7 Ways to Create Community Among Peers in a Virtual Learning Environment
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From the number of teachers who have reached out to me to ask about this topic, I know that creating a community of peers online, especially when you’re a new teacher, can be especially challenging when you’re in a virtual learning environment.
In Episode #38, I talked about how to make friends at a new school, so if you’re teaching in-person this year, you might want to go back and listen to that episode – though some things are a little different now due to COVID.
I bring that up because in that episode, I tell you the story of why I know a thing or two about being the “new kid” at school – which is what it feels like when you are the new teacher at a new school, right? You feel like the new kid, like you’re trying to find your way into a group that’s already well-established.
You see, my dad was in the RCMP. What’s the RCMP? It’s the Royal Canadian Mounted Police – and no, my dad did not ride a horse!
Being the child of an RCMP officer is kind of like being an army brat – whenever people ask me where I’m from, I always tell them that I’m from every crappy little town in Saskatchewan. Because of my dad’s job, we moved every 2 years, my entire life growing up.
Though that was really hard on me, these repeated experiences of moving taught me how to feel comfortable with change.
It helped me to develop the skill set of knowing how to navigate big life changes like being uprooted from all of your friends and everything you know, and being dropped into entirely new places.
It’s genuinely a skill set that can be developed. The amazing thing is that because of this, I can adapt to pretty much any new circumstance you throw me into.
So, I know a thing or two about this, and I’m hopeful that what I share with you today will be helpful for you, too.
This is just another circumstance, and one of many that are going to come up in your teaching life, where you are going to be required to think flexibly and adapt.
This is new for all of us – having to start school or transition to school online, so let’s talk about what you can do to actively build community among your peers when you’re in a virtual learning environment.
Suggest that your group establish team-planning for virtual learning.
Often it can feel really difficult to establish new relationships with people when they’re under stress, and that’s because when we’re under stress, we want to cling to the familiar.
So, you might be experiencing a feeling of being an “outsider” because the more experienced teachers at your school are trying to take the lead and figure it all out themselves.
Which is the worst thing we can possibly do – and we have a bad habit of doing this as teachers. Especially the more experienced teachers may tend to isolate ourselves and feel like we can just do it all ourselves…
But that’s where you, as a new teacher with a fresh perspective on things, may be especially helpful. If you come to the table and suggest that you team plan – meaning that each of you take on a couple of different subjects and do all of the planning for the grade level for the week for those two subjects, it lightens the load for everyone.
Team planning also has the added advantage of allowing each teacher to plan inside a curriculum area that is their main strength – I know I have a whole lot more fun planning language arts and art than I do planning math because that just isn’t my wheelhouse.
It isn’t my expertise, and one of the biggest challenges I always had as an elementary teacher was being expected to teach all subjects extremely well, when the reality is that I didn’t really like math, so I don’t think I was the best teacher for my students in that subject.
Even though I gave it my best shot and got creative with teaching it to make it more fun for me and therefore for my students, I think that this part of teaching online is actually a huge gift in that it may be allowing teachers to teach more to their area of specialization and interest, so everyone can benefit from that!
Teaching online requires a lot more time than teaching in the classroom because you aren’t just teaching a lesson – you’re also often teaching the tech behind the lesson so the kids can actually do what you’re asking them to.
So, taking on only a couple of subjects each can take a huge burden off of everyone and help everyone to feel more a part of a team than having to figure it all out alone – and further isolating ourselves during what is already a lonely time for many people.
Suggest weekly team meetings.
Here’s what I mean: Just as you would likely do when you are teaching in the classroom, simply meeting face-to-face, even when it’s virtual, can help everyone to feel more a part of a team. This is especially true when likely everyone is struggling with tech in some way.
Weekly team meetings to talk about what you’re struggling with and resources you’ve found to help with those challenges can take the stress off of everyone and give you a way to trouble-shoot together.
From what I’ve learned from a lot of my experienced teacher friends who are teaching online and using the team-planning approach, they have found that meeting every Wednesday works really well to plan out the next week.
Tthey meet online on Wednesday evenings to plan out the curriculum objectives they will cover for the following week in each subject area. They then have Thursday and Friday to put their lessons together for the following week, with the understanding that everything needs to be prepared and uploaded into their Google File by Friday at 3:00 pm.
