Building Rapport in the Online Classroom

By: Kristina Evanko, Student Teacher, Ernest Righetti High School

As I prepared for the start of my student teaching experience, I was afraid. I was afraid of all the horror stories that I had heard from other educators around the state about the lack of student engagement in the virtual classroom. I was fearful of not being able to build connections with my students through a computer screen. All these thoughts consumed my mind as I entered my first Zoom call filled with black screens. 

I’m not going to lie; the first couple of weeks were hard. I often felt defeated after a day of teaching with little to no student interaction. Yet, as time progressed, I noticed a shift in my classroom. Students slowly began unmuting themselves to speak instead of writing everything in the chat. More cameras were turning on…even though most of the time these cameras only show the student’s ceilings! There was more and more student engagement each day. Now it’s to the point where my freshmen are eager to participate in discussion! 

Now there isn’t some magic wand that I simply waved to build up student engagement. Rather, it was an extended effort to build rapport with my students. As Ag teachers, it’s typically easier to build rapport with our students by working so closely with them in SAE projects and coaching CDE/LDE teams. Yet, during distance learning, there is such a significant gap in this relationship. Below are some of the tips I have for establishing rapport in the virtual classroom:

  1. Be energetic! Keeping an upbeat, positive attitude can be challenging after staring at a computer screen for hours at a time, but this might be one of the most important aspects of managing an online classroom. If you’re not into it, your students will not be into it. Get up and do some jumping jacks! Pump yourself up! When you show your students that you’re excited to be with them, they will reciprocate.
  1. Take the time to learn about each other Never underestimate the power of an ice breaker! And while ice breakers are fun to do at the beginning of the school year… KEEP DOING THEM! It is so crucial to take the time to learn about your students. It shows them that you care about them as a person rather than just another student in your class. Just as it is vital for us to learn about our students, it is important for students to learn about us. Sharing your story is a powerful thing and really opens the door to building trusting relationships. 
  1. Establish a safe classroom environment. I have noticed that students are often afraid to share their thoughts…whether they are in-person or online. Yet, in the virtual classroom environment, it’s easier to hide behind the safety of their computer screen and not participate in discussions. It is crucial to show students that it’s safe to share their thoughts, even if they might not always be “correct”! I do this by striving to formulate questions that stray away from “one right answer,” so when students do engage in discussion, they aren’t afraid of being ridiculed for sharing the incorrect answer. Going in hand with this, be sure to…. 
  1. Thank your students! Thank your students for joining your class. Thank your students for sharing their thoughts. Show your students that you APPRECIATE them! It is so encouraging for students to receive this praise… and they deserve it! Without their efforts and participation, we would be like several other teachers battling with constant black screens and refusals to unmute. 

For more information about the California Agricultural Teachers’ Association, visit http://calagteachers.org/

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