established early in September must be genuine, where we all have the courage to WIIFM the experience and take our learning seriously, and for all the right reasons.
We cannot allow the pandemic to derail our educational goals; instead, we must rise to the challenge of becoming better teachers in providing the opportunities our students need to own the education they deserve.