By Jami Centrella

As I joined educators across the country in navigating this world of hybrid instruction and distance learning, I found myself thinking about the very thing that matters most to me in this profession—relationships. In this age of social distancing and keeping in-person interactions to a minimum, it seems that educators have been put into an impossible situation. If we are being asked to keep a physical distance from our students, how do we ensure that we do not become distant from them? While it may seem paradoxical, I think distance learning presents each of us with an opportunity to meet the basic human need for connection through new means and experiences.

Our students, regardless of their age or background, are of a generation that has largely been based on virtual relationships. Between Snapchat, Instagram, TikTok, and numerous other social media sites, this current generation of students is constantly looking to the virtual world to make them feel valued in the physical world. Each time their social media app lights up, a sense of longing and desire to feel accepted and needed is fulfilled, and it leaves them constantly searching for the next opportunity to find that fulfillment.

I often wonder if connecting with our students through a virtual learning platform creates that same sense of fulfillment in them. By making meaningful connections with students in the virtual world, are we indirectly showing them that we also value them in the physical world? Perhaps by allowing ourselves to see technology as a way to redefine, rather than limit, how we build relationships, we are allowing our students to gain a sense of belonging that they may have never before felt in school.

I am not saying that technology can or should replace face-to-face interactions. I am only suggesting that building relationships in the virtual world are just as important as they are in the physical world.

I understand that not all distance learning experiences are virtual, and I will not pretend to have all the answers on how to form the perfect connection with a student during these unprecedented times. However, I do know that regardless of the situation, the message remains the same, relationships—no matter how they are formed—are vital to our students.

Relationships do not start and end with technology. They start and end with us. Our ability to make a difference in the lives of our students has not been eliminated with distance learning, it has just been modified. We must adapt our relationships to the reality of this academic year. Teaching from a distance does not mean we have to be distant.

As Gloucester County Teacher of the Year Jami Centrella contends, it is possible to build meaningful connections with students, even in a virtual context. Remember, however, to carefully review and follow your school district policy on electronic forms of communication with students.

The websites njeatogether.org and learning.njea.org offer resources and stories on remote learning.

The NJEA Review has also featured several articles on instruction in a remote format, among them these from the September and October 2020 Reviews:

       Relationships: A Key Factor in Online Instruction, by Dr. Tracey Garrett

       Independent Reading to Create Independent Readers, by Morgan Taylor

       Virtual Feedback to Foster Strong Learners, by Ashley Liput

To find these and all other articles that appear in the Review, visit njea.org, slide over to “About,” and click on the images of the NJEA Review.

Jami Centrella is the 2020-21 Gloucester County Teacher of the Year. She teaches sixth grade English language arts Caroline L. Reutter School in the Township of Franklin. She can be reached at glou.ctoy@gmail.com.

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