Connecting the Dots: Building Digital Pathways to Meaningful Relationships

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If you're looking for new and creative ways to build relationships with your staff this year, look no further! Margaret Harris-Shoates, district edtech coordinator, and Kimberly Eure, instructional technology coach, both in Virginia, provide four techniques to create meaningful connections with teachers in both remote and in-person settings.


t's so hard to teach to those little black squares."

This is the frustration teachers have expressed to us most frequently throughout the pandemic-induced distance learning experience. By a long shot. As it turns out, however, teachers are not the only ones who have struggled to form authentic connections and build meaningful relationships over video conferencing platforms, such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams. As instructional coaches, we encountered many challenges building genuine relationships with our teachers and instructional staff.

While it would be simple enough for us all to concede that those "little black squares" are the sole cause of our relationship-building woes and shift our attention to less challenging issues, we—like all good ICs—decided to start by asking a few reflective questions instead:

Why is it so difficult to make meaningful connections with teachers during distance learning?
As a coach who is brand new to my school, it's pretty challenging to establish genuine relationships with people you've never met from behind a screen.
Why is it challenging to do this?
I don't get to meet them face-to-face
Or have the organic conversations that I's usually have around the building, which would allow our relationships to grow.
Why don’t you get to have these types of organic conversations?
Our schools weren't in a position to be able to facilitate the traditional community building activities that we normally use to kick off the year 😞
Why not?
Well distance learning meant that coaches and teachers were expected to prioritize learning every single digital tool that might keep students engaged over building relationships.
In many cases, district leaders and building administrators viewed technology as the most important tool for distance learning.
They saw technology as more essential than relationships?!
Honestly, it was because we again found ourselves in a reactive mode.
We weren't able to focus on the things that we know impact student learning-like relationship-building and proactive professional growth.

The questioning process we outlined above is part of a protocol by the National School Reform Faculty called "The Five Whys", and we've found it to be a useful coaching tool for drilling down to the root cause of an issue.

If you replicate this process, asking yourself a series of "Why" questions, you likely will not arrive at an identical conclusion. However, you will probably find, just like we did, that your answer has little to do with the features and functions of technology, such as screens, cameras, and microphones.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced us to find new and creative ways to stay connected with our friends and family members. We quickly found that it was possible to do the same—not only with our friends and family but also with our colleagues in a professional setting!

Four digital pathways to meaningful relationships

Connecting: welcoming spaces

In the physical learning environment, there's tremendous value in creating a warm and welcoming atmosphere for the teachers we support. It's important for them to feel safe if we expect them to be willing to partner, innovate, reflect, and grow.

Kimberly's coaching space features flexible seating, and her staff's favorite snacks and drinks are always on hand. In digital spaces, however, we need new strategies. Here are a few that we've tried instead.

Margaret's suggested strategy: weekly check-ins

I developed the idea for a Weekly Check-In based on a tweet from EduCoach Survival Guide. To optimize this strategy for distance learning situations, I suggest using a tool such as Google Forms, Microsoft Forms, or TypeForm to create a brief, optional survey that you can use to check in with your teachers. Here are some tips to consider as you craft your weekly check-ins:

  • As you design your questions, keep the focus on wellbeing and personalized goals. For example, "In one or two words, how are you feeling right now?"
  • Be intentional about when you schedule your weekly check-in. Aim for a day and time when you have a higher chance of getting responses, like at the beginning of a new week.
  • Keep in mind that every interaction does not have to center around instructional planning and student data. It's critical to check in on your people as people, too!

Bonus: You can grab a copy of my Optional Weekly Check-In form here.

Kimberly's suggested strategy: snail mail

Do you remember the excitement you felt as a child when you got mail? I remember running to check the mailbox, hoping to see my name beautifully inscribed on an envelope. Now, as an adult, I dread going to the mailbox. I only receive bills and advertisements! To bring some of the childhood joy back to adulthood, I thought snail mail would be an easy and fun way to form relationships.