Then, everyone can go in and grab what they need to set up their schedule, either last thing in the afternoon on Friday, or on Saturday morning, to be ready for the following week.
I’m not suggesting this is exactly what you should do, but I’m sharing it as an example of what is working really well for a team of teachers that I know.
So, think about how this might work for you.
How could you set up or suggest some kind of a team planning schedule that would lighten the load for everyone?
Be aware of top-dog syndrome.
Now, you might be listening to all of this and thinking, “Whoa Lori, you don’t realize. I’m the new kid here and there’s no way they are going to listen to ideas from me. There’s a lead teacher in our grade level and she calls all of the shots.”
I totally get it. And I can tell you right now that if this is you, the situation you are finding yourself in is not much different than the one I found myself in when I had to move in high school – seriously.
I had to move from a high school where I had just been elected vice president – I was going into 11th grade - so for my American friends, I was moving right when I was going into my junior year. I had a best friend, and a whole circle of friends I loved, and a boyfriend, and there was no way I wanted to move to a new high school. But I had to. I had no choice.
But, what saved me when I got to that new high school is that I somehow became friends with “the top dog,” with one of the most popular and most loved girls at my school. I didn’t seek her out and try to become her friend, but looking back, I know now that she saved me.
I know now that her taking me under her wing was what gave me an instant social circle and credibility with the other girls – which, as we all know – is so hard to do in high school. I got lucky that she just took to me, and I’m still friends with her to this day.
But what I learned from that is actually two things: First, you definitely want the top dog as your closest ally and friend. If you feel like an outsider right now, what I really encourage you to do is to pay attention to what he or she seems to need, and offer to serve and support them in any way you can.
Reach out, one on one, to that teacher, and offer to help in whatever way you think would be most helpful, because what you don’t realize is that it can be lonely and very stressful as the lead teacher. Everyone expects you to have all of the answers, and a private offer of support can go a long way towards your acceptance in the entire group.
The second thing I learned from this experience of moving into a new high school and somehow having one of the most popular girls reach out and become my best friend is that I came into that experience with the right attitude.
I remember that I actually asked her, years later, why she decided to take me in and become my friend, and eventually, my very best friend.
She told me that it was because I wasn’t like the other girls. I didn’t put on any airs or try to be something that I wasn’t. Instead, I was just honest. I let her know how hard this was and that I really missed my friends, and it was that genuine desire to connect and be her friend. Sometimes the simplest approach is the best one, and when you are trying to find your way into a new group, being honest and humble is the best policy.
Don’t under-value the skill set you bring to the table in this unique situation.
Part of the reason it feels like you are an outsider is likely because you are young and inexperienced when it comes to teaching.
However, your age likely brings with it an entire skill set that the older generation of teachers is lacking in: intuitive understanding of and lack of fear of technology.
One of the best ways for you to start feeling like you’re more of a team with your new colleagues is to capitalize on the skill set you have when it comes to technology.
Although some of the teachers on your team have more experience teaching the standards and understanding curriculum, you have a huge advantage when it comes to thinking creatively about how to translate that curriculum digitally. You may not even realize what a huge gift that can be to some of the teachers on your grade level team.
So, don’t undervalue the skill set you bring to the table in this unique situation. Offer to lend a hand when it comes to learning new technology, or suggest apps or websites that you know might be helpful in the subject area they are teaching.
Simply getting on a call to show your team members how to use a particular app with their students can go a long way towards building relationships.
Also, if your peers are struggling with how to transition to teaching online and it’s all a little scary for them, you might want to invite them to check out my mini-course called “Transition to Teaching Online."
Inside this course, I walk them through how to connect with and build community with their students online, how to keep their students engaged and motivated, and how to support your students socially and emotionally when they’re learning online.
Share your best stuff often:
Here’s the thing that I’ve learned over the years:
Generosity is the key to success in any relationship.
Building relationships with your new peers when you’re teaching virtually, at its core, is absolutely no different than building relationships anywhere else and in any other circumstance.
At the heart of building relationships is generosity.
When you are willing to give first, people are much more willing to respond in kind. When you are willing to be generous and when you come to the table with a genuine offer of support and kindness and good-heartedness, with no thought of return, people not only feel that energy, but respond to that generosity in kind. Energy matches energy.
