Rapport Through A Computer Screen: The Teacher Concern

Commentary By: Joseph Conway

“I am concerned.  How will I build a relationship with my students this year?”

This is the refrain that I am hearing a lot this new school year: The year of the pandemic opening. 

Last year we were able to start off a regular school year.  We had regular routines and rules, and our roles in the teaching profession were what they had always been.  We built our relationships from the first day of school with our students all the way until March 17.  And then we stepped out of the building.

This year we are faced with starting off our entire program and our first days of school interfacing through a computer screen.  How will we do what we do with our students?  How will we create those magical moments?  How will we make those special connections?  How will we see the moment of understanding for our kids when the lightbulb goes on for them?  How can we do all this through a little Zoom box on a computer screen?

When discussing teaching, our profession is broken down into certain domains.  Those domains are pedagogical knowledge, content knowledge, and rapport.  All of which make up the craft of teaching. Pedagogical knowledge is that knowledge which focuses on stages of development, Bloom’s taxonomy, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and the different schools of learning.  Professional content knowledge is all the subject specific content that a teacher must know in order to impart such as Literature, Algebra, Chemistry, etc. 

The first two are pretty straightforward and clear.  They make up the basis of our profession and are teachable.  And then we step into something a little bit wonky:  rapport. The dictionary defines rapport “as a close and harmonious relationship in which the people or groups concerned understand each other’s feelings or ideas and communicate well.” 

This is the element that our profession grapples with most in teacher training programs and does not have a clear answer to.  This is where relationships, classroom management, and being able to connect to our students stems from.  Personality and interpersonal ability play a big part in this domain.  It takes years for new teachers to figure out what their personality in relationship to their students should be.

There is a reason that the teacher’s profession is considered a craft.  There is an artistry to it, and much of that artistry comes from the domain of rapport. 

Aside from the technological hurdles, and some of the program logistics, it is this area of rapport that we are most challenged in when considering the start of the new year.

However, building rapport through a screen medium is not new for our students nor for us as educators, even though it may feel that way.  Society as a whole has built relationships with TV characters for generations.  TV, Netflix, Amazon Prime, all do it effectively in our medium of shows and movies.  Through scripted work characters build relationships with us on a regular basis. We adore certain heroes on the screen and are able to hate villains and nemesis. 

Through social media such as Tik Tok, Snapchat, YouTube, and Instagram, we form a closeness to others.  Through the screen charisma, leadership, fatal flaws, and character arcs all play out to fan bases through a similar concept of rapport. As teachers we need to harness this and channel it towards academic and educational growth. 

Building rapport through the virtual world is not that different in scope than our normal work.  Setting aside time to connect individually or in small groups with our children outside of the Zoom and Google Classroom will be the greatest asset to our work.  Following up with students and parents and making sure our families know we are there and support them through this unusual school year is what will build rapport.  That is the task set before us.  Building rapport one child at a time. 

Dr. Joseph Conway is the superintendent and co-founder of the Camden Charter School Network that includes four schools in the City of Camden.

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