I know you are thinking: I cannot send every teacher in my school a postcard. Who has that much time? It's simple. All you need to do is segment your staff list into manageable categories, such as grade level, years of experience, or who you are presently coaching.

I keep a running list on my phone of the teachers to whom I have sent a postcard and I try to keep my notes uncomplicated. They focus on appreciation, a round of applause, or a simple check-in. I was shocked at the number of teachers who sent me a text or email thanking me for the card. Over and over, I heard that the mail always arrived at the perfect time!

Supporting: digitally enhanced coaching cycles

Pre-pandemic, many of our coaching cycles began organically, with a casual conversation in the hallway or an impromptu visit during a lesson. When we shifted to distance learning, we found that these happenstance moments occurred less frequently. Collaboration required intentional scheduling, planning, and forethought to leverage the digital environment and enhance, not hinder, coaching cycles.

Kimberly's suggested strategy: co-teaching

During virtual learning, co-teaching took more effort, time, and planning. I remember wracking my brain trying to figure out how I could support teachers in this way during a team planning meeting. The lead teacher mentioned how the platform Book Creator would be a natural fit to enhance their science lessons. Most members of the team were unsure since they were not comfortable with this new tool. I quickly piped up and said, "I can support you!"

From there, I met with teachers individually to discuss how they would like me to support them as they integrated Book Creator. Some teachers wanted me to model how to use Book Creator for the students; others wanted me to facilitate direct instruction, then employ virtual break-out rooms.

We grouped students according to the skill they needed to build, then the teacher or I took one group to a break-out room, while the other remained in the main meeting room. In another instance, I taught simultaneously with the teacher while the class was divided into two groups.

I discovered that there wasn't a single correct method. Just as co-teaching could look different from classroom to classroom, there are a number of ways to co-teach effectively in a virtual environment. The best way is what works best for the particular teacher and their students. In retrospect, I realized that I just needed to start. I didn't need to have it all figured out beforehand. I just had to take the first step.

Margaret's suggested strategy: the four shifts

Soon after our school buildings closed in March 2020, a small group of colleagues and I read Harnessing Technology for Deeper Learning by Scott McLoud and Julie Graber. One of our most significant takeaways from the book was the Four Shifts Protocol, a tool that allows teachers to self-reflect about their practice in four areas: deeper learning, student agency, authenticity, and technology integration.

I was able to use this protocol to help teachers engage in independent reflection and create personalized growth pathways based on their professional goals. This proved to be an excellent launching point for coaching cycles and a useful calibration tool for my IC colleagues!

Here are a few tips for leveraging the Four Shifts Protocol with your staff or colleagues in a digital space:

  • Establish a shared digital space to store your reflections. I used a Google Form, which you can access here!
  • Set norms for your work around the Four Shifts with teachers or colleagues.
  • Use the responses in the protocol as pivot points to shift the instructional activity towards an intended goal.
  • Some key questions to consider are, "What if I wanted the answer to this question to be 'yes' instead of 'no'?" or "What if I wanted the answer to this question to be 'the student' instead of 'the teacher'?"

Growing: blended models for professional learning

As coaches, we have been fortunate to lead and actively participate in professional learning communities (PLCs), both in physical and digital spaces, where educators engage in collaborative development, learning, and growth.

During the pandemic, we found that our PLCs not only survived but evolved as a result of distance learning. Here are some suggestions that you can carry back to your school setting that will help you capitalize on blending learning for professional development.

Margaret’s suggested strategy: professional learning spaces

My teachers used the Canvas learning management system to facilitate instruction with students. Since so much of our teaching and learning process already took place on this platform, I developed a Canvas course exclusively for professional development, which teachers used to engage in just-in-time professional learning at their level of readiness.

The course included spotlights on instructional technology tools, tips to simplify virtual teaching, self-paced learning opportunities, coaching options, and more! Teachers had access to a centralized support hub with all the resources they would normally find by stopping by my office!

