In polling the students with whom I have been speaking about remote instruction, the primary complaint they have is the lack of interaction with the teacher or with classmates. Never before has the absence of the personal contact that was commonplace pre-covid been felt as acutely as during the pandemic. This is because teaching is at least in part an emotional activity. Teachers and students are constantly engaging in the reciprocal exchange of emotions which signal to each other the information needed to establish affective attunement. It is this connection or attunement with each other’s emotional state that can drive students’ motivation to stay the course whether that means sustaining their attention or activating themselves to work without becoming derailed by internal and external distractors.
Even pre-covid, teachers and pupils did not always view the work that needs to be done in school through the same eyes. (Luc Stevens, van Werkhoven and Castelijns, 2001). Students’ motivation is tied to the prospect of success they experience in performing at school and the competence they feel in doing a job well. However, without this prospect, motivation wanes. For some students, the prospect of success is linked to receiving the “right” emotional communication from the teacher even more than to their actual ability to perform the work. Feeling safe emotionally means believing that you can be successful while the opposite state breeds emotional disconnection, fear, frustration, and even anger. Seeing remote instruction through students’ eyes is even more important than understanding students’ perspective in pre-pandemic days. In “normal” times,
“Each day, in every classroom, there are thousands of human-to-human interactions. With words land smiles and open arms, teachers and children seek to communicate. And in doing so, a teacher can connect with children in ways that allow sharing, soothing, and learning. Yet there can be no communication if the instructive words are not heard, the tender touch is unfelt, and the admiring gaze is unseen (http://www.scholastic.com/teachers/article/attunement-reading-rhythms-child).”
In our current zoom or google hangout environment, establishing and sustaining this essential connection is extremely challenging. It is difficult if not impossible to be able to scan the “internet classroom” to read the nonverbal cues from students and to return to them the affective feeding they need to keep them attuned and moving forward. Students who have specific ability weaknesses that make them normally vulnerable to understanding academic subjects that require those competencies as well as those whose executive functioning issues make it harder to attend, activate themselves, and sustain their effort suffer from the lack of personal contact that is built into the remote format. While extra help sessions will help, many students are so unmotivated that they do not take advantage of these opportunities. They feel discouraged and reject the prospect of more unsatisfying online time. Teachers, too, miss the contact and interaction that was so much easier to generate in pre-covid times. Teaching to a silent audience is a difficult task. Pushing the curriculum forward come hell or high water is normally a serious stressor for faculty and produces even greater pressure when learning is virtual.
The need for connection is important not only for academics, but for infusing school with the essential social contacts with peers that for some students makes school worth attending. Students’ view of themselves is greatly influenced by reflected appraisals from peers. Without this kind of input, much is lost in terms of socialization and learning the rules of the road. These appraisals become more important as students move into middle and high school when peer input matters most.
The need for affective connection cannot be underestimated and while many teachers are feeling the same kind of absence of connectedness and doing their best to address it, I believe it must be given the highest priority now as it is prerequisite to being able to educate students online. This means taking the time regularly to acknowledge this pink elephant in the living room and giving it voice so students will feel that their teachers feel like they do. Joining with students gives them the feeling that they are with someone who is like them and it will afford teachers more leverage.
Creating opportunities to remain connected means taking time to think out of the box. Previewing, a well-established educational tool, can be utilized in this context where teachers preview for and with students what the lesson will cover, how long it will take, what to do if students feel subject to cognitive drift, building in breaks because students will take them anyway at random times, and sharing the positive-i.e., how proud teachers are of students to hang in during challenging lessons. Giving students an opportunity to voice their negative feelings can go a long way to draining off the toxic emotions that may accompany virtual instruction and lead to disinterest, amotivation, and just giving up. The latter is particularly scary as many high ability students have become so disenchanted with virtual learning that they simply do not care if they miss classes or assignments. As one explained, “My brain realizes it is not in school and it is not motivated to do work.” Consulting with students about how virtual learning is going or as former mayor Ed Koch would ask, “How am I doing?”, can forge connections if teachers are willing to listen and tolerate both the negative and positive responses.
The pandemic has exposed the weak underbelly of many of our institutions and this is the case with regard to the importance of connectedness and affective attunement in education. Teachers teach by not only imparting knowledge, but also by creating the right atmospheric conditions for the seed of that knowledge to be planted and to grow. Being connected gives faculty the power to teach because students will not learn from someone whom they do not feel is willing to be attuned to how they are feeling.