Distant Physically, Not Emotionally

Making Students Feel Valued and Capable through Online Learning

Joseph F. Johnson, Jr., Ph.D. Rupi Boyd, Ed.D., & Jose Iniguez, Ed.D.

(#1 in a series of blogs focused on equity and excellence in on-line learning)

Attend the free webinar on August 20, 2020 at 10:00 am PDT. 

In schools that achieve impressive learning results for Black, Latinx, and low-income students, NCUST consistently finds classrooms where all students feel valued and capable. Students with disabilities tell us their teachers make them feel respected and intelligent. Students with emerging bilingualism report feeling a sense of belonging. Students who entered school below grade level express a sense of hope, because they are convinced their teachers are committed to their academic success. With passion and appreciation, Black students tell us their teachers believe in them and make them believe in themselves. In high-performing schools, we find abundant evidence of teachers leading students to feel valued and capable (Johnson, Uline, & Perez, 2019).

Ferguson (2002) noted that while all students tended to exert more effort when they perceived their teachers sincerely cared about them, he emphasized that Black and Latinx students were far more likely to work hard when they believed their teachers cared about them and their success in school. More than any other factor, NCUST has found compelling evidence that Black, Latinx, and Native American students, students from low-income or immigrant families, students with emerging bilingualism, LGBTQ students, students experiencing homelessness, students in foster care, students with disabilities, and many other students are likely to perform at high levels when they perceive that the adults they encounter at school care sincerely and deeply about them and their current and future wellbeing. As well, students are much more likely to excel, when they are convinced their teachers believe they are scholars, capable of learning challenging academic concepts and skills.

We strongly believe that almost all educators care about their students. However, the key factor is the extent to which students (and all groups of students) perceive that their teachers care about them and value them. As well, a key factor is the extent to which students (and all groups of students) perceive that their teachers believe they are capable of excelling academically.

In high-performing schools, teachers work deliberately to guide their students in believing that each student’s success matters greatly to them. As schools endeavor to utilize on-line learning opportunities, teachers will need to be even more deliberate in order to convince diverse populations of students that their teachers value, respect, and care about them and believe in their capacity to excel.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the shutdown of schools, educators made herculean efforts to develop and implement on-line learning approaches. Unfortunately, not all students benefitted from those approaches. The results of an EdWeek survey demonstrate that, during the recent physical closures of schools, 33% of students from low-income families communicated with their teacher daily as compared to 56% of students in more affluent communities (Kurts, 2020). Alarmingly, nearly one in three low-income students is considered “virtually absent/missing” as compared to 12% of more affluent students. While many factors may influence these statistics (e.g., access to hardware, access to WI-FI, support from parents, trauma at home, trauma in the neighborhood), it is critical to acknowledge how these barriers influence students’ perceptions about the degree to which educators value them and believe in their ability to succeed.

No one knows how long schools will remain closed physically; however, it is reasonable to assume that online teaching strategies will remain an important educational tool for the forseeable future. So, how can educators use online learning situations in ways that maximize the likelihood that students will perceive they are both valued and capable? How can teachers use technology to increase the likelihood that each and every student will think, “The adults at my school sincerely want me to succeed in school and in life. They are confident that I am a scholar, likely to excel.” We will explore this topic in greater detail in our upcoming webinar entitled, “Making Students Feel Valued and Capable through Online Learning,” however, we highlight a few ideas below:

In online learning environments, how can school personnel demonstrate a commitment to getting to know students better?

  • Regularly use text messages and phone calls to check-in with students and families.
  • Schedule time for online class meetings that allow students to talk about issues that concern them.
  • Designate time for “office hours” to facilitate opportunities for one-to-one communication with students and parents.
  • Utilize classroom aides, school counselors, and other personnel to send personalized, supportive messages to students and parents.
  • Encourage all school personnel to serve as a mentor to one or more students and make an effort to get to know them and their family better, especially during the pandemic.
  • Follow-up with students who were absent for class sessions. Express concern. Let students know they were missed. Create opportunities for students to learn what they missed.
  • Engage students in discussions about issues that are of concern to them now. Listen to their voices. Appreciate their concerns. Help students know that others have similar concerns. Engage them in discussions about what they can do to make a positive difference.

In online learning environments, how can school personnel model courtesy and respect for each student?

  • Use personalized chat messages to acknowledge, appreciate, and even celebrate students when they share their ideas, perspectives, and feelings.
  • When students are disengaged in online learning, respond in a manner that is courteous and respectful.
  • Monitor your own fatigue and frustration and don’t allow your personal feelings to reduce the extent to which you model courtesy and respect in all interactions with students.
  • Avoid judging students when you don’t know the circumstances. If you have a concern, ask students to explain the situation. Listen to and believe their responses.
  • Offer mini-classes to parents to help them use positive approaches when they work with their children. Remember that some parents might assume that the best way to work with their children is to use the negative approaches that teachers utilized (often unsuccessfully) with them.

In online learning environments, how can school personnel praise and acknowledge students?

  • During synchronous instruction, maximize opportunities for students to engage and respond. Utilize each response as an opportunity to acknowledge and praise students.
  • Acknowledge and praise students for logging on, starting assignments, persisting with challenging assignments, completing assignments, asking questions, working with other students, and demonstrating learning progress.
  • Create electronic bulletin boards that celebrate student accomplishments. Work toward the goal of posting at least one example of excellence from every student.
  • Acknowledge and praise parents for their efforts to support students in learning important concepts and skills. Use email, text messages, and learning management systems to help parents know how much their efforts are making a positive difference.

In online learning environments, how can school personnel transform classroom practices in ways that help students feel valued and capable?

  • Move away from traditional grading approaches and focus instead on evaluating the extent to which students are progressing toward mastery of important objectives. Emphasize what students have learned and what they still need to learn.
  • When students clearly do not understand a concept or skill, avoid “grading.” Instead, respond by differentiating instruction in a way that is more likely to result in understanding.
  • Utilize the rich world of online resources in ways that help students see the relevance of learning activities to their lives.

This is only a representative sample of strategies for increasing the likelihood that all students will feel valued and capable as they engage in online learning. We hope you join us for the webinar on August 20, 2020 at 10:00 a.m. PDT where we will offer a deeper discussion about how educators can maximize the use of this teaching practice to promote both equity and excellence in learning results.

Ferguson, R. (2002). What doesn’t meet the eye: Understanding and addressing racial disparities in high-achieving suburban schools. Oak Brook, IL: North Central Regional Educational Lab.

Johnson, J.F., Uline, C.L., & Perez, L.G. (2019). Teaching practices from America’s best urban schools: A guide for school and classroom leaders. New York, NY: Routledge.

Kurts, H. (April 10, 2020). National survey tracks impact of coronavirus on schools: 10 key findings. Education Week.


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