Relationships: A Key Factor in Online Instruction

By Dr. Tracey Garrett

What comes to mind when you think about online instruction? Do you think how will I possibly teach all of the required content effectively? Do you think about whether or not your students have access to the necessary technology? Or, how will your students with special needs receive their services?

What about the idea of building and maintaining relationships with students? According to researcher, Dr. Robert Pianta, the quality of relationships that exist within a classroom setting has a direct impact on a teacher’s ability to develop an environment conducive to learning. Similarly, Rita Pierson, creator of the well-known Ted Talk titled Everyone Needs a Champion ( states, “Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like!”

All learning takes risks. Think about it. Whether a teacher asks a student to complete a math problem on the board, demonstrate how to shoot a basketball, spell a word in front of the class or contribute to a class discussion, there is an element of risk involved. The degree of risk will depend on the individual’s personality; an extroverted student will be more likely to take a risk than an introverted student. However, the bottom line is that students will not take risks unless they believe that their teacher cares about them and classmates value their contributions to the class. In light of this, it is a teacher’s responsibility to develop relationships with and among his or her students.

Developing relationships might seem like a relatively straightforward task. Experienced teachers have been doing this for many years. However, that was before the world of COVID-19  for the majority of schools, COVID-19 didn’t have an impact until mid-March by which point in the school year, relationships, for better or worse, were firmly in place. Therefore, maintaining the relationships that were already established during the first three quarters of the year was made somewhat possible by hard-working and creative teachers.

As the pandemic lingers into this school year requiring either partial or total remote instruction to continue, how can teachers establish those relationships right from the start without having ever met their students face-to-face? How can they maintain those relationships for the duration of online teaching however long that may last? Relationship building will take on a more pivotal role than ever before in the learning process and require teachers to become more intentional about what strategies they can implement to develop and maintain relationships with and among students.


How can teachers establish relationships right from the start without having ever met their students face-to-face?


The goals of effective relationship building

There are two goals with respect to implementing effective relationship building strategies. The first goal is to move beyond surface level icebreakers, which are usually quick, fun activities designed to ease beginning of the school year jitters to genuine relationship building strategies. Effective relationship building strategies are purposefully designed to provide opportunities to become more comfortable with one’s classmates and teachers, get to know new information about one another and ultimately make connections with one another, all of which will enhance the learning environment because students will be more comfortable taking the risks necessary for learning to transpire.

The second goal to keep in mind is that strategies to build relationships should be implemented all year long. Too frequently teachers engage in these strategies during the first few weeks of school, but then let them fall by the wayside claiming that there isn’t enough time to incorporate relationship-building strategies into their practice in addition to the curriculum they need to cover. However, developing relationships isn’t a task that should be looked at as something that is in addition to your curriculum. Rather, it is at the foundation of your curriculum.

How can both of these goals be met during a time of online instruction? Following are some suggested strategies to build relationships and foster a sense of community in the classroom while engaging in online instruction. It is important to note that the suggested strategies listed below presume that all students have access to a device. It is understood that in some high needs districts, this might be a false assumption.

Strategies to build relationships and foster community during online instruction

Before trying any of the suggested activities listed here, review and adhere to your school board and district policies regarding electronic communications with students, and discuss your plans with your building principal and/or supervisor.

Hold live meet up sessions

Whether your platform of choice is Zoom, Google Hangout or something else, holding a live session where students can interact with their teacher as well as each other is essential to building relationships. It is important to monitor participation to involve as many students as possible just like teachers do when teaching face-to-face. A helpful suggestion might be to print out a roster of students’ names and place check marks next to students after they participate. This allows teachers a quick visual to monitor and equalize participation allowing all students in the class to begin to feel like a valued member of the class community.

Conduct coffee talks

Develop a list of time slots that work with your schedule during the first two weeks of the school year. Have students sign up in small groups of four to five students per slot. Then, hold a virtual “coffee talk” where each student gets a cup of coffee, tea, etc. and joins the group for a chat to get to know each other. At the beginning of the coffee talk, let students know that as you wrap up, you are going to ask them to identify one or two new things that they learned about someone else at the coffee talk. Repeat periodically throughout the year being sure to mix up the groups of students. This will help the teacher and students learn each other’s names as well as make connections with one another.

