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Building Trust, Virtually

Written by Emily Sefcik
November 18, 2020

Each fall before school starts I obsess about what activities I’ll use to get to know my students at the beginning of the year. In 5th grade there is a fine balance between fun and too childish. I don’t want to ask personal questions too soon and scare them off but I want them to know I care about learning who they are as individuals.

Last year I used a guided writing/drawing activity and decorated our classroom with the drawings. This year I asked simple (sometimes funny) questions on zoom and had kids raise their hands so we could see what we all had in common.

“Raise you hand if you have a dog.”

“Raise your hand if you have a cat.”

“Raise your hand if you like to skateboard.”

“Raise your hand if you’ve ever dyed your hair blue.”

After a few days our daily questions transitioned to sharing something positive with the class each morning. As we moved through the following weeks, and some of our class returned to campus and other remained on zoom, we continued these morning check-ins.

“I’m getting a new puppy this weekend.”

“Tomorrow is my little brother’s birthday.”

“My soccer team won our game last night.”

“I got a new hairbrush that straightens my hair.”

“I get to have pizza for dinner.”

Most students share normal daily news, little things that made them happy, or something that they’re looking forward to doing with their friends or family. However, as the school year progressed, students started sharing increasingly personal news. Neither the beginning of year questions or our daily positive comments were explicitly a trust building exercise, but that is what they had become.

“My uncle might be getting out of jail next week.”

“I get to see my dad tonight.”

I realized we’d reached a new level of trust. Not having all my students in class face-to-face, I wanted a way to reach out and check in with all of them personally. I created an assignment in Canvas based on I Wish My Teacher Knew.

The writing prompt was simple. “I wish my teacher knew…” All they had to do was fill in the blank. The could type a response, record audio, or upload a picture or handwritten note. Almost every student responded.

“I like my dog.”

“I fight with my brother.”

“I’m glad to be back at school.”

“I miss my friends.”

“I’m questioning my sexuality.”

“I wish I could live with my mom.”

Some were silly, some were sweet, and some were so deeply personal they caught me off guard.

I want my classroom to be a safe space for each of my students. I want my students to trust me. I want to build a community within our class. At the start of this year I did not know if it would be feasible to do this with students I had never met in person. I learned that it’s possible. By showing up and creating space for my students to share the little things each day, I earned their trust and had to honor of hearing them share the big things.

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