Main Points

  • The Importance of Relationships During COVID-19
  • Establishing Communication With Students
  • Building Relationships During COVID-19
  • Building Relationships Online
  • Connecting With Students

Dr. Sheldon Eakins: (00:00)

Welcome, Advocates, to another episode of the Leading Equity Podcast, a podcast that focuses on supporting educators with the tools and resources necessary to ensure equity at their school. Today I have a special guest with me, Prof. Kiera Vargas is here today and dealt further ado, Kiera, thank you so much for joining us.

Prof. Kiera Vargas: (00:20)

Thank you for having me, Dr. Eakins.

Eakins: (00:23)

The pleasure is always mine, and today we're going to talk about relationships and specifically relationships online as, you know, lots of us are doing online learning, and you know, we want to talk about some ways that we can develop those relationships online, especially relationships that we didn't have as strong prior to our schools being closed. And we'll talk about those things today. But before we get into that conversation, Kiera, I would love for you to share with our fellow Advocates out there a little bit about you and what you currently do.

Vargas: (00:58)

Okay, so this is my 16th year teaching. I've taught every level from K-6 to K-12 and on a collegiate level I've taught ELA, I've taught speech courses, I've taught journalism courses, yearbook through K-12, and on a collegiate level I've taught everything from political science to liberal study courses, African-American study courses, and now I'm currently at Tennessee State University teaching freshmen composition.

Eakins: (01:24)

There we are. All right, so let's get into it. Let's talk about relationships. Why are relationships so important during COVID-19?

Vargas: (01:34)

Relationships are important even prior to COVID-19 I'd say, but with COVID-19 they're really important because you get to know your student, you get to understand the challenges that many of our students are going through. You are able to nurture the students, you're able to inspire the students, and if you are humble enough as an educator, you also get to allow the students to inspire you.

Eakins: (01:57)

I love that you started your response with, we need a relationship before COVID-19, and I think that's a big piece there because it's harder now, I think with first of all trying to get in touch with our classes and our students. I mean, some of us are going a month in with online learning and we still haven't been able to properly communicate with some of our families right now and so I'm glad that you brought that up and said, you know what, it started with before just being an educator. That's part of what we do is we're supposed to build relationships, and I'm glad you brought that out.

Vargas: (02:33)

I do know that with some educators, building relationships is not as authentic for some educators as it is for others. Just kind of speaking ahead, one of the things that I always do with my students, I issue out my cell phone numbers, so whether it's been K-12 or whether it's been on a collegial level, I share with them my cell phone number, and I always share this disclaimer: This has been the only cell phone number that I have ever had. I have never had anyone abuse my cell phone number, so they use my cell phone number if they have any issues, particularly even with my college students this semester, they'll send me a text message or maybe call me to let me know. "I think I'm going to be a little bit late because I have this issue or that issue." And I even had K-12 students -- their parents send me messages every so often. So you know relationship prior to COVID is really important. And again, every teacher, every educator, is different.

Eakins: (03:28)

Agreed. So let's break that down. Let's unpack that a little bit because you said you give out your cell phone, and I can understand from the higher ed level when you're dealing with adults. Talk to us a little bit more about what -- maybe some protocols that you put in place for cell phone usage between communication between you and students in the K-12 level.

Vargas: (03:50)

So I write students letters. So typically, I'm at the beginning of every year that I've ever taught. I would write letters to students and write letters to parents and I, you know, share who I am, my expectations for this student, and I will issue out my cell phone number in the event that they have questions that just can't wait until the next day. Typically I don't have those issues, but I think that it shows transparency between all parties. So I think it's just allowing for transparency, allow for relationship and I again, I realize that a lot of educators are not like that and I would state, I have a really good friend that is a principal, and we talk back and forth about this because you do find that many educators don't know how to separate students versus -- it overlaps. Sometimes we all are aware of teachers abusing -- okay, how could I say this?

Vargas: (04:46)

I once had a colleague that was arrested for sleeping with the student, and I found that to be horrible. It's probably -- we find so many issues like that, and it does begin with some of the things that I, that I do. So I really don't know what the protocol is. I know that in the past you have been an administrator, so that may be something that the teacher and the administrators have to speak about. My administrators -- so I write a prisoner. I've been writing this prisoner for about 16-17 years. He was a classmate of mine in middle school. I grew up in a really interesting environment. Drugs, prostitution, a whole bunch of different things. And the schools that we attended, they were not always the best schools. A relationship that he built with the teacher -- he later told me this through letters, and I have many of the letters that we've been writing over the years.

