Since March, 2020, teachers across the country, and around the world, have been navigating uncharted waters. They’ve been abruptly required to plan lessons that support a new model: teaching online. Not only is this a completely unfamiliar environment for many teachers, it’s also not our favorite way to teach — not by a long shot! The reality is, many schools may find themselves remote teaching when school starts again in the fall.

You are not alone! 

In an article for The Chronicle of Higher Education, educator Flower Darby noted a 2017 Educause study that found only 9 percent of academics preferred to teach in an online-only environment. “That means a whopping 91 percent of us don’t. And I suspect that a good majority of that 91 percent would prefer to teach anywhere but online.” 

But here we are, teaching online!

While it’s certainly hard to feel like you’re teaching effectively when you don’t get the instant feedback of an in-person class, there are ways to reach your students and help them get the best experience possible. Here are five absolute must-do’s that you need to pay attention to in order to help students keep learning while we wait out this long period of social distancing.

Five Must Do’s to Reach Students When Teaching Online

  1. Be present – Turn on your camera at the start of the class and let your students see you! This reassures them that you’re present and engaged in presenting the lesson. Then, go further to be present for students. Let them know when and how you are available to help them with assignments (chat, email or even texting back and forth. Use a Google Voice number for personal privacy during calls with parents and students). Consider scheduling one-on-one video chats to check in with each student as time permits. Leigh Ann Hall, a professor at the University of Wyoming, recommends keeping a spreadsheet to “reach out to them — just a few each week — and see how they are doing, tell them what you appreciate about their work, etc. This starts a conversation that allows you to connect with them and shows meaningful engagement.” Yes, some of you have shared that kids and parents aren’t logging on. Try sending an old-fashioned hand-written note in the U.S. mail. Maybe, just maybe, that will convince them you care and it’s worth answering the phone.
  2. Make the lessons clear and concise – Spell out clearly what you expect of students and what your online class will consist of. Then, just as you would in a regular classroom, “chunk” the lesson plan into short segments based on the time available. For example, have a specific amount of time for the class lecture, another chunk of time for demonstration, and a chunk of time for students to complete related assignments and ask questions. Because it’s harder for students to concentrate on lectures online, streamline and shorten how long you are talking to deliver instruction. Increase the time students are actively engaged. For example, a 50-minute online class can be chunked into 5-10 minutes of direct teaching, 5-10 minutes of demonstration, and 30 minutes of student work, broken up into short bursts with check-ins. That work might include using breakout rooms for discussion, whiteboard activities, chat room Q&A’s, or scavenger hunts!
  3. Create a supportive community – Our students desperately need that community during this pandemic, and many parents do, also. They are not used to being teachers and many are wearing multiple hats right now. Allow a variety of formats for communication. Some students are comfortable speaking online when the entire class can hear, while others prefer asking questions via the chat or Q&A function in the video platform you’re using (Zoom, Google Meet, or a similar app). Some may prefer to wait and contact you by email, text or messaging after the class is finished. You can also create smaller groups within the class to meet and do assignments over group video chat. “While you cannot [completely] replicate the in-person back-and-forth of a classroom, encouraging students to utilize social media channels or set up virtual discussion groups to work together can help mimic a collaborative environment,” says Satesh Bidaisee, professor of public health and preventive medicine, assistant dean for school of graduate studies, St. George’s University, in an article from Inside Higher Ed.
  4. Use the resources you and your students have – Use the resources you and your students have at hand – In addition to online classroom apps like Zoom*, make sure students can access notes, slide presentations, and other elements of each class session. Services like Google Classroom can work well for this. For students without technology, try to avoid sending home boring worksheets. Can we create fun activity books instead? Have students create interactive notebooks, for example. Be creative! The brick-and-mortar library is closed; however, some libraries have expanded their online offerings, including the New York Public Library. Google’s search function can uncover quite a bit of information. Whether you’re direct teaching, doing a demo of a concept, or giving out practice assignments, it’s OK for students to complete the work with the tools that they have available to them even if they are not all the same. This is a wonderful opportunity for differentiating instruction and putting students in charge of their own learning. Ask them, “How would you like to accomplish this task? What can you do with what you have?” Consider the life long benefits of teaching them that problem solving skill.
  5. Get and give feedback – Frequently ask students, and parents, how they think the online teaching is going and what they think could be done better. Listen and consider their feedback. If they say it’s boring, and some will, consider getting additional feedback from a colleague to find out what you can adjust in the lesson. Also, give feedback to the class; highlight what you’ve all accomplished together, even while being apart.

We did not ask for this opportunity, but it chose us! And as horrid as it might seem at times, as much as we miss seeing our students in person, as exhausting as it is to teach online and do it well, it is an opportunity to grow, to learn, and to reach students and parents in ways we never thought possible. Some of what we are learning will enhance our teaching skills and relationships for the rest of our careers.

We are teachers – we make a difference. We’ve got this!

For more ideas to engage your students and make teaching online more fun for you, click here and access additional resources.

* Many online classrooms are using Zoom for live teaching, but in the wake of several security breaches, schools are looking for other solutions. Switching to a new meeting platform means getting everyone adjusted to a different way of teaching and learning online. Be prepared for the adjustment and how it can impact your available online teaching time.

Using iPads and Other Cutting Edge Technology to Strengthen Your Instruction

For more information about using technology to strengthen instruction, see Susan Fitzell’s book, Using iPads and Other Cutting Edge Technology to Strengthen Your Instruction.

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