Connecting in Spite of “Remote” Restrictions

Caring and Connecting in “Remote” Times

Our confidence is shaken. Teachers are exhausted, working harder than ever to engage kids virtually. Working longer hours, feeling that nothing is enough. Never have I seen teachers and staff so hungry, so thirsty for one good word. They hang on every compliment, every note of thanks, more so than ever.”
– Superintendent, in the midst of COVID

An Oxymoron Year

The Oxford English Dictionary was unable to select a “word of the year” for 2020. But, as might be expected, “unprecedented” and “pandemic” were strong candidates. As were oxymorons, “social distancing” and “remote learning.”

Leaders, indeed all educators, are caught in this double bind. How to be social … and remote … at the same time.  We know we need more social connections in times of stress. Yet the pandemic keeps us distant from each other.  Leaders find themselves making more decisions than ever with less time and less input than ever. Teachers are working harder than ever to connect with and engage students, with seemingly less success than ever.

How do we connect remotely? 

In times of stress, caring and connection, gratitude and appreciation are needed more than ever. And in an era of remote learning and social distancing, how do we make those important connections? How do we communicate – truly communicate – and show we care?

Leadership Examples

Here are examples from those who are learning and leading on “connecting remotely.”

Optional Open meeting

Jon Holmen, superintendent of the Lake Washington (WA) school district, holds Optional Open meetings for all school and district leaders, every Monday from 12:30 to 1:30. It’s optional: Come if you can.

Attended by 120-140 out of 170 leaders each week. Purpose? Sharing successes, challenges, anything important,  entered in chat. Jon shares a few thoughts about district work; current issues (COVID); core mission. He takes questions and in so doing takes the pulse of the district. It’s been well received and keeps everyone together. The idea will doubtless live on after COVID.


Lance Gibbon, superintendent in Oak Harbor (WA), makes sure the district is seen and noticed in many ways, large and small. Publications and materials are branded and reinforced throughout the community. When Oak Harbor opened elementary schools in hybrid in-person this fall, they were the largest Washington school district to do so. As they made those plans, they decided parents had enough on their plates. They would not ask parents to provide any school supplies for the new year. Instead, they provided school-branded backpacks for every student along with the necessary school supplies, many of those also branded with school and district logos. And they have branded clothing for staff to display school and district pride. Expensive? Not so much. And returns on investment are priceless.

Check-in with teachers

Alison Brynelson, superintendent in Mukilteo (WA), meets with teachers who are on-deck for going hybrid. She sends them a personal invite along with school principals and union leaders. In those meetings she tells staff, “I really want to hear from you. You are the experts.” She follows up with thank you notes, the ideas that she heard, and an invite to another meeting next week. She is committed to supporting teachers in every way possible; to answering their questions, ensuring their safety, and providing that extra note of appreciation.

Supporting teachers

Laurie Dent, superintendent, has worked with Sumner-Bonney Lake (WA) staff to achieve close to 100% student engagement in remote learning. They provided intense PD for teachers before school began and keep following up to see what else can be done to support teachers and students. Students received laptops, hot spots and if needed, hard-line cable internet hookups (thanks to Rotary). If students are not participating, staff literally go door-to-door to let parents know how important it is and do what they can to help. And at board meetings, they highlight stories of staff who are going above and beyond to engage students.

Teacher appreciation

Michaela Clancy, special education director in Clover Park School District (WA), sends weekly communications to staff every Friday. Eight hundred students are on-site every day. She holds “live chats” with staff weekly to support open and honest dialogue. As part of a district-wide “four weeks of appreciation,” they found new ways each week to say, “thank you.” Goodie bags with small tokens of appreciation like blue light blockers.  And a short video showcasing teachers and paras at work supporting students.

Cascade waterfall

Sharon Bower, director of the Washington State Leadership Academy, shared this creative way to engage staff.  Using the chat function in remote learning, begin your meeting with a prompt asking for something along the lines of one positive thing to share, one word to describe how your day has gone, or one hope you have for this week. Ask everyone to type in the response WITHOUT sending. Ask them to hold their response until you ask them all to hit send at once. Hence the “cascade waterfall” of chats. Then provide time to review the responses.  Participants can copy the chat if there are good ideas they want to hang on to. If you have time to process, you can use breakouts. And it can be a kind of instant survey, giving you feedback on where staff are at the moment.

Our Finest Hour

Churchill is famous for two lines that speak to our times.

  • Never, ever, ever, ever give up.
  • May we live as if this were our finest hour.

Kudos to school and district leadersthose listed here and countless otherswho refuse to let “remote” separate “caring” from learning. Let’s continue to be leaders who keep finding creative ways to say Thank You to hard-working staff by caring and connecting.

Hang in there. Keep building relationships, trust, and motivation in an age of social distancing and remote learning. It can be done. It is being done. And when we fill the buckets for our staff, they have more with which to fill our students’ buckets.

I’ve always admired people who overcome obstacles, who commit to living. People who commit to the moment. People who are present…in the space with you.  –  Anne-Marie Duff




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Seattle Schools superintendent 2014-2018

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