Vargas: (05:34)

He formed a relationship with a teacher, and the teacher abused him. The teacher did things that they should not have done. And I see this too often in the world of education, and it really hurts my heart because -- think about building relationships. You think about, I have a 17-year-old son, so I want someone that's going to love my son the way I love him. I want someone gonna respect my son the way that I respect him. I want someone that's gonna educate my son the way that he needs to be educated and not take advantage of him. Too often, though, in education, we do see that teachers do cross that line. And that's just a pretty emotional topic for me because when you think about building relationships, you think about being there as a mentor, as an inspiration to our students, not being there to hurt the students.

Eakins: (06:22)

I'm with you on that. And I know there's some district policies, even school policies or some own personal -- I guess policies that a lot of our educators, they just avoid friending on social media. They avoid giving out their real cell phone. They might create like a Google voice number or use apps like Remind to be able to communicate with their students. So I just found it interesting. I've done both in my time as an educator. Early on I was giving out my cell phone. Then I found, you know what, it might be better to have some sort of quote-unquote protection or just for myself and just not wanting to have any kind of -- any challenges I guess coming up when it comes to communicating with minors. And so since my early on career as an educator, I just kind of moved to either just giving my cell phone out to parents or having some sort of wall, if you will, via an app or something else. In order to be able to communicate with my students. I still don't communicate with them. I don't friend any of my students until they graduate. I tell them, look, I will be your friend once you graduate, but I'm not doing that while you're still a student of mine.

Vargas: (07:39)

And I'm the same way with that part.

Eakins: (07:41)

Nice. So let's get back on the relationship building. So we touched on -- yes, we should have already had relationships with our students prior to our schools being closed. COVID didn't initiate, "Oh, we need to have relationships." That's been a thing forever. And so I want to know what are some ways that we can build our relationships that we have during this time.

Vargas: (08:03)

We can still do a lot of things that teachers were or should have been doing prior to COVID: writing students letters. I taught at a school in Florida a couple of years ago. I actually won Teacher of the Year for that county. And I handwrote my football players letters to remind them of how amazing they were both on and off the field. I had students that may not have looked great academically. So writing letters, sending emails with my students that I currently have, we do Zoom sessions. At the beginning of every Zoom session, I share motivational videos, or we were actually doing line dances together. I found a line dance, and you know, we were doing line dances together, and the one day that I had to cancel classes, a couple of weeks ago, a student sent me an email to let me know that she was pretty distraught, that I had to cancel the class that day because she looked forward to that particular -- what we did the first 15-20 minutes of class, you know, so just taking the time to get to know your students.

Eakins: (09:05)

So tell me more about that. So when you do your Zoom calls, how long is it and what does it -- how is it structured? It sounds like there's some sort of community building activity done in the beginning. Tell us a little bit more of how your Zoom sessions are going.

Vargas: (09:19)

My Zoom sessions are really like my class sessions, the first five to 10 minutes, you know, just take the time to see how students are doing. So, students, they call in, I have them type their name into the Zoom Box for this purpose. Before they leave, they also have to type their first and last names too inside the box. But we talk about how they're doing in a clip, or we're line dancing at the very beginning, and of course, many of them didn't want to sit there or cut their screens off. We have discussions and our discussions are -- I put them in break out rooms. Then I bring them back because I still know that regardless of what level you are on your students, sometimes they feel uncomfortable just sharing their thoughts. So it's putting them in small breakout rooms and then bring them back.

Vargas: (10:01)

That has really opened up the door for conversation. I gave them a calendar, so they already know what [we're] going to discuss, and sometimes we're a little delayed, or we may dance a little bit, but again, it's pretty structured just like my class. At the end of the Zoom session, I have the students throughout the session actually to share something positive, particularly to record it because the students, regardless of the level, you really have no idea what students are going through. I've had a couple of homeless students that probably -- they've been able to share their stories with me because of either reading material or because of conversations throughout the class. So yeah, we just structured the same way as class 

Eakins: (10:40)

Now do you require -- because this is a conversation that I've had with folks with Zoom or Google Hangouts -- are you requiring students to show their screens like -- or are they okay to just have their name or camera's off? What is your take on that?

Vargas: (10:57)

I'm really open. I do not require them to share their screen, but every so often, I'll say, Hey, can I see your faces? So if you feel comfortable, let me see your faces. And it allows them the option to get to a place where they can share their faces. And part of that is you have to be sensitive to what the students are going through. I have one student who sent me an email at the very beginning once they transitioned back home to let me know that she did not have Wi-Fi, she was going to the laundromat to use Wi-Fi. And so for her, I suggested instead of going there, just use your phone, use your phone and call in and whenever you have a chance and if you can't, I will record for you, and I will send it out to you. So I don't require that because you just never know what our students are going through.

