A Letter to Educators Teaching Online for the First Time

column | Teaching and Learning

A Letter to Educators Teaching Online for the First Time

By Reshan Richards (Columnist) and Stephen J. Valentine (Columnist)     Mar 13, 2020

A Letter to Educators Teaching Online for the First Time

This article is part of the collection: Navigating Uncertain Times: How Schools Can Cope With Coronavirus.

Dear Teachers,

Last week, the two of us had a conversation about school leaders who would be leading and making decisions related to the spread of COVID-19. That conversation turned into a set of guidelines that we published first with Global Online Academy and later with EdSurge.

We have tried to be clear about our intent to share our thinking, since some schools have very different priorities than the ones we have been projecting. To be clear, some school leaders serve children who depend on their institutions for safety, food and other basic human needs. Those children and their needs should always be the priorities of the schools that serve them—not some online version of education.

We are continuing to share, therefore, because we are also observing schools preparing or acting upon school closure plans for one reason or another. And once those plans are in place, teachers are often being asked to perform their responsibilities in a new way. We’re thinking about those teachers (about you) who are beginning, or are mid-flight in, some new journey. We’re not debating the merits of that journey for now—just acknowledging and looking to support the people who will be teaching online if their schools decide to go that route.

Simply put, if you’re asked to teach online, we encourage you to find ways to be present for your students. Your presence is all that many of them have ever needed, and this does not change if you are teaching from your living room or local library.

When you teach online for the first time, the first thing you’ll miss is the chatter of your physical classroom. Or maybe the hushed breath, ever so subtle, when you enter the class and change the dynamics, the air pressure even. No, you’ll miss most the quicksilver comedy, the way words twist into grins and spill out as jokes. You probably wouldn’t think that you would miss the smell or the slouches or the occasional snuck-in naps...

But you will.

You’ll miss looking at all of your students at once, the sound of them laughing all at once, the way it feels when understanding cracks open and a yawn becomes an “ah” becomes an “aha.”

So when you’re asked to teach online—against your will, as many of us may soon be—we would first say: hold on to all of that subtle input, the stuff that helps you know a class is alive and thriving. Then, from the first time you send an email to the class or enter an online forum with a class, look for it. Listen for it. Acknowledge it. Enjoy it.

In the first online course we designed and taught together, one of us had never taught in a strictly online environment before, and the other had only designed asynchronous online learning experiences (i.e., self-paced experiences with very little instructor engagement).

As we started to plan our teaching, we fell into old habits. We organized and sequenced our materials. Then we created phases of learning that would build on top of each other and ultimately create what we hoped was a coherent experience, an experience that would raise the understanding and skill level of everybody involved, including the teachers.

Once we understood the what (the curriculum), we started to think about the how (the connection). This is where things got interesting, and quickly. We were not ever going to be in the same room with our students. We had not ever met most of them. They were relying on us.

And we were expected to deliver instruction. Whatever that means.

“To deliver instruction” is an awful phrase when you’re teaching face-to-face. It can be even more nefarious when you’re teaching online because the online world is built to hold and move information. You can share reams of text and bucket loads of data. You can record lectures. And more lectures. You can stack links on links on links, embedding hypertexts in between.

At first, when you’re beginning to teach online, please don’t do all of these things. Please resist the easy affordances of the online world. Instead, try to connect.

The job of an online teacher is the job of an offline teacher is the job of a teacher. Connect to people and help them to feel connected to you and to the dimension of the world you are leading them to experience. Connect your students to one another in a way that enables them not only to learn content from one another, but also to catch life experiences from one another—to shape one another in the way that only peers can. It’s that simple … and it’s that complex.

We’re getting a little lost, on purpose, so let’s think back to your original, in-person class (you know, the one in Room 13 or Lab B) and what you’ll miss about it.

If you were walking into that classroom and you suddenly had lost your voice, but you had to stay, you would figure out ways to connect with the people in front of you, right? And if you were walking into that classroom and you suddenly lost your ability to see what is in front of you, you would find ways to connect with the students in the room. Online teaching is similar to those scenarios in that you lose certain attributes that you may normally take for granted. But you have to be in the room and you have to continue.

Figuring out your first few go-to moves can help. Maybe you’ll use a video conference, a digital whiteboard, a collaborative document peppered with comments, or email in order to connect. Great teachers of the past have used chalkboard and chalk, water and wine, or circular tables and folding chairs: elemental resources that prove that it doesn’t really matter what you use to teach, so long as you understand how you’re trying to connect (or at the very least, that you’re trying to connect).

Having that deep motivation will help you with what typically comes next: frustration. Things won’t work the way you want them to. You’ll find yourself Googling “how do I ...?” or emailing a colleague and asking for help. If you start to feel a sense of frustration, though, take heart: that’s how you know you're teaching online. That’s how you know that you haven’t lost the desire to teach—and learn—in the first place.

We don’t want to minimize the challenge. But we also want to acknowledge that thinking about tools, bells and whistles is less important than acknowledging that, once you start, wherever you start, you’ll build capacity just like you have, and had to, in a face-to-face classroom. At first, the tools you choose will be all that you think about. You’ll only see them as you bump up against their limitations.

Soon, though, you’ll only see your students. Their personalities will return. Some formerly silent or quiet students may share their voices. Some formerly disengaged students may jump out as leaders.

You’ll find new things to do—things you couldn’t do offline. Students will show you their learning in ways they wouldn’t or couldn’t offline. Students will take risks in their learning that they would never take if they were in a physical room with one another. You’ll be able to assess in new ways, ways that may help you provide better feedback.

We know we’re saying these things as if there aren’t dozens of steps embedded in each of them. But we think that if you’re willing to ask questions along the way, if you’re willing to Google and search things and watch videos and educate yourself as you’re going, you’ll pick up the thread of your former teaching.

When you are in a physical classroom and you are teaching history or math, part of the action stems from the history and the math, and part of the action (okay, most of the action) stems from the socializing, the communication, and what kids are picking up from each other and from you—which has nothing to do with your subject. (Sorry if you didn’t know that!)

The same holds true for online environments. By being in these spaces with students and asserting your unique voice as a teacher, you are actually doing the work, even if you are not presenting it perfectly.

What’s more, when you are back offline, when you walk into your old brick-and-mortar classroom, one last surprise awaits. You might keep some of what you found in the online wilderness. You might use collaborative documents in new ways. You might find new ways to access student voice … or allow students to show their thinking in ways that they—and you—never could have imagined.

— SV & RR

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