If you are interested in creating a similar virtual professional learning space, here are some suggestions:

  • Leverage the learning management system that your school or district already uses.
  • Model best instructional practices through your course design and delivery.
  • Incorporate a variety of learning strategies and offer personalized growth opportunities.
  • Create a simple, manageable structure that can grow with you and your staff!

Kimberly’s suggested strategy: consultancy protocol

Protocols make my heart happy; I genuinely appreciate when my time in meetings is spent meaningfully and purposefully. Protocols help ensure that we are using our time wisely. They guarantee that all participants have a voice, that progress is made toward a professional task or goal, and that a safe space is maintained.

During virtual learning, we discovered there was an increased need for teachers to engage in collaborative growth. In-person, this would have been easily solved by meeting before school, after school, or during planning time. However, virtual learning presented a challenge. I adapted the Consultancy Protocol from School Reform Initiative to function over video conferencing, allowing an educator to bring a problem or concern to a group virtually.

By using this protocol, I could maximize my time with teachers in situations where time was scarce. As teachers shared their experiences with their colleagues, more and more educators clamored for the consultancy protocol! These collaborations quickly spread to other coaches and schools throughout the district.

Communicating: taming the flow of digital info

Even before the pandemic, educators struggled to manage the flow of information in schools. Distance learning exacerbated this challenge, as educational technology companies rapidly began developing new features and offering free trials to meet the needs of teachers and their new virtual learners. The constant barrage of information was overwhelming.

In any learning environment, it can be difficult for coaches to maintain clear, streamlined communication channels focused on instruction and student learning. There are so many other competing priorities that demand teachers' attention. However, as ICs, we are uniquely positioned to help filter the flood of information that teachers receive about instruction. Some coaches publish a weekly newsletter or blog post. Others maintain a coaching website or send regular instructional technology tips to their staff. We constantly work to improve our coaching communication strategies, and we would love to hear your ideas!

Final note

We hope, at this point of the school year, that you are no longer feeling the frustration of trying to connect with those little black squares on your screen. Regardless of whether your learning environment is now wholly in-person, entirely virtual, or a customized blend of the two, the strategies we've shared can help you build solid and lasting relationships with the teachers you support. The pandemic forced us to discover ways to work differently as ICs. Hopefully, we are all just a little bit better for it.

About our Guest Bloggers

Margaret Harris-Shoates is a district ed tech coordinator with five years of experience as an instructional coach and instructional technology coach. She began her career in education as a high school English teacher in York County School Division. While teaching, she developed a passion for project-based learning, virtual learning, and instructional design.

Margaret has a Bachelor's degree in English from Princeton University and a Master's degree in Education, Policy, Planning, and Leadership from the College of William & Mary. She supports the work of Cult of Pedagogy as a social media and customer experience manager. She has also served as a content specialist for the Leading Equity Center and as a member of the Board of Directors for Trinity Lutheran School in Virginia. Her mission as an educator is to support creating a safe learning environment in which every student subscribes to the notion of their limitless potential.

Kimberly Eure is an instructional technology coach for Newport News Public Schools. She began her teaching career as an elementary school teacher and had the privilege of teaching first-, second-, third-, and fourth-graders. While teaching, she discovered her passion for creating engaging lessons and project-based learning, PBL. She has also taught eighth-grade ELA and became an instructional coach in 2016, the same year she met and started collaborating with Margaret!

Kimberly specializes in integrating technology in reading and writing. Her mission is to ensure educators do what's best for students every day. Currently, she's pursuing her Ph.D. degree from Old Dominion University in Curriculum and Instruction.

Read more from our guest bloggers

Topics: Tips and Tricks, Guest Blogger, Coaching Relationships, Newsletters, Building Relationships, PLCs, Collaboration, Questioning Techniques, Goal Setting, Coaching Cycles, Coaching Models, Virtual Coaching, Distance Learning, Remote Work, Remote Coaching, Online Tools, Protocols

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