Eakins: (11:39)

And I know some folks are not even just embarrassed about maybe seeing themselves on camera, but just their environment because you know how we check the background and see what's behind folks and how that can be a challenge to some people where their ideal space, like you, said, the laundromat. So maybe that student doesn't want to show that there's a washing machine, that they don't have a laundry -- washer and dryer at home -- and that they had to go to a laundromat. So I think sometimes the environment that we're in isn't always conducive to allowing us or making us feel confident with showing our video camera.

Vargas: (12:12)

I completely agree.

Eakins: (12:14)

So let me ask you this. Do you think that impacts how relationships are built online when we don't see our classmates via camera? Do you think that that creates a negative impact, or maybe what are some of your thoughts in that sense?

Vargas: (12:29)

See, again, I take it back to pre-COVID, and while I think that we can build the relationships during COVID, I think that begins with the type of relationship you have built with your class, but with your students at the very beginning. So because my students, I teach rhetorical -- a rhetoric course, writing courses -- we have very sensitive conversations in our class so students know how to interact with their peers. But you're right. If this has not been something that has been set by the teacher, by the educator, then students -- they will feel embarrassed. My students know that it's a loving relationship in our class, but we just have a very -- a great vibe -- in our lives. We're not judging anyone, we're not expecting anything but what you can bring into our class, and that's a standard that our educators must make sure they do prior to COVID.

Eakins: (13:17)

So it sounds like what I'm hearing is, yeah, you teach courses and some of the overarching themes that I'm hearing is you're saying there need to be opportunities for that relationship building, so we're going beyond academics. Yeah, we're teaching something. However, there's other things built into the class that allows us to kind of connect with each other. What would you say to maybe educators who are like, "Well, I have these standards I have to meet, and there's this test that's coming up. There are all these things that I have to do. I don't have the time, or I'm not comfortable with spending too much time outside of the instructional piece."

Vargas: (13:58)

Okay. This is from personal experience. I left K-12, and ten years later, I came back. That 10th year that I came back, in four months, I became Teacher of the Year. But a couple of my colleagues -- they came by my classroom. I had so many people to ask, "What is it that you do?" I had students that will be -- they're below grade level. But one, this right here -- a lot of educators may disagree with me -- but one, you have to look at the individual student. You have to take the time to get to know your students. So instead of me looking at data, I took the time to truly learn my students. I sat outside during lunch. I watched them, I walked the halls, I went to sporting events. I did so many things to get to know my students. So I knew what drove them.

Vargas: (14:45)

I knew what sparked their interest. I let them teach me different things. I even let them give me suggestions on books. I was never a manga kind of person, but I had [some] students that teach me about manga. So I had Death Note in the cafeteria. And Death Note made me pretty popular. Going to sporting events and the students were really excited. "Oh my gosh, I see Vargas here at the sporting event with me!" Just being able to take the time to be around them. And I realized that some educators, they have families. I have a son, and he was actually in high school with me, so it made it a little bit easier. But just taking the time to get to know your student and when you get to know your student, you know what the student is weak at, you know what the student is strong at. And again, I can't really explain how every educator should do it. But the big thing is taking a look at the entire student and realizing that every single student is different. Because too often we find that we have a classroom, we have to abide by this standard course of study, we have to do this, we have to do that. You can still do that, and it does not have to be extremely hard or difficult. And you may have three or four lessons in one class to reach and to ensure that all students are learning.

Eakins: (16:05)

Hmm. That's some valuable feedback that you're giving. Again, I appreciate your time on this because sometimes we have family obligations and it's hard for us to spend our weekends or even evenings going to events and being there outside of the classroom space. But I do like that you have mentioned multiple ways that we can do those things. I want to stress the importance of authenticity because yeah, I can go to a game, but if I have no interest in the game, I'm just going to show my face kind of thing. How do you separate that or what kind of thoughts do you have on "don't just show up to show up." Tell us more about what's it like when you go to a basketball game for a student? Did you want to go, and how did you engage in those settings?

Vargas: (16:57)

Now, see everything that I do in education, I actually want to do it. And I use this really bad analogy, so excuse me, but I have a dog, and my dog sniffs people before he allows them to pet him. And most animals do that. They want to smell to see who you are. And I think students are the same way. Students know who are there to help them. Students know who they just don't want to touch them. Oftentimes I will find colleagues come into my classroom to ask me questions, "How are you able to do this?" "How are you able to do that?" I give them suggestions, and they don't want to be open-minded. And part of the reason why I know that I'm a good educator is because [of] my students. I allow them to teach me. I sit back -- I humble myself to learn from them. I sit back and I humble myself to realize that I don't know everything. I humble myself and I allow my mentors to guide me. Students understand who will be there for you. Just like again, animals know, you know who they want to pet them. And please, I must say I'm not comparing a student to an animal in no way, just the analogy. I'm an English -- I'm totally an English teacher.

