How to Make Genuine Human Connections—Virtually
What our Teachers Community Hub taught us about making better connections across the digital divide.
Two years ago, we had a problem we wanted to tackle: Teachers everywhere were feeling undervalued and burnt out, and some of the best educators were leaving the profession at alarming rates.
Here at Roadtrip Nation, we work closely with teachers to help their students explore career possibilities—and we’ve seen the power a truly great teacher can have! So we wanted to help the teacher retention issue by creating something that would inspire educators everywhere.
Our usual approach to helping people find careers they love — or a renewed sense of purpose in their existing careers — is to take them out on the road in our big green RV, to travel the country and interview people from all walks of life who’ve found fulfillment in their work. We also create documentaries about their journey, to help share the inspiration and insights with a wider audience.
We’ve been taking these road trips and making these films for 20 years, so we had our formula down — and the impact was proven!
But then…the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
For the safety of everyone involved, we obviously couldn’t take the “Teachers Roadtrip” as planned. But creating a source of inspiration and empowerment for teachers felt more important than ever, as teachers were dealing with some of the most direct effects of COVID-19.
So…what could a virtual road trip look like?!
To share how we pivoted to Zoom — inspired by teachers everywhere! — and what we learned along the way, we decided to interview our very own Chelsea Walsh, the director of the videos featured on the resulting Teachers Community Hub.
Here are some insights from Chelsea — and from teachers across America — on how we can all make better, genuine human connections in a virtual setting.
You’ve been filming or directing road trips for years — but 2020 threw us all a curveball. What was your biggest challenge in capturing these teachers’ stories in a new way?
Chelsea: I believe I cannot do my job without having a genuine connection to, and respect for, my subjects.
[Before COVID,] I considered off-camera meals, conversations, and fun activities (both before filming and throughout filming) as essential elements of building those connections.
I was convinced that face-to-face off-camera interaction was the only way to build true connections, like I would with an acquaintance in my personal life.
Do you still believe that face-to-face interaction is the only way to build true connection?
Chelsea: Thankfully, I was wrong. As many of us have come to find during the COVID-19 pandemic, genuine connection can be made through a video screen. But it requires a commitment to changing one’s mind and one’s methods.
Building genuine connections with our seven teachers through Zoom was challenging, and sometimes frustrating, but we did it. I felt (and still feel) just as connected to our seven teachers as I do to the 30-odd roadtrippers I’ve worked, lived, and traveled with in the past.
What advice would you give to others who want to build those kinds of genuine connections through a screen?
Chelsea: Building a genuine connection does not require sharing air or physical space — it only requires that you hold space for others and that they hold space for you. Listening to one another, having compassion and respect for one another, and allowing oneself to be vulnerable, are the keys to building genuine connection.
Chelsea called out two key takeaways that made our virtual Teachers Community Hub project so successful — holding space and being vulnerable. Let’s dive in deeper, and see how those might work in different work and education settings.
Holding Space — in Practice
When we asked Chelsea what holding space looks like for her — either in physical or virtual spaces — she told us, “It’s a two-way street where [people] listen to what you’re saying, and then they give you a response based on what they’ve heard.”
Elementary school teacher and education YouTuber Michelle Emerson provided a great example of what holding space can look like in practice for teachers everywhere.
Michelle uses the “Two-Minute Rule” in her class: She gives each student two minutes each day to talk about any topic while she listens.
Actively listening to her students in real time is important — but what Michelle does next adds another layer of validation to their words: She works what she hears into later lessons, showing students that she actually held space for, and absorbed, their words.
Holding space, actively listening, validating others — this all feels fundamental to any human conversation! But these are also the things that can easily slip away across a digital divide, when it’s so easy to walk away from a screen, or end a video call.
So whether you’re talking to students, teachers, coworkers, or friends, don’t discount your virtual conversations. If you stay engaged and invested in what others are saying, you’ll feel just as connected as you would in person.
Staying Vulnerable Across Barriers
When you’re at school or work, “staying vulnerable” may not be your first priority! But as Chelsea told us, “It’s important to be vulnerable because that is the key element of expressing your humanity and being seen as a human.”
“Technology and barriers sort of shrink a person’s humanity. In order to connect with someone under these circumstances, it’s almost like you have to go the extra mile to show that you’re willing to do it. You have to be extra vulnerable to reach through the screen.”
Carmen Garner, another one of the teachers featured on our Teachers Community Hub, offers a great example of how we can all use our vulnerability to make better connections with others.
Using Zoom, we connected Carmen with Sarah, a fellow teacher who came from a privileged background, and was struggling to get through to her students from disadvantaged backgrounds—especially during the pandemic.
Carmen got right to the heart of the matter—in order to get on even ground with her students, Sarah was going to have to get vulnerable.
He urged her to open up to her classroom about her personal experiences having ADHD, saying, “Once you can empathize with a kid, that’s your strength.”
It might feel uncomfortable for teachers to open up about their struggles — you want your students to respect you, right? And that can make you guarded! The same thinking often applies our relationships with bosses and coworkers.
However, as Chelsea points out, you have to go the extra mile to connect virtually. That might mean opening up more than you’re used to, but your vulnerability will remind others that they’re talking to an actual human — not just a floating face on a screen! In turn, this will help your peers, students, and coworkers connect to you, respect you, and want to do good work with, or for you.
The pandemic provided every field and workplace with new challenges — but the lessons this project taught us about human-to-human connection feel like they could also open up new opportunities.
With a focus on holding space and staying vulnerable, Chelsea and these teachers were all able to pivot their work, without sacrificing its impact.
And today, virtual and hybrid models of work and learning seem like they’re here to stay — so whether you’re a teacher, a student, or anyone trying to navigate the new digital divide, we hope these lessons in making genuine virtual connections can help us all work together, better.
For more insights on remote learning and teacher retention, visit our Teachers Community Hub — a community of teachers sharing stories and conversations about reconnecting to their purpose and power in education—created in collaboration with Education Week.