Learn more about our College’s commitment to developing and retaining geniune connections with our students.

Jacqui Coker, Director of Teacher Professional Learning, shares insights into our College's commitment to developing and retaining geniune connections with our students.

Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon.
Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted,
And human love will be seen at its height.
Live in fragments no longer.
Only connect…

– E.M. Forster, Howards End

In Forster’s 1910 novel Howards End, his characters struggle with the dilemmas of making connections and the subsequent despair that they experience. The epigraph “only connect” reminds us of the importance of making these ties. At this time, when whole communities have been forced into isolation, making connections, albeit virtually, has never been more important. Especially for those of us working with children in schools.

At St Leonard’s College, the leadership and teaching staff are always concerned with and focused on the question of “what really matters” in the lives of our students and how we can continue to shape learning so that the experiences have relevance to and significance in their lives. We meet in teams to explore “what really matters” for the students to learn, in a unit, in a whole course and across different disciplines. As professionals, we constantly wrestle with the tension that exists between preparing students for high-stakes tests and preparing them to engage meaningfully in the world that they inhabit. Exploring how to make learning relevant and worthwhile to our students, thinking and making decisions about the knowledge, skills and understandings that are essential for them to learn and the learning dispositions that need to be nurtured, are constant preoccupations for us as teachers, and never more so than now. Among the tidal wave of recommendations for educators that the internet is awash with, the importance of maintaining connection with each other and our students, is one of the abiding messages about “what matters most” in remote learning. Having a sense of human connectedness and a feeling of belonging to a community is what stands out to me right now as what really matters. In the absence of community connectedness and belonging, both students and their teachers will struggle to engage. And when engagement is low, disinterest sets in and learning will suffer.

Recently, Doctor John Hattie, an educational researcher who has spent much of his professional career examining, researching and writing about the various impacts and effects on student learning, shared an article about “what matters most” at this time of social isolation. While this is not the forum in which to share all of his recommendations, it is worth noting that one of his key recommendations for keeping students engaged in learning is maintaining “connectedness.” In acknowledging that learning at home “can be a lonely activity”, he recommends creating as many opportunities as possible “for social interaction, not just between you and the student, but … for students to work, share, interact, and learn together”. Furthermore, adolescent psychologist Andrew Fuller reminds us in an article he wrote recently for teachers, of the importance of “creating a sense of belonging” when we face enforced “disconnection”. Everything that we can do right now as educators to create this sense of connection and belonging in our online classes will pave the way for the most effective learning to happen.

In the pursuit of nurturing connectedness in my own online learning community, I recently invited my Year 9 journalism students to share an “object” that was particularly dear to them and which played a significant role in their life. What began as a way of personalising the lesson and building a sense of belonging, quickly became something much richer. As a group, we were introduced to a range of very well-behaved dogs and cats, many “love-worn” teddy bears, a highly prized cricket bat, a theatre program that recorded a student’s first professional theatrical performance, innumerable “first” toys, model aeroplanes, precious crystals, and so much more. I was surprised by and delighted with how readily these 14- and 15-year old students were prepared to share their “objects” and, more importantly, the personal stories behind them, often revealing things about themselves that they may have been reluctant to do so face to face. It was in this act of sharing that our sense of community and belonging was taking shape. While this had little if any immediate relevance to the broadcast news unit that we had been working on in class, it helped us to learn more about each other and to connect with one another more authentically. Of particular interest to me was the quality of interactions between the students that followed; they were more authentic, more respectful and ultimately more productive.

One of our core responsibilities as teachers right now, is to nurture and maintain those important bonds that had developed before we went into lockdown. By encouraging activities that engage students in cooperative and collaborative learning, we will be helping to foster a sense of community and belonging. Moreover, interspersing online sessions with personal messages, inviting honest feedback and asking for suggestions about how to make the learning experiences better for them, can further develop a sense of purpose for our students. When I asked my students this morning, how they were feeling about distance learning, I was surprised by the number who openly declared that they “couldn’t wait to get back to school” – this coming from some who would ordinarily choose to avoid school if they could. I cannot help but echo here the lyrics of Joni Mitchell in Big Yellow Taxi: you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.

This crisis has presented educators with many challenges but also with many opportunities that have come about through the process of pushing our thinking and forcing us out of our comfort zones. I have marvelled each day at how our staff have embraced the challenge of distance learning and how they continue – both individually and collaboratively – to find new ways of fostering connectedness with their students so that they remain engaged in the learning. The challenge has not been insignificant. While most have had to reinvent themselves and reimagine what learning can look like in this new space, many have struggled with the time and energy that this has taken, especially those who themselves are managing the learning of their own children from home. But, they continue to do so because that is what teachers do, what they have always done, to prioritise their students, to connect with them, to help them to understand and to nurture their wellbeing. The rapid learning that has taken place for all of us and the incredible generosity of spirit that has allowed the sharing of ideas and strategies are indeed cause for celebration.

In spite of the physical distance that currently separates teacher and student, we need to continue to work hard to maintain those important human connections which form the foundation for great teaching.

Only connect…