What My Online Students Taught Me…

I have been working 24/7 since this pandemic began in my role as superintendent, just like all of my educator friends across the state and country have as well. I have searched every resource, looked at every model and tried to emulate the best of the best. But I forgot one major resource… my own students. I have taught online for the past three years for the University of North Texas and I have largely discounted that experience because it was to Masters level students in an online environment that was built for me, and not by me. It took hearing from one of my former online students to make me realize that perhaps my experience has given me some insights to share as well.

The truth is, for seven weeks of every 8-week college semester my family and close friends have to hear what a terrible teacher I think I am. I don’t feel like I’m connecting enough, teaching enough, reaching enough. And then something miraculous happens in the last week of our semester… The emails and survey results begin to come in, which say similar things to what my very kind student Tosh tweeted below as I commented on some great tips she shared about online learning –

Her tweet forced me to reflect on what my students have shared over the years. Our online platform at UNT is pre-built and it is awesome! It has great multimedia, embedded discussion boards and is a fantastic mix between theory and practice. And that part is important, for sure! But what I’ve learned from my students is that the human connection is still THE difference-maker for learning!

So I looked back through some of those emails and survey results to see if I could distill what this “human-touch” difference maker might look like in an online environment. Here were a few themes I saw:

Building CONNECTION – I tried to give specific, detailed feedback as much as I possibly could. Sometimes that meant looking at one piece as a quick completion grade so that I could focus my detailed feedback on a more important piece. Because I was teaching and assessing in an online forum, one of the easy but effective strategies I used was to share back (copy/paste) my student’s words that I found particularly meaningful or that connected to other things we were learning and build upon that learning. This was important because when you’re in an online environment, your students don’t “see” you; they don’t “see” that you care. This is a way for me to show my students that I “see” them. I didn’t copy/paste my same comments for every student. They knew I had read their words and cared about their thoughts.

I tried to also connect with the specific context of each of my students (whether it was my band or theater teacher, the teacher who taught and led in the prison system or the higher-ed leader who worked with HS students). I would go back to my “Get to Know You” activity as I was giving feedback on assignments and build connection through talking about what leadership looked like in their own context.

Building CONFIDENCE – At the beginning of every semester I would start with a Google Form to see where they were in the Masters program. With rolling enrollment I had brand new students almost every semester. Part of my work was to build confidence. The online environment was new for my students too, so I took every opportunity to encourage, support, and raise their belief in themselves. I encouraged multiple students to go on to get their doctorate and many more to step up into a position of leadership. It is important to not only teach content, but to share hope and build confidence in a time that is new and uncertain for so many.

Building COMMUNITY – I tried to start each semester with a video of myself in my home environment sharing some words around with this course was going to be like. The videos were terrible and I hated every single one. But they were so important to establish community with my students and to build a connection with them. I tried to set group norms in their discussion boards and praised them when they built off of each other’s ideas in ways that furthered the thinking and the learning for everyone. Part of our work in this remote learning environment is to build community between and among our students.

I say all of that to say this… Teachers – you are embarking in a new kind of teaching and it is not going to feel normal and you may not feel immediately skilled. This does NOT mean you are doing a terrible job. Give. Yourself. Grace. Know that there is a learning curve and you can and will get better each and every day. I’ve shared this quote in the context of leadership, but I think it holds true here as well – even if you are feeling inadequate, it just means you are growing and learning and WAY TO GO for stepping up to the plate!

Hearing from my students also has reminded me of the most important things. You are going to be asked to do and learn so many new things in the coming days. I know – I’ve asked my own teachers to do the same. Learn them. Do them. But most of all, remember what makes you a truly great teacher. Not because you have a fancy online platform or because you’ve assembled tidy bundles of learning activities for your students – but because you build connection, build confidence and you build community every single day. You can do the same things online. Your remote learning platform may look different, but your heart never will.

*For more information on how Gunter ISD has transitioned to remote learning, please visit my COVID-19 Resource Page.