The beginning of school year has always been the reason for both excitement and—yes, I’ll admit it—a bit of dread for me. Of course, it holds so much promise. Teachers have new creative ideas up their sleeves. Students walk in the front doors with high hopes that they will love their teachers and really keep up with their homework this time around. Even parents have typically given their kids, and probably themselves, a bit of a pep talk to jump start the fall.
So, how could anyone dread such an optimistic time? Let me explain. For me, the sweet spot in the school year is the middle. My students and I already know one another. We can laugh together, be honest about our struggles, and find victory as we work through them. In order to get to that point, though, we need to build strong relationships. Those relationships don’t yet exist at the opening of the school year. It’s not that I dread building them, it’s just that I wish they were already a reality so we could get to that sweet spot. Tech tools might help us get there faster.
Before I start explaining the ways EdTech tools can help, let me emphasize that face-to-face interactions must come first. None of these tech-enhanced communication and collaboration strategies will mean much if the students do not see their teacher as a real honest person everyday in the classroom and through the hallways. But with the added benefit of tech tools to allow communication to continue outside of school—when students really need it—those relationships can lead to even deeper learning through the school year.
Start Sharing Early
The late-summer letter from the teacher has been cruelly categorized as a kindergarten-only thing. Often, parents and students have either school email addresses or portal login credentials that allow teachers that opportunity at cheerful first contact. What is wrong with sending a welcome email or posting a welcome message and sharing a little of yourself to middle or high school students in the weeks before the school year commences? Perhaps that message could even have a link to a Padlet or a blog post where your future students could post a comment. Perhaps you can take a getting-to-know-you survey with them using this new free tool from Panorama. When they start responding to you and one another, there will be an early sense of belonging. You’ll also have something to talk about on that first day—besides grading policies and rules.
On Day 1, Show You’re Real Instead of Showing Your Rules
Speaking of those first-day syllabus packets full of curriculum maps, grading policies, and rules, how about tossing them? Provide a map of what will be covered during the year online so parents and interested students can check it out when they’re ready. On the first day, they’re not ready. All your students want to know is whether you like them and whether you will be fair. Show them you do, and you will.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from a recent Pew report on teens and social media is that they are socializing online quite a bit through gaming. Why not meet them where they are and add some gaming to your first day? You can use tools like Kahoot! or the Space Race from Socrative to make it fun, and even get some insight into what they already know, want to know, and have to share in your content area. Both games allow you to download formative data in spreadsheet or .pdf files. Everybody wins here: You’ll learn about them, and they’ll be excited for Day 2 in your classroom.
Promise to Follow Through
Once you’ve created this initial expectation of honesty, you’ll need to reassure your students that you will continue to deserve their trust. Then, of course, you’ll have to follow through. Start by promising to send them notice of upcoming due dates and events using something like Remind. As the year rolls on and they produce drafts of writing, presentations, and data, you can provide encouragement and feedback using the comment and suggestion features in Google Drive.
Finally, you can model vulnerability as part of the learning process by admitting when you want to try a new tech tool, but aren’t sure it will be successful. For instance, the first time I tried Padlet with my students a few years ago, I didn’t know whether everything would look overwhelming on screen, how easily I would be able to moderate posts, or if the students would be able to post at all from their small smartphone screens. I had many questions. I asked them to try it with me and be patient. If they found answers I didn’t know, I asked them to share those answers with all of us. We worked through it together and found out that we loved Padlet. We ended up using it together throughout the remainder of the school year. They knew I was both teaching them and learning alongside them. For our students, this can make a big difference in how much they trust their teacher.
While it’s true that human relationships are forged in personal face-to-face interactions, they can be bolstered through the power of EdTech tools. Start by showing your students your true self both in person and online, and you will start your strongest school year yet.