Equipping Staff for Authentic and Meaningful Engagement with Students

Chelsea Penney
November 22, 2021

In November Proximity Learning led a webinar, Dr. April Willis was joined by virtual certified teachers Regina Salinas and Crystal Demsky Hudak to discuss best practices in student engagement. Senora Salinas has been teaching Spanish for 25 years. Ms. Demsky Hudak (Ms. D) has been teaching English Language Arts (ELA) and Social Studies for 11 years. These expert teachers shared their techniques for engaging students in the virtual classroom. Check out highlights from the webinar below!

What are your favorite engagement strategies to keep students on track?

Sra. Salinas: I like to establish good communication with my students. I know when you have good communication with your students, they feel supported. I like that they feel comfortable and welcome in my class. I like to start my class with greeting them. “How are you?” “How do you feel today?” I ask them to tell me on private message if they don’t feel good. I know that learning another language is not easy, but I know that [they] can do it.

Ms. D: I do some research [about the school] on the front end. What is their mascot? Where do they live? Is it a suburb or is it rural? I look up the state park nearby or what are their community things that matter? I do a lot of shoutouts. I try to show them that I’m working when it’s quiet time for them. I say I’m working right now as well grading your work, so we’re all in a community of working. It’s not you working and I sit here. I’m working too and here is my task. 

How do positive relationships with parents/guardians facilitate positive relationships with students?

Sra. Salinas: When we establish positive communication with parents and teachers, the students benefit. Neuroscience tells us and shows that positive student relations are fundamental for success. If there is not a good relationship between the teacher and student, it is unlikely that they will learn what we intend to teach them. With positive relationships, we show our students we support them. If students feel that support, it is more likely that they engage in learning and have better academic outcomes and, of course, fewer behavioral problems. I think we should work as a team.

Ms. D: It is so important to make it an “us.” Instead of, “I want this and I want that.” I will say our “families” because it’s an “us” thing, it’s a village. We’re all working towards a common goal. We all want you to be successful. I think it’s just making sure they know that everyone that’s in their corner that is an adult is for their success. It’s a united front.

How do you implement restorative justice practices in a virtual environment?

Ms. D: Restorative justice is a way to help with behaviors. Two studies have shown it helps lower the behaviors. For example, in the brick and mortar schools, some boys did some destruction of property to the boys’ restroom. So they met with the students, the parents came in and they met with the custodians. Those students did a work day to assist the custodians in repairing the damage and helping the school to look beautiful. So instead of “you’re suspended,” it was a way to talk about their actions. In virtual, it’s avoiding overreacting and asking, “Why did you do that?”

Sra. Salinas:  The best way to deal with the situation is to establish respect. I will always respect you because we have to model for our students. We have to show that we are here to support them. If we show that we care, we have better results. 

What is something you wish someone would have prepared you for when you first started virtual teaching?

Sra. Salinas: I think be well prepared and a lot of practice because we need skills online. Practice and checklists have helped a lot.

Ms. D: Throwing my assumptions out the door and thinking, “I can’t see everything.” I try to remind myself not to take it as any kind of slight on me [if they don’t fully participate]. They could feel embarrassed or nervous. Some kids are hesitant to turn on their cameras. I have to remember that it’s not really about me. I’ve even had students send me a message saying “I’m having a bad hair day.” I think just realizing that it’s going to look different, and I need to be flexible to realize that I might not be able to look around to see if kids are getting it. So I need to use my reaction tools and the chat. I just need to constantly check in to ask, “What questions do you have for me?”

When students exhibit a lack of motivation or even isolation, how do you combat that?

Sra. Salinas: I ask students questions. “Why are you interested in learning Spanish?” This helps me know if they are interested or not, and I try to tell them all the benefits you have when you are bilingual. I let them know that you will have an advantage if you learn another language. I am aware that you have to make an effort that we are going to practice and we can get far. I try to add fun activities. I show them a video of a very famous person in the United States who learned Spanish and how they talk and make mistakes. It is normal to make mistakes. 

Ms. D: I have a few quick tips. One of the things that I will do is think out loud or do an assignment step-by-step. I challenge myself to reread the assignments, especially if I create them, to look at them for clarity. I find sometimes that I left out a step. When they do get an assignment turned in, giving them feedback that their grade went up. 

How do you maintain relationships with your colleagues to avoid feeling isolated?

Sra. Salinas: I try to keep in communication with my colleagues. I feel very supported. It is amazing because even teaching in a virtual environment, I am very close with my colleagues. 

Ms. D: I have started using Tribe because it’s a good way to share feedback and ideas. I use Google chat and email. We also have our monthly meetings and the last one was a costume party. I also join professional organizations and look for opportunities to grow my content knowledge. 

What professional development session/topic have you learned the most from? What PD would you recommend other virtual educators explore?

Ms. D: Nearpod and Google training that is provided by the vendor that makes it is really helpful. But as far as working with students, I have really grown from the trauma-informed models and social-emotional learning. Trauma-informed care is just a way to realize that trauma affects students. Realizing what that looks like, how that affects the student’s brain, how they interact, and how they may struggle with learning. That informed my teaching practices to be more accepting.  

Sra. Salinas: Social-emotional learning is one of my favorite courses that I have taken. I also use Character Is Strong, and I like it a lot because you talk about respect, how to be kind, how to be grateful. Also, managing student behavior with positive behavior support.

What teaching strategies do you see in the virtual classroom that are working incredibly well? What areas of growth do you notice rising to the top for most educators in a virtual environment?

Sra. Salinas: My students like Kahoot. It is like a reward. I also use a lot of virtual maps because we have to talk about the 21 Spanish-speaking countries. I love this because they say, “Oh we can go to these places!” and they are so excited to visit.

Ms. D: Students will send me information asking if I have seen this platform or that new app. They have things to share as well. I love that they’re very into technology. One student wrote that she liked virtual learning because she felt more comfortable being in the zoom classroom. That’s excellent that she feels comfortable to tell us as teachers and the fact that she has learned to be savvy in this environment. In the areas for growth, I would say you just need to constantly remind yourself it’s not brick and mortar. We have to let go of what we’re used to doing. 

Thank you to Sra. Salinas and Ms. D for their expert advice in this month’s webinar. Click here to apply to teach with Proximity Learning.

Watch the Webinar here!


Chelsea Penney earned her Bachelors Degree in Writing from University of Colorado Denver. She is currently in graduate school through Texas A&M University studying Marketing. She loves living in Austin, TX and working on the frontline of the many marketing initiatives for Proximity Learning.

Let's Work Together

Could live online instruction from Proximity Learning benefit your school district?

More Blog Articles

Small black arrow pointing up to collapse