Ten Years of Teaching Online Has Taught Me These Five Things
Not all of them are bad. And all the good things are do-able.
My wife and I are teachers. She teaches the hard stuff (math), and I teach everything else. This last term was her first experience with online teaching, and she <ahem> didn’t like it very much. Looking ahead to the fall, though, it became clear that she was going to be at least partly on-camera again. She lamented this, and I said something without thinking that I now believe was inescapably true: “You are probably never going to teach another class in which all your students are there in the room with you.”
I’ve been teaching online since approximately the time that online teaching became theoretically possible. Before the iPhone. Before phones had cameras, even. There are probably people out there that have done more of it than I have, but there aren’t many, and few have done it in as many formats, across as much time. While in my opinion online instruction is not nearly as good as in-person, I believe it to be superior to CDC-guideline class (and I’ve taught that, live and in-person, so I know what I’m talking about).
I learned a thousand things from my experiences, but there are five that stand out to me as necessary to know in the current educational environment. Since practically speaking EVERY teacher in America is about to become an online teacher — and not just as a stopgap, but potentially permanently — I thought these five understandings might be valuable.
- First, before everything else, is this: there is no reason to fear. You’re going to mess up, and that’s okay. You’re going to fall short of what you expect you can do. That is also okay. You’re going to struggle to reach every kid in your class. That is no different than it was before, and it is okay. Breathe. Teaching is hard enough without all the stress of the technology. Don’t allow the unfamiliar systems to distract you from the essential connection with the kids. They’ll forgive you if they love you, and they’ll love you if you love them. Keep that first. Remember, always, that trust begets learning. If you get that part right, the rest of it will be fine. Not perfect, but fine.
- You have to amp it up. In person, there are a million — scientists tell me it’s maybe even more than that — subtle cues as to what you’re doing, what you want and don’t want in terms of answers, chatter, questions, understanding, all of it. Human beings learn these cues, and how to interpret them, at such a young age that we are totally unaware of the fact that we’re doing it. Online, though, almost all of those cues are gone. Most of us are talking heads in glitchy low-def, which means we’re transmitting about 10% of the normal information to our students. That’s not going to get it done. We have to be much, much bigger in our reactions. Mild enthusiasm has to be shown as jaw-dropping; shock means falling off your chair (BTW, teachers, fall off your chair. Trust me. It’s a game-changer.) Every reaction needs to be far bigger than you’re used to. Think stage production, not tv show.
- The chat is your friend. Not your enemy. Most ed delivery platforms have a chat feature. You’re going to want to turn it off. Do not do this. First, if the kids want to chat with each other, believe me, they’re going to do it. Shutting down the chat just means it’s happening over Google Hangouts, et al., not that it isn’t happening. Since you’re not invited to the GH, you will see none of it. That’s not good. You want to know what the kids are talking about, even if it’s Marvel vs. DC, which it inevitably will be a good portion of the time. Your job is to keep the kids locked in. The chat is a fair indication of how well you’re doing that. Take it that way. Now, there are, obviously, situations where the chat has to go off, or where you need to block someone from chatting. Use those weapons judiciously, and rarely. The kids need to trust that some level of background whispering is going to be okay, just as it likely would have been in a classroom. Plus the things you’re going to learn by reading the chat will astound you. It’s a gold mine. And if it’s distracting YOU, then don’t look at it (see #1 above). It’s highly unlikely that you’re missing anything mission-critical. If you are, the kids will repeat it. (over and over). And make a rule — all cameras on at all times (some exceptions apply). That’s a non-negotiable. You want this feedback. You need it.
- You probably can’t do this alone. Resources are scarce right now, so asking your school for a teacher’s aide is quite possibly a non-starter, but ask anyway, and if you don’t get one, ask the parents for assistance. Here’s what you ideally want: one parent/volunteer/aide to monitor the chat while class is going on — this is so valuable it’s almost a necessity — answering simple questions and keeping things from getting out of hand; one p/v/a to handle additional media, like music (see below) and memes (see below) and other ideas (see below) — if you don’t have a tech-savvy parent that can do this, get a student, ideally one from your class. The kids will fight for this privilege. Make them earn it. Honestly, the more hands you have in this pie, the better. If your class is online-unruly, which some are, get a couple parents to sit in. Miracles will happen. Remind the parents that all those presentation days and class parties and a million other things are not now going to be happening, and they need to be willing to invest some of that freed-up time to help you. One more nice-to-have: a teacher’s aide to help grade. You deserve this anyway, but the online/onsite hybrid is 50% more work, and you don’t have time to do it all yourself. There are resources out there. You can find them.
- You are competing not with school, but with kittens on YouTube. In a classroom, you have control over what your students are seeing/hearing/doing (at least somewhat). In an online environment, you don’t. At all. Some of your (older) students will be streaming “The Office” while your class is going on. Right over the top of you. If you want to compete with that, you gotta up your game. Stop thinking about your class as a class and start thinking about it as an episode of television, one that’s never been seen before and will not be available for bingeing. Unique. Special. Unmissable. How do TV shows start? With theme music (yes, fine, 60 Minutes, I hear your ticking clock). Your class should, too. How do they end? Theme music. Your class should, too. They also have commercials. Run some. I am not kidding about this. Ideally, have the kids do them, either live or on video, but failing that, run a freaking commercial. Post memes. Have them post memes (restrict this to a few kids at a time, or you will not finish your lesson). Have a dance break, either with a single DJ (here’s where your multimedia helper comes in) or with everyone playing their own (turn your own sound down) — but dancing on camera. Yes, you too. You can surely come up with fifty more great ideas without much trouble, but the above half dozen can save your life. Yes, it’s more work. Get more resources. You’re entitled to ask for them.
My teaching background is as checkered as it gets. I’ve taught homeschool, private school, public school (substitute, in the interest of full disclosure), and charter school. I’ve worked with unschoolers, non-schoolers, alternative schoolers, hard-core public-only schoolers, all of it. I have taught everything from choir to math, and every age from 10 to 50, online, onsite, and hybrid.
I have come to believe that our school system could use some work.
This isn’t precisely how I was hoping the work would get done, but here we are, and it would be a shame to waste a good crisis. We all knew — all of us — that the system we were working in was not perfect, and that given a chance and a choice, we’d make some alterations.
So what are you waiting for? You’re never going to have a better chance than this one.
Look, the pandemic is awful. Not seeing the full faces of all our kids is going to suck crap through a tube. But what, exactly, are we going to do about that? Carp? Moan? Or try to innovate ourselves into something we would never have had the energy or the guts to try, except that the necessity has now been forced upon us?
At the height of the Apollo 13 disaster, mission commander Gene Kranz is reported to have said, “I believe this will be our finest hour.” I believe it too.
P.S The above five things are just a start. You can do better, and more. If you want help, I’m just a comment away. And I’d love to know what your ideas are, as well.
P.P.S. One of the critical things to make the above work is for school districts and state bureaucracies to get out of the way of teachers. Please, if you’re an administrator, read this.