TeacherTalks: Connecting With Students Through Humor, Sincerity, Passion

America’s teachers have long been creative in finding ways to make connections with their students to help ensure that the children in their classrooms absorb the lessons they’re trying to share.

But when those classrooms became remote connections via videoconference, teachers found they had to up their games just to make sure they had the students’ attention.

And so they took many of the techniques honed in classrooms over the years and tailored them to the computer screen.

“We have to be mindful of the ongoing trauma that our kids and their families will bring with them and we have to really treat academics as a secondary thing,” Pren Woods, a teacher in South Carolina who is a finalist for the LifeChanger of the Year Grand Prize for 2019-20, said in a TeacherTalk webinar.

“And social-emotional learning is primary. What I want to suggest for creating deeper connections is picking up the phone and talking or Facetiming with parents or Facetiming with students,” he said. “And also making yourself available – and not stretching yourself too thin, trying to get other teachers to get on this bandwagon with you.”

LifeChanger is sponsoring a series of TeacherTalk webinars to give educators an opportunity to learn from each other about their experiences with teaching during the coronavirus pandemic. The latest, Creating Deeper Connections During Distance Learning, is available here.

The next webinar, Educating the Whole Child, is powered by the National Coalition for Safe Schools and is scheduled for Aug. 13. You can register for that session online here.

Dyane Smokorowski, a previous Kansas state teacher of the year, said that finding ways to bridge the divides that were suddenly erected when teaching went remote was challenging this spring. It is likely to become even more difficult this fall when there are even more unknowns about what education will look like.

“We do know that this year, creating those deep, positive and encouraging connections with our students is more important than ever,” she said. “I’m very excited to bring this conversation forward as we brainstorm on some ideas what we can do to engage our families, engage our students and engage our communities into building a complete support system around our students. And hopefully a support system around our teachers, as well.”

One way to make online classes feel less like remote lectures is to try to create a family atmosphere. And humor is a great way to do that, said Keil Hileman, who also teaches in Kansas and is a finalist for the LifeChanger of the Year Grand Prize.

“Students were dying to share,” he said. “They wanted to see each other, they wanted to be together in a group. Humor became a big part of it. They were dying to laugh. Several of them really were emotional, not laughing, about how much they missed being with each other and laughing in a classroom. I think that type of communication with digital learning is critical.”

Sharita Harmon, a LifeChanger of the Year nominee who teaches in Houston, said many of the same approaches that worked in the physical classroom also have to be employed when teaching remotely. She said she has always tried to give her students some insights into who she is as a person.

“I’m big on being genuine, being authentic, being your best self,” she said. “I cannot introduce my worst self to my students and expect them to do what I need them to do. The first person that they meet cannot be somebody negative, with an attitude, it’s my way or the highway. You have to be that breath of fresh air. You have to smile. You have to give them that positive energy. Because it really does make a difference.”

 Woods said that approach goes hand-in-hand with teachers showing respect and affection for the students in their classes. That is going to be critical when schools return to remote teaching or some hybrid model this fall. Or even if students and teachers return to the classroom amid all of the uncertainty of the pandemic.

“I don’t want to lose that because now I’m in front of a computer, where it’s so easy in physical space to go, ‘Dyane,’ I put my hand on your shoulder, ‘great job. I love you. You’re awesome.’ Don’t be afraid to try something, to have an attitude of, well, what if. People can always say, ‘Nah, that’s not …’ Well, what if – I try to have a live dance party. I don’t know if it’s going to work. Be bold be adventurous be fearless and get some wigs, too.”

Maybe students are given an assignment to create an interpretive dance to demonstrate understanding of a concept, Smokorowski said. Or a puppet show.

“We’re talking about taking academic risks with humor and taking academic risks with this idea of just going big and just taking things up to the next level,” she said.