I’m reflecting on virtual relationships in the educational environment during the quarantine. What are the obstacles teachers face in developing new connections and maintaining the bonds they had built in the first 24 weeks of school? Will it be possible to create the kind of close, supportive relationships that are the bedrock of our school culture next year with a new group of students if we continue remote school in September?
Thinking of my own experience as a reference point gives me cause for optimism. I have some very good friends with whom my associations are almost entirely online.
Ted is a middle school principal in St. Louis. I’ve been friends with him for about seven years. He is an expert on so many things related to programs and curriculums. He’s also an amazingly positive individual. Whenever cynicism threatens to insinuate itself a conversation, Ted brings it back to kids and the higher purpose that guides our leadership. I’ve only met him one time in person, at a conference in Washington D.C. at which he was honored as “Missouri Principal of the Year.”
Joy is a middle school principal in Connecticut. We’ve known each other for about seven years. She’s one of the most reflective people I know. I’ve learned so much listening to her discuss challenges at her school and the humility she brings to her work as a leader. I know all about her own kids and her husband. She is the “mommy” to her school, she’s also hysterical, always makes me laugh. I’ve met Joy one time in person, in Philadelphia. She had dinner with my wife and I and another middle school principal.
Chris is a middle school principal in Kansas City. We’ve been friends for two years now. His leadership always keeps me focused and inspired. His blog https://leadlearnerperspectives.com/ is a must-read for middle school principals. There have been instances when I needed advice on a matter, and Chris was on the phone with me in a matter of minutes. I’ve never met Chris in person.
Laura is a middle school principal in Wisconsin. I’ve known her for about three years. I admire her combination of vulnerability and strength, they are NOT opposites. She reminds me of the importance of integrity and the urgency of focusing on what’s right for kids. I’ve never met Laura face-to-face.
Brenda is a middle school principal in Duluth, Minnesota. I’ve been friends with her also for seven years. If a “thing” can happen in a school, anything, it has happened to Brenda at her school. And yet, she perseveres and faces every day with the most incredible optimism and passion for kids. She’s a brilliant photographer and she often posts beautiful photos she’s taken by the lake. I’ve never met Brenda in person. But my wife has. She tells me Brenda is as awesome in person as she is online.
Jay and I have been friends for about 9 years. He’s a middle school principal in Wisconsin. Jay has a running streak going. He has run for over 10,000 consecutive days. At his school, if the crossing guard is absent, Jay is the crossing guard. If the cook is sick, Jay cooks lunch. When the volleyball team didn’t have a coach, you guessed it, Jay coached the volleyball team, he’s also coached the basketball team. He’s everywhere at the same time. The kids and parents at his school must think he’s triplets. Jay recently published a book, Principals In Action: Redefining the Role. In it he provides a roadmap to being an amazing hands-on school leader. I highly recommend it. I’ve only been together with Jay in person about four times. We rode our bikes around Manhattan once.
Samantha is a middle school principal in Virginia. I’ve been friends with her for about four years. She’s always got a thoughtful approach to intractable problems that I thought couldn’t be solved. When she describes the way she implements programs, I always have my notebook and pen ready to write down what she says. She captures the exquisite balance of leadership and management that effective principals need to possess. I’ve never met Samantha in person.
These friends and colleagues are all members of a virtual middle school principals’ group to which I belong. There are other amazing people in the group who I have more frequent face-to-face contact with because they’re from Long Island and New York: LaQuita, Lisa, Tim, Dennis, Joe. Nevertheless, even though we are closer geographically, we too rarely find the time to talk in person. I appreciate the opportunity to connect with my “N.Y. People” any time of the day or evening (if I Vox them in the middle of the night, they’re sure to respond first thing in the morning). This is not to discount the power of “in-person” connections. Those occasions when I’ve spent time with friends from this group were incredible. It felt like I was meeting a relative I’d discovered on Ancestry.com. I look forward to one-day meeting Brenda, Samantha, Laura, and Chris in person.
So my personal experience makes me somewhat optimistic about virtual relationships. It can be done. But, I am a grown-up, so to speak. One of the cardinal sins of mediocre educators is to apply the rules of adulthood to the experiences of children. I’ve been doing this too long not to realize that it’s different for kids. So, can a teacher do the same thing with 100 kids that I have managed in a digital group of middle school principals from across the United States? I’m not sure.