From lively K-12 classrooms to evening GED classes to graduate programs, education is experienced in community.
Classroom environments bring together learners with a variety of backgrounds, interests, skill levels and goals to achieve. Perhaps as an educator you’ve seen that whether online or in person, classrooms are more than spaces to learn. They’re an open invitation to grow together in knowledge and potential.
In an in-person environment, creating a community can come more naturally. Face-to-face interaction and visible body language make it easier to develop meaningful relationships among students and instructors.
Amidst a shift to online learning, that sense of community can also be cultivated virtually. The path to doing so simply may require a little more intentionality.
Ten Tips for Creating a Supportive Learning Community For All Students
While the steps to create community may look different, livestream and online environments can be just as transformative as in-person experiences with the right mindset.
As an educator, in whatever environment you find yourself teaching these days, know that cultivating community is possible. And your students need you to set that foundation.
To help provide inspiration and innovation, here we share helpful tips on establishing an intentional learning community in your own classroom.
1. Begin as a Learner
We’re sorry to break it to you, but you probably won’t have all the answers to creating the perfect online learning environment right from the start. Like many opportunities for growth and change, discovering ways that work for you to build a sense of community is a process.
Connie Sattler, assistant dean at Cornerstone University’s Professional & Graduate Studies, said it’s important to begin as a learner when moving forward with teaching and creating community online.
“Embrace a learner’s mindset. Prepare yourself for advances and setbacks, and cut yourself some slack as you figure out what works best for you.”
Being willing to learn and grow as an instructor empowers you to discover new methods, resources and skills to make your classroom the best it can be.
2. Be Available
If you’ve ever had to send multiple reminder emails or follow-up calls to a co-worker or supervisor, you know how frustrating delayed communication can be. As you seek to amplify the community experience in your classroom, choose to be available.
Set up virtual office hours at a designated time so your students know they can check-in with you. Use multiple methods of communication with your students. While your students shouldn’t always expect an email or text response within 30 minutes of sending a question, they should be able to count on you to communicate in a timely manner.
That consistent and predictable expectation of communication builds trust between you and your students and paves the way for strong relationships.
3. Connect With Experience
Instructors in the PGS program have the opportunity to connect with students who bring years of work and life experience to the classroom. These insights have the potential to add immense value to discussions, forum posts and other assignments in the course.
Encourage your students to contribute their real-world experiences into discussions. Help them see the value in learning from other’s work and life environments look like. The insights an experienced vice president in sales brings to a conversation on marketing will be quite different than what a 20-something social media manager may have.
4. Focus on Connection
With so many tasks to complete and opportunities to explore, it’s easy for instructors to focus on telling students what they need to know to pass the course and get on with their program.
But teaching is much more than that.
As an instructor, you’re invited to go beyond content and create an experience that empowers your students to thrive. See teaching not only as a one-way channel of communication but a dialogue among your learners.
Think about it. Would you be more willing to speak up in class or offer insight if you knew those around you value you and what you bring to the table? Of course.
Seek out connections with your students. They’re not merely people in seats or names on a virtual call. They have stories, dreams, goals, challenges, fears and a potential they’re pursuing. As their instructor, you can empower them to continue moving forward by taking a personal interest in who they are, their gifts and their contributions to the community.
5. Communicate Your Way
Within this increasingly online learning environment, there are now more ways than ever for your students to connect with you. Often, email is the most commonly used method of communication for instructors to answer questions and stay updated on where students are at.
But if you’re looking to go beyond email, there are other ways to connect, too.
If you’re willing, sharing a phone number students can call or text to reach you can speed up the communication on particularly urgent requests.
If you’re active on social media, invite them to connect with you on LinkedIn. Creating those connections may be of great value someday—for you and for them.
Whichever ways you choose to connect with your students, be consistent. Discover the mediums that work best for you, and stay true to the expectations you’ve set in place.
6. Build a Classroom Culture
Like a manager helps to create the culture of the department or team, an instructor creates a classroom environment that either hinders success or inspires students to thrive.
There are a lot of ways to go about building this sense of community and culture; and often, it doesn’t take much. Sometimes, crafting this culture comes about naturally as you seek to serve students. Listening and focusing on communication can lead to a positive culture in the classroom, whether in-person or virtual.
Other helpful ways to cultivate your classroom culture include:
- Start class with prayer.
- Use social media accounts to bring students together.
- Share inspiring quotes on a daily or weekly basis to encourage students.
Creating a supportive culture can pave the way for lasting community and equip students to succeed both academically and in their overall learning experience.
7. Ask Your Students for Help
As an instructor, you’re often the one to go to for questions about anything and everything in the course. Yet it’s easy to forget that students in your class also play a significant role in the type of community created and how effective it can be in leading to their success.
Collaboration can be important skills for both you as an instructor and your students. And that value extends beyond the classroom to support workplaces, families and communities.
Don’t be afraid to ask your students for help in cultivating a welcoming environment. Invite them to notice raised hands in a livestream platform so that those tuning in virtually feel recognized and appreciated. Ask your students to identify new comments or questions they see in the chat. If you’re having trouble with an element of technology in the class, see if your students may be able to help you all move forward.
8. Put Yourself in Their Shoes
Empathy is a fundamental element to cultivating a strong community, whether in a family, workplace or a classroom. Empathy, the ability to understand and feel someone else’s feelings, is a highly valuable skill that opens the door for meaningful conversations and building community.
As an instructor, especially during challenging seasons such as a pandemic, expressing empathy for your students can help cultivate trust.
Consider what they must be feeling and experiencing as they navigate online learning. For some, they may be eager to dive into using new technology and participate in a fully virtual environment. Others may be excited about the opportunity to learn online but are concerned about additional technology requirements.
You have the opportunity to express interest and care for where they’re at. When you do, you’ll be able to move forward in creating a sustainable, meaningful classroom community.
9. Realize Perfection Isn’t Possible
Despite all the steps you take and open lines of communication you keep, building community won’t be perfect. Problems come up, people have conflicting views and internet connections can be slow.
What matters is that you and your students continue to learn and grow together, one day and one class session at a time. The intentional steps you take to build community and create relationships is what your students will remember when they walk across the stage at graduation.
10. Incorporate Fun and Humor
If you’ve got a knack for a good laugh, consider throwing in some humor into your classroom experience.
Humanize the learning experience by starting off the class with a lighthearted video. Share a relevant quote that brings a laugh to the topic you’re covering. When appropriate, use a GIF or emoji in your communication as you invite students into a welcoming community that goes beyond just sharing knowledge and skills.
Learning Designed for Community
Whether a K-12 classroom, lunchtime cooking class or an accelerated degree program, learning happens in community.
Develop your plan for cultivating a supportive learning community that empowers both you and your students to be successful in this important transition to online learning.
Find Community in a Graduate Program
Elevate your knowledge and experience through a graduate program that’s crafted around a supportive learning community. Explore how you can take your next step with a Master of Arts in Education alongside fellow educators and school leaders.