So, when you find an amazing resource or app or website that you love to use with your students, don’t keep it to yourself. Share it. Be the uplifter, the one who is always coming to the group with the good stuff.
Teachers love other teachers who are willing to share their best stuff. I know that sometimes this can be hard to do, but being generous and willing to share and to give is going to come back to you in spades in the future – especially when you need help or guidance.
One of the ways you can the uplifter in your group is to bring some of the light, bring some of the joy, and the reminder, even in these somewhat dark times, of why you became teachers in the first place.
To help you do that, I put together a super fun freebie for you called "20 Awesome Class Reward Ideas" that you can use with your students when you’re teaching online.
So, if you or your colleagues are struggling to get creative and figure out some fun ways to reward your students when you’re teaching online, you might want to share this with them!
Meet off-the-clock for virtual Happy Hour/virtual coffee.
Also, just because you aren’t able to see your colleagues in person, you can still plan on having a virtual Happy Hour or virtual coffee time with your peers, even if it’s only once every couple of weeks or even once each month.
No matter how loving or supportive your husband or wife or significant other is, nobody really understands what teaching online is like except for other teachers.
They really get it, and it’s so important to build in some time to connect with your grade level team outside of those regular planning meetings.
I know we are all a little tired of Zoom meetings, but especially during this time of social isolation, it can be the saving grace when it comes to allowing us that essential connection with others.
I know I would much rather be in the room talking to my parents, but the fact that I can see their faces and sit and have coffee with them in their back yard on Facetime is such a gift right now.
As humans we crave and really need this connection, so I encourage you to be the leader and to set up a virtual Happy Hour or coffee hour at 4:00 pm every second Thursday or whatever works for your schedule and start building those opportunities to connect online more regularly.
We can’t just walk into each other’s classrooms to check in with each other and see how things are going, so we need to be more intentional about taking the time to check in with each other and support each other in ways that only teachers can.
Consider a weekly walk with another teacher.
Although this isn’t about creating a community of teachers online, it is about saving your sanity this year. Teachers really do need other teachers because only other teachers really get the very real challenges you are facing during COVID.
So, if you do know another teacher who has been social distancing and who is safe and healthy, why not create a standing date to go out for a walk every Sunday evening before another week of online learning starts?
Talk about all of the things that are going well, challenges that are coming up for you, awesome resources you’ve found, or whatever is on your teaching heart.
Even though we aren’t in a regular school year right now, Sunday Night Anxiety is a real thing, and you may be experiencing it even more right now because teaching online is so foreign to everyone.
I actually dedicated an entire episode to “How to Cope with Sunday Night Anxiety: Yes, It’s Real, and Yes, You’re Normal” which was Episode #25 of the podcast, so you might want to check it out.
Inside that episode, one of the things I encourage you to think about doing is setting a date on Sunday evenings to go for a walk with a teacher friend to just talk about all things teaching that your spouse or your significant other might be a little tired of hearing about. So, I hope you’ll go ahead and check that out when you get a chance.
There you have it. I hope this was helpful for you as you navigate ways to build community and relationship online with your new peers. I know this is an especially challenging time, but I’m confident that you’ll be able to build these relationships.
Just remember that it takes time to develop new relationships, but if you continue to reach out and you’re consistent about showing up and being generous and setting online dates, over time, you can and will develop some amazing relationships online.
I know this because I have an accountability group made up of women from across the country, from CA to New York, who I meet with on Zoom every second Tuesday, and I feel closer to these women than I do to many of my friends because of the consistency of our meetings.
So, please don’t give up if this doesn’t work for you right away.
Stay with it and keep an attitude of generosity and a spirit of giving, and it will come.
I hope you have a wonderful week, and remember: Just because you're a beginning elementary teacher, there's no need for you to struggle like one.
P.S. Have you grabbed your free download yet? What are you waiting for? 😉👇
Dr. Lori Friesen | Beginning Teacher Mentor
Creator of the R.E.A.D.Y. for School Academy, Dr. Lori Friesen has mentored thousands of beginning teachers across the country through her workshops and courses. Host of the popular podcast, Beginning Teacher Talk, and creator of the innovative literacy program for 1st and 2nd grade, Dogs Help Kids Read and Succeed, Dr. Lori is dedicated to serving educators and inspiring learners. Learn more at drlorifriesen.com and at howdogshelpkids.com.
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