Serving Students and Teachers Distance Learning Needs

Arches of Main Building on UT Austin Campus

2021 impacted both teachers and students in ways we could have never predicted. Whether you were teaching in-person, virtual, or in a hybrid environment, we heard many of you express the difficulties you were facing to keep students engaged.


Our Distance Learning Catalog was designed to help address such challenges. One of the free modules available to middle and high school teachers in Texas offers best practices to cultivate authentic student-teacher relationships in distance learning.

As we have seen, there has never been a more important time for social emotional learning than the present. Teachers have had to shift to providing SEL support virtually. Without face-to-face interaction, the personalization so key to SEL has been compromised.

A portion of the OnRamps Distance Learning Catalog to help give teachers the tools to provide SEL support virtually. In the module, Cultivating Authentic Student-Teacher Relationships in Distance Learning, we walk teachers through how to make connections from a distance, build teacher-student relationships, demonstrate empathy and implement restorative practices.


Maria Zuniga, an English Language Arts-Reading teacher for grades 6 and 8 at North East Alternative Center realized that the transition to virtual learning was much more difficult than she thought it would be.

Going beyond the technological challenges of virtual learning, Maria realized that she was having a harder time connecting with her students to ensure they understood their assignments and were completing their work. Before the start of the new school year, Maria took three Distance Learning Catalog modules, with a particular interest in the “Cultivating Authentic Student-Teacher Relationships in Distance Learning” module. As she embarked on a new school year with students she hadn’t met before, Maria used her new tools to bond with her students to establish a connection and build a foundation.

"My shy student then began feeling more comfortable engaging with the others and speaking up in class."

“I worked with a student who was shy and barely spoke up in our virtual classroom. She was new and didn’t know or trust me or the other students. I worked hard to draw her out of her shell, but she was hesitant to make a connection with our classroom and engage with the others.

I decided to implement a SEL skill I learned from the Distance Learning Catalog by giving my class 10 minutes of silent sustained reading of their choice each morning followed by a brief discussion with the group on what each student learned from their readings. My shy student then began feeling more comfortable engaging with the others and speaking up in class. I’ve found that through establishing a connection, my students are not embarrassed to ask questions and participate more frequently in class."


With the school year halfway over, we’ve heard from many of you about your experiences with capacity, connection and engagement in the classroom thus far. Fast-thinking activities that we used to take for granted have now become slow-thinking activities. Many of you have expressed your social-and-emotional wellbeing has taken a back seat as you find yourself playing more of a counselor role with your students. You are not alone.

Here are five strategies to consider when building authentic student-teacher relationships in distance learning. Person sitting in front of a computer writing on a notepad.

  1. Build a connection - Cultivating a connection between you and your students is important for fostering emotional intelligence, which has positive effects in terms of behavior and academic performance. Building a connection can be as simple as asking your students about their hobbies or extracurricular activities to build an authentic connection.
  2. Plan ahead – Remote instruction comes with more challenging and technical barriers compared to a traditional classroom setting. By identifying all the tools, systems, and procedures you plan on using, you can find simple ways to streamline and simplify. Work with your students in advance to plan ahead for any anticipated technical challenges, such as no access to a web cam or WiFi.
  3. Encourage participation – Students might be nervous about online learning. It is crucial to begin each class with student-centered, team-building activities to set a classroom culture and encourage participation. Try implementing a virtual activity such as show-and-tell to help students feel connected.
  4. Building connections in a hybrid classroom – Teaching in a hybrid classroom feels like double the work. Many of you expressed the difficulties you’ve experienced ensuring your in-person AND virtual students feel connected. Consider building in unstructured class time by taking a few minutes before class to allow your students to talk to each other. Create camaraderie through study groups or partnered assignments to allow students to interact and establish a connection.
  5. Teach with empathy – Empathy is important in any classroom setting, especially in distance learning, where students can easily feel disconnected from one another. By acknowledging each individual student’s situation ensures they feel safe within the classroom and can rely on you as a steady, positive influence. Encourage your students to create steady routines to establish a sense of normalcy.

In partnership with the Texas Education Agency (TEA), OnRamps is offering five modules from the Distance Learning Catalog to all middle and high school teachers employed in a Texas school at no cost to support districts in Instructional Continuity planning. More information can be found on the TEA's Strong Start Resources web page.

Headshot of Dr. Jennifer Porter

Dr. Jennifer Porter is the managing director of OnRamps and brings more than 20 years of professional experience in the education sector and a lifetime of passion for seeing students and teachers succeed... [Read More]