Teacher-Student Relationships in the Era of COVID-19

“Children and teachers are not disembodied intelligences, not instructing machines and learning machines, but whole human beings tied together in a complex maze of social interconnections.” – Willard Waller, The Sociology of Teaching, 1967

The COVID-19 crisis has illuminated much about us, our society, and our schools. In the process, it has laid bare certain realities about teaching and learning that we should stop and acknowledge. One of these is that, for most people, learning is enhanced by relationships – a lesson that Besty DeVos and those pushing the expansion of virtual schools should heed.

For more than a month, schools across the country have been closed. Districts have attempted to replace in-person classes with online lessons in the form of asynchronous computer assignments and synchronous zoom classes. This great experiment with distance learning has revealed deep inequities in the system, with many students lacking access to laptops, high-speed internet, and the quiet space necessary to complete online coursework. In Los Angeles, where I used to teach, 15,000 high schoolers have not signed into their online classes at all. But even among students who have the resources necessary to participate in remote classes, online learning has revealed itself to be a poor substitute for the deep and meaningful connections that students make in classrooms. This is because, in the words of my colleague Sarah Fine, learning is profoundly social. And teaching is, too.    

I know this because I study relationships in schools. When students feel seen and cared for by their teachers, they feel more connected to school, more engaged in the curriculum, more academically resilient. When they feel their teachers believe in them as individuals, students hold higher expectations for themselves and achieve more. Meaningful teacher-student relationships uplift students in a variety of ways. But such relationships in schools are not a given to begin with, as many teachers are not prepared with tools necessary to foster meaningful connections, especially with students who come from very different embodied perspectives than their own (in terms of race, class, gender, sexuality, linguistic background, religion, and more). Now, with a great deal of physical distance between teachers and students, making meaningful connections to support learning has become even harder.

The teachers who effectively established supportive relationships with students before March of this year may be better able to continue these connections over the internet, helping motivate their students to keep learning when distractions are both justified and plentiful. I am truly heartened by stories of teachers who are creating relevant projects related to COVID-19 that interest students, drawing students into class discussion who are usually socially anxious in-person, and forming caravans to drive through students’ neighborhoods or even teaching them through windows at their houses. But on the whole, the pandemic and the shift to remote teaching is putting a strain on teachers (especially those who are now shouldering the weighty responsibility of caring for and schooling their own children) and impairing their relationships with students at a time when many students need the most support.

For most people, the importance of relationships in learning extends from preschool through graduate school. In my own home, I watch my young children light up when they see the faces of their preschool teachers on the computer. For a moment, this connection reaffirms that their teacher is still there, that they haven’t been completely cut off from what was once considered normal. But my children’s initial excitement begins to fade when they realize they cannot interact with their teachers, either because their teacher’s face exists only on a prerecorded video or because the child spends most of a short class zoom on mute. I do not blame their teachers for this, for they are doing the best they can in this unfortunate situation. It is simply that for most students, remote classes are a poor substitute for real face-to-face dialogue – the Socratic educational ideal.

By college, students seem to be able to better handle some virtual learning, in part because they know themselves better. But even as adults, they often benefit from the connections they can form with their professors through in-person classes. In a graduate-level seminar I teach entitled Social Change through Human Connection, I have the luxury of teaching only 3 students. I teach it synchronously on Zoom, in much the same way I taught it in person, beginning each session by allowing every student space to discuss their updates, challenges, and survival strategies in the era of COVID-19. I am living the best case scenario for remote teaching because the class is so small and each voice can still shine. But even here, in a class centered around human connection, our zoom discussions do not live up to the in-person dialogues we had together. As one of my students shared last week, “I am not okay. I need human interaction. And video discussions are not the same.” The class will end in a couple weeks, but I doubt we will have the kind of closure that a class celebration or a proffered hug or handshake usually solidifies. Learning just feels more powerful when we are all together in the same space.

The pandemic will end. Life will attempt to return to some semblance of normal. When it does, I hope we will carry all that we have learned during this crisis into our new lives, for there will be so much opportunity. And if we go forth and foster more meaningful relationships in all places – including our homes, our communities, and of course, our schools – perhaps we can make strides toward building a world more united in our shared humanity.