Now, more than ever, the power of human relationships is essential. One thing we have learned from the current state of the world is that we are in this together. Our ability to care, comfort, and connect with others is what will carry us through this pandemic. As a teacher, the relationships we form with our students and their families has always been at the forefront of what we do. 

This past week, I invited students in our school community to come together (virtually, of course) to reconnect and rebuild the relationship we have so delicately crafted. My challenge was simple: Visit with the Vice Principal. Any student in the school who was interested, could arrange a one-to-one, 5 minute video conference with me. As soon as the email went out, my inbox began filling with requests, and I could not have been more excited! 

In addition to providing instructions about how and when we would “meet,” I invited students to bring something along that they were interested in sharing, or let them know we could just say hi and touch base about how things were going. While I was excited to meet with them, I didn’t have any agenda or expectations for how things would go. I figured this was a good way to introduce video conferencing to my school and to embrace the opportunity to reconnect with students I was clearly missing. 

When in class instruction was suspended on March 17th, teaching as I have always known it, changed. “School” was going to be foundationally different. With students learning from home, everything from morning greetings at the door to teaching and supporting lessons was going to look different. However, never one to shy away from a challenge, I was excited to see what opportunities, and obstacles, remote learning would bring. Teaching at a primary school, where the entire student population is under the age of 9, I knew technology would be at the top of the list. What will online learning even look like for these young learners? How will students, and by default, their parents know how to navigate various platforms when teachers are still learning what and how they can best be used? 

Google Meet (our district approved video conferencing platform) is not something I had a lot of experience with previously. I’d used Google Hangouts (Google Meet’s predecessor) a few times before in university courses, but never with students, especially ones this young! So I took the time to explore the platform and to practise with my staff. What does it look like to initiate a meet? What information (logins, passwords) will students, and families need? Thankfully, we have some great people in our district who are VERY supportive!, providing everything from how to’s (both written instructions and video tutorials) to parent information letters. 

Having said that, the use of technology has always been a cornerstone of my teaching. I have happily explored ways that devices and digital platforms could benefit my classroom and my students. What I have learned is that technology does one of two things: it can replace an existing interaction or activity, or it can enhance it. I saw the use of Google Meet as an opportunity to replicate the interactions I have with students when I see them at school. What I didn’t expect was how using a virtual platform to visit with students would enrich and strengthen the connections we already had. 

1. First, 5 minutes with each student was not enough! Thankfully I scheduled myself a short grace period between each meet, knowing that it might take a minute or two to “connect” (see #2).

2. As this was the first time most students were using Google Meet, the learning curve was steep! I received many “oh no, we can’t login” emails from parents at the same time our visit was supposed to start. Sometimes it was me, running late, or worse, mixing up my appointments (sorry!), but we were always able to troubleshoot and get connected. One funny mishap was when one student and I could see each other but I couldn’t hear her, and then she couldn’t hear me! Finally after a few minutes of miming and trying to “talk” across the screen, and typing back and forth in the chat feature, we got it figured out.

3. Step outside your comfort zone! One student was eager to dance together during our meet. She had chosen the ‘Cha Cha Slide’ for us to do virtually, together. So, in the middle of our school library, with my principal, administrative assistant, and custodian looking on, I danced (and loved every minute of it!).

4. Students will surprise you… those who are normally ‘comfortably extroverted’ in the classroom, were sometimes shy to share in this new way of meeting, and those quieter students often had the space and confidence to share. One student gave me a complete book review of each of the seven books she had just finished reading, another talked more in our short visit than I think I’ve ever heard her talk before! One of my favourite moments was when one of my Kindergarten students asked if he could tell me a joke. With confidence, and flawless execution, he looked right into the computer and said, “Hey, Mrs. Evans, did you hear the joke about the roof?” (followed by a perfectly timed pause)… “Ah, never mind, it’s over your head!”

5. Meeting virtually with students in their homes, gave me a deeper understanding and appreciation of who they are. I was introduced to many stuffed animals, household pets, and younger siblings. I was privileged to see, and interact with students, in their setting. One student gave me a tour of the (science) lab he had created so he could run ‘COVID tests’ that he and his sister created. Another student proudly played the piano for me. When sharing with one student how my family was using this time to sort and organize the LEGO in our home, she admitted that LEGO had taken over her house, and following our meeting, sent me this photo with the caption: DEATH TRAP!
I now know just how fortunate I am to see this glimpse into my students lives in a way that isn’t readily apparent in a school setting.

6. Over the course of 3 days, I met with a little more than half of the students in the school. I thought that 3 consecutive days of non-stop Google Meets would exhaust me but the energy that each visit generated was inspiring. Connection with others beyond our immediate household is scarce these days, especially for children. Pride (and excitement) oozed from students as they chose special projects to share with me, like the model of the water cycle or the carefully handcrafted space station, rocket, and Mars rover pictured below. One student was blown away that I was not only able to recognize his (incredible) drawing of Allen Iverson, but also that I had a story and personal connection to him!

To my Cypress Park family, thank you from the bottom of my heart, for taking the time to meet with me. Each and every conversation filled my bucket and left me remembering just how amazing our little school community is! Anytime you’d like to “meet”, just let me know, I’m always here and would love to say hello!

And for any teachers out there reading this, if you’re nervous about using video conferencing, or any other forms of technology, give yourself permission to not be perfect. Be a risk-taker, try something new! I promise that you, and your students, will be better off for it!