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Distance Learning & Relationships

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.

Authority and Responsibility Toward Teaching and Learning

Teachers in a distance learning environment will retain various degrees of control and oversight over managing virtual attendance, assignment submissions, timely response to messages, and completing online assessments with honesty and fidelity. What teachers will likely not have control over is the oversight and control over student and family time-management, goal-setting, and behavioral compliance related to whatever distractions might exist in a student's home or community. This produces a new and unique dynamic to what has been traditionally a relatively well understood relationship between teachers and students which would traditionally be communicated as part of that first-day-of-school ritual. Without that ritual, a new process will need to be adopted and adapted in order to appropriately calibrate this student-teacher relationship.

Teachers will want to explicitly communicate two particular expectations to families when preparing to build a distance-learning teacher-student relationship - authority and responsibility. Authority, in this context, relates to the power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience. Responsibility, in this context, relates to an ability to act independently and be held accountable for decisions both intentional and unintentional. Clarity of these two ideas will give families a sense of trust that will be paramount to building a productive and meaningful teacher-student relationship.

With these two factors, there are a variety of different ways to communicate the balancing of these expectations. The following four examples are not meant to define the only possible outcomes. They merely serve as examples for reference of how these two factors can relate. Each example is intended to aide schools and teachers in determining and communicating expectations between teachers and students (accounting for age/grade accordingly).

Compliance-Based Relationship. The role of the teacher presumes absolute authority and responsibility over student learning. For example, assigning and assessing academic content will involve little to no input from students or their families and any questions or concerns toward student learning will be explicitly managed and resolved by the teacher, time permitting. This is common in lower elementary grade levels where students are first learning how to be students and families may be seeking direct instruction for a strong academic foundation of skills and concepts.

Master-Apprentice Relationship. The role of the teacher presumes a partnership with a more "shared" sense of authority and responsibility. However, the teacher still has final say on what must be done and is still held accountable for the quality of the student learning. This is reminiscent of the traditional apprentice model for training in skilled crafts and services. This might be seen as early as upper-elementary grade levels as students develop the ability and willingness to share in the responsibility for their learning.

Student-Managed Relationship. The role of the teacher presumes a "final say" authority on student learning while intentionally (and explicitly) guiding students in taking responsibility for the quality of the learning taking place. This puts the teacher in a role not unlike a coach who provides individualized and structured guidance and direction but ultimately sees a student as responsible for their own actions toward their own learning. For students who have been introduced to the previous master-apprentice relationship, offering this relationship to students in middle and high school will need to be an intentional and explicit agreement between teachers and families.

Delagative Relationship. The role of the teacher presumes limited authority over defined boundaries for the purpose of meeting a shared goal and securing the health and safety of those under his or her watch. However, student learning becomes the responsibility of the students who have defined their own boundaries of authority over what and how they learn. This is typically reserved for independent schools who are focused on self-directed learning philosophies or perhaps adult learning centers but can be developed in middle and high school students who have been introduced to more inquiry-based, collaborative learning models.

Determine and Communicate a Desired Relationship

It was mentioned earlier in the article - and is worth repeating - that schools and teachers concerned with how they will develop relationships with students in a distance-learning setting will want to consider not only their own perspective toward authority and responsibility but the perspective of the families with whom they will be providing students an education.

To do this, schools and teachers must be clear on their own practices, both academically and social-emotionally. While certain aspects of distance-learning will be inherently under the authority and responsibility of the teacher (e.g. virtual attendance, assigning tasks, responding to messages, assessing student learning), other aspects will need to be explicitly clarified.

  • What does the teacher expect as far as goal-setting and time-management? Is the teacher limiting their expectation to simply requiring task submission according to strict deadlines or will some degree of student self-reflection be incorporated into the process of task submission and self-rating?

  • What does the teacher expect as far as language during live instruction sessions? Is the teacher requiring students remain on mute to minimize distractions by so many students' home environments? Is the teacher requiring sentence frames or guided discussion to monitor student engagement? How much control is the teacher assuming (with appropriate accounting of the age range of students)? Will this level of intended control match with the school's vision for how students are to develop a particular level of responsibility over their learning?

These are only two possible considerations. Surveying families, teachers, and school leadership can result in a meaningful collection of beliefs and perspectives. Such a survey is something I am currently developing and would love to pilot with schools and teachers. If you or someone you know is interested, please feel free to reach out via email:

June 21, 2020

Greg Mullen

Exploring the Core LLC

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