There are many skills that teachers need to be successful teaching online, but communication with online students is most important.

How to establish rapport with online students


There are many skills that teachers need to be successful teaching online, but communication is essential in connecting with online students

My experience with online education began 19 years ago after I took a break from teaching in the brick and mortar setting to give birth to my daughter. When I was ready to get back in the game, several of my colleagues recommended Florida Virtual School (FLVS), which at the time was in its infancy. What really sold me on FLVS was the organization’s dedication to meeting students where they are. It also seemed like the next natural step for me, because during my traditional schooling days I was constantly looking to add innovative methods and technology to my classroom.

Within a couple of months of teaching online with FLVS, I witnessed how intentional the instructors were when serving our students’ individual needs, and I knew this was the place for me. I remember being in awe of the relationships teachers were able to form not only with their students, but also parents and other stakeholders.

With that in mind, there were several skills I needed to learn, especially when it came to establishing rapport with students. There are many skills that teachers need to be successful teaching online, including basic technology skills like how to use a computer, run a webinar or video conferencing platform, and use a variety of systems. But the most important skill is communication. Specifically, how to actively listen, build relationships, and at many times, be a shoulder to cry on and a mirror to see in. Being an online teacher can be tough, because you are juggling a lot at one time, but the focus should always remain on the student and what they need.

According to the Pew Research Center, 61 percent of teens suffer from increased anxiety due to pressure to get good grades. Much of this anxiety can come from the fear of failing or saying something wrong, and feeling embarrassed or judged. Being in the online setting can help with much of this anxiety already, especially with one-on-one meetings and lessons with students, but there are several other ways to help them feel comfortable so that they share their thoughts with you.

1. Show that you make mistakes too.

Mistakes happen all the time and the world keeps spinning, right? Showing that everyone makes mistakes opens dialogue and encourages students to not be afraid to make errors. I’ve made many mistakes while teaching.

For example, one time I was giving a discussion-based assessment and I thought my student answered the question incorrectly. I told her to try again, but she was very
adamant that she was correct. I instantly pulled up the lesson to see what she was talking about and saw that I was actually incorrect. I told her, “There you go, we all get it wrong sometimes. I may need you to help me with my next assessment to keep me on track!”

When my student saw me shake the mistake off, it showed her that we’re all learning together and that making mistakes is vital to our growth. Plus, in the online environment, some things are just out of your control – like video conferencing glitches or dogs barking in the background. Laugh with your students when these things happen to show them it’s no big deal. This is also an easy way to break the ice!

2. Humanize yourself – you aren’t a bitmoji behind a screen.

Sometimes student’s will think of their online teacher as someone “on the screen,” rather than a real person. The way to change that perception is by being personal and telling students about yourself.

Perhaps you tell them that you’re a mom, that you love to cook, or that your brother plays baseball. No matter what you tell your students, see if there is a way that they can relate to what you’re sharing. For example, one time I told one of my students that I love the beach and from that brief mention she opened up and told me that it was her dream to one day surf competitively. Moving forward, every one-on-one lesson or meeting we had, I brought up surfing and that created a bond.

That simple mention encouraged her to talk about her hobbies and interests – leading to that rapport and eventual relationship.

3. Build confidence by encouraging one-on-one conversations.

I’ve found that students are often afraid to ask a question during a live lesson because they don’t want to embarrass themselves in front of their peers or appear like they don’t know what they’re doing. I think this is something that every student can relate to. When I was in high school, I remember dreading being called on to read a passage from our textbook. It’s completely normal to feel that anxiety, but there are ways to lessen that feeling.

One way is by encouraging your students to send you an email or text with their question. That way, you’re able to help them better understand the lesson, without the
added pressure. It’s also important to reiterate that dumb questions are the only ones not asked, and that many other students may have had the same question but were
afraid to speak up. By allowing students to ask their questions in a one-off situation, you are helping build their confidence so that one day they can lead by example and not be afraid to ask questions in front of their peers.

The most rewarding part of my job is watching our FLVS teachers build relationships with their students. Our instruction staff is very adept at getting to know their students and listening to find out where they are – especially during these past 18 months when our students (and the world frankly) went through so much change.

A few months ago, I received an email from a parent of a seventh-grade student who was new to FLVS in the 2020-21 school year. At the beginning, she was nervous about how her son would do and if he would stay engaged, but by the end of the year she said she heard her son laughing and enjoying his education again. She said one of his teachers made all the difference, taking the time to get to know him and help him in the new online setting. She shared how thankful she was to see that our FLVS teachers were able to take care of not only her son’s educational needs, but his emotional needs as well.

This example shows how now more than ever, building relationships and establishing rapport with students is critical to their success. These relationships help provide a strong foundation, so that even when the world changes, students have a support system they know they can count on.

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