Building rapport with your students, whether they are your advisees or students in your class, can be challenging even when we’re not going through a pandemic. Take away the in-person connection and it’s easy to lose touch with them during a time when they probably need you the most. Not to mention that it’s even easier for your high risk students, who were perhaps already unresponsive pre-coronavirus, to completely fall off the face of the earth. Oh and let’s not forget that our young people are already being bombarded with emails from every office on campus reminding them of this resource or that helpful guide. So, how can we maintain or build their connection to us?
Don’t be afraid to be honest and vulnerable
Let’s face it: higher ed is the dream kingdom for all of us jesters who love talking about our feelings. Why stop now? Now is the time to be honest and vulnerable – to show your students that you are not immune to this crisis. Just to be sure, you’ll want to strike a balance between relating to them without burdening them with your own grief. The way I like to approach this is by affirming and empathizing with their struggles. A lot of my students are finding it difficult to stay motivated – I can totally relate. Some of them are experiencing increased anxiety or hopelessness – I’ve been there. Most of my students have asked me directly how I’ve been doing and I am honest with them and tell them that it hasn’t been easy for me either. Then, when possible, I try to share with them some strategies or resources that either I or some of my other students have been using to combat some of these issues.
Put their self-care first
I always start all of my conversations by asking them how they’ve been coping with everything. It is important to me that they know that I care more about their mental and physical well-being than I do about their classes or grades. That also gives them permission to care about their own well-being before their academics. It is only then, after covering the basics, that we move on to classes and the like. Then, when possible, I try to end the conversation by asking them again how they’re feeling. Sometimes they feel better and other times more overwhelmed, depending on what we talked about. It’s important for me to know how I’m affecting my students so I can adjust accordingly.
Be flexible and understanding
This is the one I struggle with the most since inflexibility is a hallmark of my personality. But I’ve learned that staying too rigid with my rules and principles doesn’t just work against the students but against me as well. To clarify, I get easily annoyed when students ask me questions I’ve answered in previous emails. “Why don’t they read?”, I used to shout near and far to anyone who would listen (just my dog so far). Now, I take a step back and try to put myself in their shoes and instead I ask myself, “What are some reasons that this student does not have the answer to this question?”. For one, they are being inundated with emails from everyone and their mama – of course my email will get lost in the shuffle. Two, I have at least one student who has to drive 35 minutes for proper internet access and cell phone reception. I can’t even imagine what their inbox must look like when they do finally get to it. Three, the messages I send may be clear to me but that doesn’t mean they’re clear to everyone else. Now, instead of saying “Please refer to previous email” – my favorite passive aggressive retort, I either just answer the question, ask them to make an appointment so we can chat about it in more depth or refer them to my newest creation. What is it, you ask? Well, a much nicer and more helpful version of “Please refer to previous email”. I created a running google doc of all of my emails I’ve sent out since going remote, organized by topic (make an appointment, class registration, p/f option) and then by date. This way, they can refer to that rather than trying to sift through their inbox, trash can and spam folder.
What is one thing that’s been bringing people together since 1927? The television and yes I had to look that up. Now, with a plethora of streaming services, there is no shortage of things to watch. And what better way to pass the time and connect with others in quarantine then to binge Netflix shows together and talk about them? I’ve even seen quite a few fellow higher ed peeps share on Facebook about the Netflix parties they host using the Netflix Party google chrome extension. What a great idea to keep students engaged! For me, I sent out a google form to my students asking them to please share their Netflix recommendations lest I suffer from permanent insanity and eternal boredom. Out of my 160 student caseload, I received 42 individual responses. That is a 25 % response rate which, for college students, is pretty decent. The form allowed me to not only get new recommendations (Ozark and Money Heist were the top two after Tiger King) but to also show my students that I’m here if they just want to chat – to destress and debrief. We don’t always have to just talk about classes or Covid-19. Let’s take 5 minutes and talk about how Carol Baskins definitely killed her husband! There was also the added benefit that the form worked like a venus fly trap. The form, after luring them in by asking them about their binge-worthy shows recommendations, asked them if they’d made an appointment with me yet this semester. If not, it prompted them to do so! I got quite the influx of appointment notifications after that form went out.
How have you been connecting with your students since going remote? Let me know in the comments!