Building Classroom Relationships Online

By Kristofer Rhude

Kristofer Rhude is the Curriculum & Instruction Associate for the Religious Literacy Project.

Image of hands typing on laptop next to colorful notebooks

As we prepare for the next school year, it is likely that many teachers will be returning to an online format. Here at HDS, we will be online again ourselves. At the RLP, we know that the pedagogy we promote can feel daunting to practice when moving to an online format, and without a doubt, practicing a student-centered critical pedagogy online presents unique challenges, from equity and access to having safe discussions. But it can be done. The RLP has experience creating online classrooms through Harvard Extension and HX for several years, and we are here to support you as you rethink what it means to teach in this new way. We’ve put together a few preliminary thoughts for you to consider as you prepare for next year, and we welcome further conversation.

First, give students regular opportunity to share what’s going on in their lives and how they are feeling. This is a time of deep trauma for many students at the intersection of a global public health crisis, the ever-present evils of racism, and countless threats to the well-being of LGBTQ+, undocumented, BIPOC, and religious minority students. Students need time to process their emotions, and you need time to hear them. This is important for social-emotional well-being, but it is also impossible to have meaningful, difficult conversations with your students without building a relationship with them and demonstrating that you care. As Paulo Freire declares in Pedagogy of the Oppressed: “Love is at the same time the foundation of dialogue and dialogue itself… love is commitment to others. No matter where the oppressed are found, the act of love is commitment to their cause” (89). We know you love your students. Be sure that they know it too!

Additionally, take time to create purely social spaces for your students. Remember that for many of your students, their primary social time was at school. Now that learning is online, many may have little to no opportunity to socialize with their peers. Some groups of students—such as LGBTQ+ youth—may have lost their only support networks. Remember that without lunch time, passing time between classes, clubs, and sports, students need time to goof off and enjoy each other’s company without any expectations of content delivery. But there is a pedagogical importance to this as well; when it comes time to have the difficult and meaningful conversations about religion, violence and peace, and power, the relationships that they have built with each other will be essential to creating an atmosphere of honesty and trust.

Of course, their relationship to you is also essential. As you would in your normal classroom, model honest vulnerability. As bell hooks says in Teaching to Transgress, “empowerment cannot happen if we refuse to be vulnerable while encouraging students to take risks… in my classroom, I do not expect students to take risks that I would not take, to share in any way that I would not share” (21). What this vulnerability will look like will differ from teacher to teacher. But video conferencing can provide opportunities for vulnerability. Interruptions from family or pets may feel uncomfortable, but they also show students that you are facing new challenges in this pandemic just like they are. Perhaps when you are struggling with the enormity of the world’s challenges as we all do, you can share that with your students. You don’t have all the answers; it’s good for students to know that.

These are just a few brief words of encouragement and advice as you create your online classrooms. We’ve also included several readings below that you may find helpful in creating such spaces online. In addition, take a look at Teaching Tolerance’s list of articles on “Supporting Students Through Coronavirus.” A few are highlighted below, but the page is updated regularly.

Thanks for all the support you give to your students and colleagues. Please let us know how we can support you in the coming school year. The work you are doing today is nothing short of revolutionary.


Selected Resources:

“Building the Inclusive Classroom,” Boston University Center for Teaching and Learning, June 25, 2020. Third video on the page; see especially the talks starting at 12:00 and 36:00, by Jessica Kent and Swati Rani, respectively)

“Establish Rapport and Build Community,” McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning, Princeton University.

Maha Bali “Literacies Teachers Need During Covid-19,” Al-Fanar Media, May 13, 2020.

Colin Gilbert “How to Help Student Navigate this Social-Emotional Rollercoaster,EdSurge, April 29, 2020.

Emily Gravett, “Using Self-Disclosure to Close the Distance,” Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning Blog, June 18, 2020.

Rachael Mahmood, “Online Teaching Can Be Culturally Responsive,” Teaching Tolerance, March 31, 2020.

James Miller, “Finite and Infinite Pedagogies in the Transition Online,” Inside Higher Ed, April 8, 2020.

Beth McMurtie “What Does Trauma-Informed Teaching Look Like?The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 4, 2020.

Jamilah Pitts, “Teaching as Activism, Teaching as Care,” Teaching Tolerance, May 15, 2020.


Leading Discussions and Synchronous Sessions:

Maha Bali, “About that Webcam Obsession You’re Having” (blog), June 22, 2020.

Maha Bali, “Wellbeing When You Gotta Be Online” (blog), June 26, 2020.

Teaching Tolerance, “Let’s Talk: Discussing Race, Racism, and other Difficult Topics with Students.”


Supporting Students with Unique Coronavirus Challenges:

Coshandra Dillard, “Speaking Up Against Racism around the New Coronavirus,” Teaching Tolerance, February 14, 2020.

Sarah Said, “Assuring Muslim Students Covid-19 Won’t Dim the Ramadan Lights,Teaching Tolerance, April 23, 2020.

Teaching Tolerance Staff, “Supporting Students with Learning Disabilities During School Closures,” Teaching Tolearnce, April 22, 2020.

The Trevor Project, “Implications of Covid-19 for LGBTQ Youth Mental Health and Suicide Prevention,” April 3, 2020.