Eakins: (18:06)

Okay. Well, thank you for clarifying that. Just in case our Advocates out there like "Wait a second." I appreciate that. Now let me ask you this question. I think you and I can both agree -- and I know our listeners can agree -- that relationships are very important and they were important prior to our schools being closed. However, I know the reality is [that] not all of us have strong relationships with each and every one of our students. And that was before we went into COVID and currently during COVID-19. Is it too late to connect with our students that we didn't have the best relationships with prior to our schools closing?

Vargas: (18:48)

Not at all. A simple email just to see how you're doing will probably do so much for the students. They would love it. You know, just a personalized email. A personalized -- I have postcards that I personalize, so I mail out postcards to -- I have mailed out postcards to students K-12 before, but just a simple postcard. I know this is a little off track a little bit, but I have a pen pal. She is in fourth grade, and I mail her postcards and letters and just little goodies, and that makes her day. So as teachers, you know, we can do the same thing for those students that we may not have had great relationships with, those students that may not be doing so well. A principal friend of mine, he was shared that one of his teachers, they collected funds and to entice the students to want to do their work to motivate the student because they know their background. They have pizza sent to the student's house. So know just different -- there's so many different things that you can do regardless of whether or not you had a relationship prior to COVID.

Eakins: (19:51)

Any other tips that you might have in regards to developing relationships now?

Vargas: (19:56)

Just remember when you are building relationships, you're also promoting -- what I'm sure you have talked about before -- but you're promoting your self-efficacy. You are not just building a relationship just to build one, but you're teaching students to believe in themselves. One of my favorite songs is Whitney Houston['s] "The Greatest Love of All." I'm sure you remember those lines. I can't sing. I think I can…

Eakins: (20:18)

I want to hear this now. You gotta sing…

Vargas: (20:22)

"I believe the children are our future. Teach them well and let them lead the way." But again, those words are so true. Even in 2020 we want the students to believe in themselves. And I know that that again has made me who I am. I had teachers that took the time to build relationships with me, whether they were coaches, whether they were my band director, whoever. So many of the teachers that I had in high school, they took the time to see me. They took the time to motivate me and find ways to push me. And this is what, as educators, that's what we're here for. We're trying to allow the students to obtain the best of who they are.

Eakins: (20:59)

Hmm. I'll let you slide [on] the Whitney Houston.

Vargas: (21:03)

I shared this before. If I start singing, someone is going to pull me out of the classroom, and they're going to try to give me a contract, and I want to stay in education.

Eakins: (21:11)

Really? They're gonna get you a contract? Oh, okay!

Vargas: (21:17)

The students -- they're going to be sad, they're going to lose a great educator.

Eakins: (21:19)

I once told my students that I was supposed to go to the NBA, but I chose education over that. So I get you. I'm with you on that. It's all about the kids.

Vargas: (21:28)

It is. I mean, they have enough artists, and I can just sing in my classrooms.

Eakins: (21:33)

Okay. Alright. So I wanted to -- let me see if I had another question, but I guess I really don't.

Vargas: (21:38)

Know that I just started Twitter, very new on Twitter. My account was open years and years ago, but I never used it. So maybe about a year ago and I'm like, "Oh wow. Twitter actually has pretty good information." And there is a hashtag. I don't know if I'm saying it right because I'm still learning and so many other entities, [inaudible] Twitter, so I see that educators during COVID, they're still asking for supplies, which I get, but instead of asking for the supplies for themselves, they can utilize these supplies for their students. So just like [inaudible] a piece of home. So collecting money to send to their students to help motivate them because a lot of the students, again, they're just not motivated for many reasons.

Eakins: (22:17)

Kiera, I definitely consider you as providing a voice in leading equity. Do you have any final words that you can provide to our listeners?

Vargas: (22:25)

I do. I just want educators to remember that in order to build authentic relationships with our students, we have to take the time to see them, hear them, and then humble ourselves to allow them to teach us.

Eakins: (22:38)

Mm. Now, if we have some folks that want to reach out to you, connect with you online, your Twitter account, and any other ways that they can reach you, how can they connect?

Vargas: (22:46)

Absolutely. My Twitter account is @doctorsurvivor, and my email address is epiphany's with the F, so

Eakins: (23:02)

There it is. So once again, I have Prof. Kiera Vargas with us today. Kiera, thank you so much for joining us.

Vargas: (23:10)

Thank you so much. Thank you.


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