3 Ways to Strengthen Connections in Remote Environments

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How do you build and strengthen connections with teachers in remote learning environments, you ask? Ashley Taplin, math specialist in Texas, explains how she shares strategies, highlights best practices, and listens intentionally while working from both in-person and from afar.


s we adjust to the ever-changing times, we continually face new barriers and challenges when coaching in education. Collaboration requires new technology platforms, non-verbal cues become harder to read through video, and quick hallway conversations must be pre-planned via Zoom.

The changes that come with online instruction have not been easy, but redefining how I coach virtually has shown me that with intentionality, belief, and reflection, it’s possible to build strong connections despite physical distances. Here's how!

1) Share learning intentionally and regularly

One of my main focuses as a coach has been to reflect on and grow my own knowledge, and to share it with others. Before we shifted to virtual interactions, I loved being able to discuss ongoing learning with teachers during planning, debriefs, and in casual hallway conversations.

This year, with our virtual barriers, I began to feel disconnected from some teachers I typically worked with. Those conversations that were once a routine part of my day became harder to have. As a result, I created a weekly newsletter—Tiered Tuesday Tidbits—as a fun way to share ideas and make new connections with teachers.

Each week, I jot down ideas for strategies I want to share with teachers. I know they are overwhelmed with information, so I tier the strategies and ideas by how quickly they can be implemented. Tier 1 ideas are quicker to implement, including anything from an SEL prompt to a virtual summarization strategy. Tier 2 ideas on the other hand might need additional planning between the teacher and I, such as a cooperative learning lesson that we could co-teach together via a mini coaching cycle.

As I've continued to send out these weekly emails, I've noticed that teachers will share their own ideas and evidence of student learning with me. It's great content for the following week's email!

2) Build collective teacher efficacy

Another piece I've been working to cultivate is building collective efficacy. At a recent training I attended, Steve Ventura shared two ways to do this, stemming from Albert Bandura's work on self-efficacy. Master experiences are where teachers build self-belief as they master an instructional strategy. By contrast, vicarious experiences are where teachers learn from hearing about or seeing observations of colleagues.

I love to do campus learning walks with the deans I support in order to see student learning in action. Whether it's virtually through a Zoom class link, or in person as we move into a hybrid model, it has been so inspiring to watch teachers and students take on this new form of instruction with resilience, creativity, and grace.

One dean, Kyra Lloyd, and I have been using coaching forms such as Notice and Naming to focus on how students demonstrate their current understanding—an approach for which Diane Sweeney advocates. After observing, we provide feedback to teachers highlighting their individual strengths and then take time to debrief together.

During one of our first coaching debriefs, Kyra and I felt incredibly energized discussing the strategies we saw, and we realized that this vicarious experience of learning was something we wanted all teachers to have. As we continue conducting learning walks, we plan to ask specific teachers to share their master experiences at upcoming department meetings. We hope this practice will build teacher capacity and allow teachers to grow from, and with, each other.

3) Engage in actionable conversation

I believe providing space for one-on-one conversation is an important part of coaching, especially as we all try to navigate situations we've never encountered before. Whether I'm collaborating on a lesson plan or talking through the day's stress with a teacher, I feel it's important to listen first as a thought partner.

I keep a sticky note on my desk with three reminders from Joellen Killion on coaching, particularly coaching through the stress and emotion of the pandemic. As educators we need to acknowledge the feeling, honor it, and then manage it by asking: "if you could focus on one thing, or change one thing, what would it be?"

The Coaching Habit by Michael Bungay Stainer has been a game changer in my coaching conversations this year too. He provides several strategies to recognize the needs of teachers and empower them through questioning and reflection. His phrase, "what's on your mind?" is my favorite way to open the conversation with a sincere and heartfelt invitation to share. During our conversation, I love using his technique of asking the teacher their thoughts before sharing my own.

And finally, as we close, I have been making a quick note of any actionable steps as well as one word to describe how the teacher felt at the beginning compared to the end of our conversation. This helps me reflect on the best way to follow-up and stay connected to the teacher and coaching process.

Final note

Focusing on these strategies, rooted in connection, has inspired me as a coach this year. And, while I am not sure what changes lie ahead or what next phase we will enter, I know I will carry these practices with me!

About our Guest Blogger

Ashley Taplin is a secondary math specialist in Texas. Prior to her current role, she taught high school math and was a department dean.

Ashley has a passion for both empowering teachers to build on their strengths and helping students make connections between what they’re learning. In addition to her role, she also delivers professional development, works with schools to implement PLCs and incorporate strategies in the classroom, and writes curriculum for her district. As part of her curriculum writing, Ashley has embedded SEL strategies within the math curriculum and helps guide teachers to make it a daily practice within the content.

Be sure to connect with her on Twitter and Instagram!

Illustration by Julia from Icons8.

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