It is the first day of school - a momentous occasion for students. Each student enters their assigned classroom and finds a desk near a friend (if seats are not already pre-assigned). Some students look around while others focus on their peers. Their teacher welcomes the class for the first time. They know they'll be spending the next ten months together and, while they likely know each other from prior years, they haven't spent time in this particular dynamic collection of personalities and preferences. This creates an electricity in the room; a nervous excitement on this first day. Nobody is quite sure how events will unfold as everyone begins the annual tradition of getting to know each other amidst this new dynamic setting.
This traditional (re-)assimilation of school and classroom culture will go missing in many schools adopting a distance-learning platform this Fall which has brought many teachers to ask the question: what is to become of the teacher-student relationship if that first-day-of-school ritual is not experienced by students, teachers, and families?
Significance of In-Person versus Distance Learning
The relationship between a teacher and a classroom full of students is defined on that first day of school. The language a teacher uses, the resources visibly available including any familiar art and literature, the norms presented in a syllabus (or initial welcome activity), the philosophy towards authority and responsibility toward teaching and learning - these are all elements of culture which, each year, are reintroduced to students. There is a kind of "shock to the system" for students as they enter a new classroom and experience a rewiring or re-calibration of general behavior expectations for this specific (arguably clinical) classroom learning environment. In Spring of 2020, students found themselves learning at home full time. The language students heard during the day changed. The resources available to students changed. Art, literature, norms - all changed. Most of all, authority and responsibility toward teaching and learning took on the beliefs and perspectives of each student's home environment. This meant that teachers could no longer count on having control over the cultural elements otherwise managed within the four walls of their classroom. Beliefs and perspectives toward learning during such an unprecedented experience suddenly relied on a student's household and their surrounding community to provide that sense of authority and responsibility toward teaching and learning. However, the wide range of variability in each of these cultural elements meant that each student experienced distance learning differently which meant teachers could not rely on the policies and practices applied in an in-person classroom.
Moving forward, it will be paramount for teachers to know how each family views the authority and responsibility toward teaching and learning to build a meaningful online relationship with each new student. The teacher-student relationship without that first-day-of-school ritual will rely heavily on how a school and its teachers approach this particular element.
What follows is an often-overlooked aspect of building a teacher-student relationship that is typically implied in how teachers shape their classroom culture through classroom design as well as in-person behaviors and interactions. Schools and teachers concerned with how they will develop relationship with students in a distance-learning setting will want to consider the following not only from their perspective as a school but also from the perspective of the families with whom they will be educating.