One of the things that worried me as a mom and educator about schooling in the virtual school environment was the ability to make those very critical student-teacher connections. I know from personal experience how essential they are in overall student achievement. Would it truly be possible to develop a meaningful and impactful relationship between students, parents and teachers when these daily interactions or opportunities weren’t often face-to-face?
The internet has brought the world and everything in it right to the fingertips of today’s youth. Gone are the days in which you have to wait four days for your letter to reach a loved one residing on a different corner of the state, or hesitate when opening your long-distance phone bill (remember those?) to see just how many minutes you went over from that wonderful chat with Grandma the weekend before. As technology has advanced, we have the ability to “FaceTime” and see those to whom we are talking as clear as if they were standing before us, even if they were in other parts of the world. When my oldest son, now 16, was a toddler, the webcam that we used to communicate with our Wisconsin family (while we were living in Virginia) would often freeze up or separate him into boxes if he moved too quickly! If you had asked me then if he would be able to excel in high school courses through a VIRTUAL online school and LOVE his teachers as much as he does, I would not have thought it plausible!
Oh, but it is…
Most youth today do not know what it was like to not have a computer in their home, or to have to wait for a dial-up connection that will take two minutes to skip from web page to web page. They’ve never experienced being confined to only one room to talk on the phone because the land line was corded to that wall, or even fathom using a phone that doesn’t take pictures! They don’t know what it was like to be limited to friends and experiences that could be found within a few blocks from your front door. When I was a child, summer vacations were tough for the kids whose best friends from school lived in a different neighborhood, and when a friend moved away to another school, or (worse yet) another city or state—it was devastating.
Youth today are growing up with a more fluid, flexible, and global understanding of relationships. They don’t necessarily need to be standing right next to a friend or loved one to play with them or share a meaningful moment or conversation. Social media and technology has changed the rules and provided opportunities.
This has been made clear to me this spring as we worked towards the final school year countdown. In brick-and-mortar schools, the last weeks and days of school are often hectic but fun-filled opportunities to pass around yearbooks; take pictures with friends and beloved teachers; and to share tears, laughter, excitement and upcoming plans for the summer. A time to reflect on how fast the year went and wonder what it will be like next year.
For my three children finishing up their sixth, eighth and 10th grade years at Wisconsin Virtual Academy, they completed their school year in a similar way that many of their brick-and-mortar schooling friends did—they completed their final exams, breathed a sigh of relief, proudly shared their final grades with friends and family members – and then they passed out “thank you” chocolate to their favorite teachers prior to our professional development session. For 20 minutes, they walked around greeting, thanking, and shaking hands with the educators who challenged, motivated, and supported them throughout the year. They left with feelings of gratitude for having a moment to personally say thanks to teachers for whom they feel a strong and valuable connection. This connection wasn’t established on this day, but developed and deepened virtually throughout the year. That realization brought forth more than just confirmation in my choice as their mother, but appreciation for their educational journey.
As for the K-2 educator in me, the end of the year is often very bittersweet as well. I have the wonderful opportunity to loop with my students and families, being that I cover three grade levels. However, those who leave us (whether it is for third grade or another choice), it is always hard to say goodbye – so I don’t. I simply reiterated to my wonderful students and families my simple truth—once your teacher, always your teacher. That has been my motto at the commencement of each school year. I have been blessed beyond measure to have students who, while no longer in my homeroom, still reach out to me, ask for me to set up a class connect from time to time so that they can come back and read to me, or show me how well they are now solving math problems that once plagued them. I even have a special student and parent who reach out to me with emails in our favorite color of fuchsia fonts to let me know whenever they will be in the same county that I live in so that we might find time to enjoy an ice cream cone together.
So, is it truly possible to develop a meaningful and impactful relationship between students, parents and teachers when these daily schooling interactions or opportunities aren’t often face-to-face? If these connections mean even a fraction to my students as they do to me as their teacher, I think the answer truly is YES!