As a teacher, I always prided myself on my first-day-of-school lesson plans. Instead of reading aloud yet another syllabus, my 9th grade students spent the first day in conversation with one another, building connections with each other, with me, and with English Language Arts.
I take the same approach each July with the new cohort of teacher residents, who begin their year-long apprenticeship with a summer intensive. We carve out time getting to know each other as humans and as educators. We share our stories. We reflect on our identities. We engage in hard conversations about equity. We envision the future of education together.
This summer, the COVID-19 pandemic meant that we could not do any of these activities as usual. We would not hold our full-day sessions in person. We would not sit around the same table for lunch. We would not catch each other in the hallway for an informal conversation, where friendships blossomed and lifelong professional connections were formed.
Instead, we were 28 future teachers and 4 faculty, spread across 5 states and 3 time zones, gathered together in one Zoom room to build the foundation for our year together.
And the stakes were high. Unlike my 9th grade students who were required to be in my class, our teacher residents chose to participate in our program, paid tuition, and, in many cases, moved to a new city or state in the middle of a pandemic. Our goal was clear — we had to give them a reason to stay, and quickly.
As a faculty, we decided that our approach was still the right one. We just had to find a way to build meaningful, authentic relationships even more intentionally with the computer screen between all of us. And we wanted to do so in a way that modeled for our aspiring teachers how they could similarly build relationships with the middle and high school students they would work with this year. Drawing from the science of social-emotional development, vulnerability, heterogeneous groupings, and the role of identity work in community-building, we set out to prioritize three core tenets for our remote learning community:
Lean into vulnerability. The faculty set a tone of authenticity and vulnerability from our very first introductory activity, in which we introduced ourselves by sharing “the deeper why” behind the work we do. We continued to find ways to bring our full and authentic selves into our sessions, by sharing about ourselves and our personal journeys before we asked our teacher residents to do the same.
Use intentional and consistent groupings. Each day our teacher residents met in ‘table groups’ of 4 to 5 individuals that were intentionally heterogeneous. The residents stayed with the same group for the three weeks of the summer program, meeting at the start of the day to center themselves and check-in with each other.
We frequently returned to these groups for small group discussions throughout the day, giving the opportunity to not only build personal connections with each other but to learn about each other as students and aspiring teachers too. As one Resident shared:
“I feel great trust with my table group — we shared contact info and goals and pledged to support and keep each other accountable.”
Hold space for identity work. Although we met together for synchronous instruction for less time than we would have in person, we continued to hold space for identity work. In preparation for writing a personal narrative, our teacher residents explored their values, told stories about themselves as individuals and within the context of education, and created webs connecting the facets of their identities. They not only had space and time to reflect themselves, but we challenged them to share their identities and reflections with each other.
These activities provided a space for a diverse group of individuals to hear and value the different perspectives and lived experiences within the cohort. We used community agreements to create an environment that allowed our teacher residents to be vulnerable and to build trust, even through a computer screen.
As Anthony, a Chemistry resident from San Jose, California, shared with us in our end-of-summer survey:
“It worked way better than I expected! The discussions were lively and in depth. The small table group was much more intimate than expected. Overall I feel that I was able to connect strongly to my peers, the faculty, and especially my table group members despite only meeting on video.
Keep doing the breakout groups and Socratic seminars. Keep doing engaging activities and discussion topics. Many great discussions were sparked.”
Anthony, and many others, saw and appreciated the intentional work the faculty did to establish and maintain effective relationships and culture in a virtual environment. And that intentionality seemed to spread. We saw our teacher residents take ownership of the culture and their experience by setting up virtual study sessions, connecting with each other for collaboration or feedback, exchanging phone numbers, offering moral support and ideas for self care.
Although we have never set foot in the same physical space, we have built a community. We do not know what the year ahead brings; we do not know if our teacher residents will teach within the four physical walls of a classroom this year. But we have a foundation of trust and authenticity to lean on, to build from, as we tackle the year ahead.
Pamela Lamcke is the Founding Executive Director of the Marshall Teacher Residency, a one-year educator preparation program that is opening the door for talented, diverse educators who are committed to transforming education through student-centered, innovative classrooms.
Formerly known as the Summit Learning Teacher Residency, the program has trained nearly 70 educators in public schools across the San Francisco Bay Area.