Student-Teacher Relationships: Virtually Impossible?

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Some facts about your teacher:

1. Lives indoors.

2. Lives somewhere with at least one wall and sits in front of it while on Zoom each day.

3. Owns multiple shirts.

4. Jackhammering means residing near a construction site. Yelping/barking/screaming means residing with children and/or dogs.

5. Knows as little about you as you know about them.

To know somebody on Zoom is to know them inside of a box. Specifically, it is to know them inside of a rectangular box with an often inaccurate name tag in the left-hand corner that the DOE does not trust you to change. It is within these boxes that students and teachers must attempt to get to know one another. Though we strive to conceptualize each other beyond our tiny camera-bound frames of reference, this effort has proven difficult. Many of the old teacher-student moves do not transfer well to Zoom. There is no hallway greeting holler because there is no hallway. There is no doorway dallying because there is no doorway. And there is no high-fiving your teacher because nobody can or wants to touch each other.

These bonds that students create with their teachers are integral to the Stuyvesant experience. Often, the best memories students have of a class are not of individual lessons or projects. Rather, it is the time they stayed a few minutes after the bell to ask a question or the small talk they had with their teachers when they arrived to class before the start bell. Seeing teachers as three-dimensional figures, rather than wells of knowledge or arbiters of grades, is necessary to foster comfort and interest in a classroom; for students, getting to know their teachers outside of a rigid class structure brings a sense of motivation to come to class, participate, and enjoy learning. Despite this, the shift to online learning has posed a great challenge to the development of these bonds. Students are no longer able to bump into their teachers in the hallway or have a short one-on-one conversation with them, aside from Zoom-mediated office hours. Throughout this school year, students and teachers alike have likely just seen each other’s heads and shoulders.

Regardless, we live in a world in which the tangible results of these relationships are still expected. Given the ways in which the pandemic has affected students, holistic evaluation—the consideration of factors other than grades—becomes more important, intensifying the need for strong student-teacher relationships. Yet these relationships, particularly in junior year, are complicated, as students may be acting opportunistically in the hopes of securing a good recommendation letter, by staying after class to ask questions or obsessively completing extra credit opportunities. Though this attitude among students is hardly exclusive to our present online model, distance-learning complicates the dynamic regardless. There is no clear understanding of whether students should go out of their ways to perform and to appear enthusiastic, or if it is even possible to allow enthusiasm and academic excellence to emerge naturally, so that their letters of recommendation accurately reflect that. Furthermore, online learning restricts these relationships to mainly just academics. However, the strain of remote learning makes it tougher for teachers to thoroughly assess students and for students to demonstrate both their personal and academic qualities. Though some may have viewed teachers as mere grading machines and recommendation writers prior to remote learning, online learning has blurred this image, making it highly difficult for even the enthusiastic to distinguish themselves meaningfully. Additionally, those who are more reserved in the classroom setting find it even more difficult to foster a relationship in the remote setting.

For students, the best way of mitigating the difficulties of strengthening a student-teacher relationship is to take advantage of the available methods of communication. Participating in classes makes it easier for teachers to recognize that a student is engaged and thinking critically. Emailing teachers about a lesson that day or with articles or book recommendations can provide necessary clarification and communicate a genuine interest in the subject. Office hours are another often underutilized opportunity to further flesh out one’s understanding of the material while strengthening bonds.

On the flip side, teachers can build a relationship with students by allocating some time at the beginning of class for less academic and more personal conversations to learn more about their students. Some teachers have been holding optional meetings outside of class to get to know students better in a relaxed setting. Additionally, waiting until all students have left before ending a Zoom session could serve as the online equivalent of asking questions after class.

It is important to recognize that it is often impossible to fully replicate anything remotely, and student-teacher relationships are not an exception. Given the continued necessity of letters of recommendation, it can be easy to resign ourselves to the idea that student-teacher relationships, especially in remote-learning, are inevitably shallow and transactional. However, students must remember that teachers are people too and that students should treat them as such. Whether they are in class on Zoom or learning in-person, treating teachers with respect and showing compassion for their circumstances is non-negotiable.

While empathy cannot entirely solve the issue of student-teacher relationships this year, it is a step in the right direction. Students should keep trying to form better connections with teachers to bring back a sense of community and normalcy and regard them as human beings, rather than for the sole purpose of recommendations. With mutual respect as a baseline, we will be able to further address the issues that come with online learning and start reclaiming a bit of the traditional Stuyvesant experience.