Play Little-Known Fact About Me

During the first week of class, have all students submit (via email, private chat feature, private video conference, etc.) a little-known fact about themselves. Then, during the first two weeks of class, at the beginning or end of one of your live class sessions/meetings, read one or two little-known facts and have the students guess who they think it might be. Continue the process until every student’s little-known fact has been shared with the class. Repeat this process several times throughout the year. This gives students the chance to learn something new about each other and make connections.

Play This or That

Design a list of questions that only have two possible answers. Develop a signal for how students can indicate which answer they selected. Then, during your live meetings, pose a question to your students and have them answer with the designated signal. Ask for volunteers to elaborate on their answer. Then, follow up by asking if anyone can make a connection with what was just shared with the group. Some possible questions might include:

  • Are you shy or outgoing?
  • Do you prefer to be indoors or outdoors?
  • Do you like to take risks or play it safe?
  • Are you a morning or night person?
  • Would you rather give up sugar or caffeine?
  • Would you rather give up TV or social media/or video games?

Sponsor spirit or theme days

Select a topic or theme and have students dress accordingly. For example, hat day, favorite team, sport or jersey day, or crazy sock day are some of the endless possibilities. Give students a few minutes to explain why they wore their selected item and ask if anyone can connect with anything that was shared with the group.

Utilize Flipgrid

There are many effective ways to use Flipgrid in the classroom from sharing projects to posting a question of the day. However, in terms of helping build community, whether it is responding to a question of the day or sharing of work, require that students watch a designated number of classmates’ videos and post a comment, connection or question to each of the classmate’s videos that they viewed. Make it a class goal that every student has a minimum of two people respond to his or her post. This gives students the opportunity to learn about their classmates and make connections.

Create an open house video

Start the year off on the right foot by creating a welcome video expressing how excited you are to have your new students in class. Discuss a few of the exciting things that you are going to learn during the year. Also, use this as an opportunity to let students get to know you and perhaps learn something about you that they can connect with. Students are always curious about their teacher. Therefore, allow students a brief glimpse into your personal life to see your home office, your significant other, children and/or pets. In return, ask students to send you either an email or short video introducing them to you or possibly the whole class.

Capitalize on the power of Padlet

Post a different question of the day each morning on Padlet that lets students get to know one other. Start with low risk “get to know you” questions such as favorite hobby, book, movie, sports team, etc. Then, move on to questions or requests that give you insight into the social-emotional needs of the student, such as “Post an image that best captures how you are feeling this week” or “What is something that makes you feel better when you are having a bad day?” Start the morning or class session off with a three- to five-minute discussion about the question of the day and allow students to try to make a connection with another classmate based on their answers. This also provides you an opportunity to observe whom you might want to follow up with individually if you are concerned about something that was shared.

Looking Forward

There are many relationship- and community-building strategies available to teachers. Some of the sample strategies listed above will be more appropriate than others for your particular teaching context depending on lots of factors such as the grade level and subject that you teach as well as your personal schedule. Some strategies can be slightly modified to work better for your context such as substituting a birthday breakfast for the birthday lunch or having a virtual snack time chat instead of a coffee talk.

The possibilities are endless, and creativity knows no limits. The bottom line is that relationship building is essential in every context and will take on an even more pivotal role as online instruction continues into the new school year and beyond, so keep thinking about what strategies you are going to use as the year unfolds. 

Dr. Tracey Garrett is a professor in the Department of Teacher Education at Rider University. She is also the author of the book titled Effective Classroom Management: The Essentials. She can be reached at

As the author notes, the suggested strategies in this article rely on all students having access to a device. In some districts and for many students, this is not the case. The Review would welcome any submissions about building relationships remotely with students without the benefit of electronic devices.




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