I recently heard from an aspiring online teacher who wanted to know a little more about what it’s like to teach online. I thought her questions might be some you would have too. Here’s our conversation:
How long have you been teaching at an online school?
I’ve been full-time at an online school for five years now but started developing online courses a couple of years before that, while I was still in a traditional f2f classroom. I also taught part-time online before making the leap into an online school.
What attracted you to an online teaching school?
At first, it was the technology and the tools. I love being able to customize the learning environment and do the design part of the work in the online course system. But then, especially after I transitioned into online teaching full-time, I fell in love with the kids. We work with so many amazing students with crazy situations and online learning gives them the flexibility they need to actually graduate. It’s incredible to be a part of that option for them.
What training was necessary for you to become an online teacher?
I did a lot of reading but when I first made the transition, there wasn’t a lot out there. I read a lot of books that were intended for college-level professors and then adapted their ideas to my own classroom. (Since that time, there’s more out there, including my book Teaching on the Education Frontier.) I also took an online course from PBS Teacherline about how to facilitate online courses and that was an invaluable resource. There’s also, of course, the necessary technical training on how to live in an LMS every day and manage the workload. However, my best training, as with all teaching positions, came when I actually started teaching online and figuring out what works (and what doesn’t!).
What classes do you teach?
I currently teach senior English and 10th grade history, which is Modern U.S. History from 1900-present.
How many students do you work with?
We max out by contract at 150 students per teacher (which are our #’s for secondary classrooms in any classroom in Jeffco). I am running about 142 right now but there’s a lot of flux in an online school. We take in kids throughout the semester who are expelled or ill or have extenuating circumstances.
How do students participate in your class?
Mostly asynchronously through the LMS. We have “live” sessions in webinars but that’s a tiny part of their work. The majority is through our LMS, Schoology. They’re reading content, creating and submitting assignments, posting in discussions, participating in group projects, etc.
What expectations do you have for student participation?
Kids should expect my class to take the same amount of time as a regular course, 5-7 hours each week. Kids can decide how to divvy that time up. Some prefer to do it all at once (and tackle one class per day) and others like to do a small amount each day. I’m flexible on that as long as they’re getting their work in each week. I do have weekly deadlines. Because of state law, we require each student to visit each class each day for attendance but after they’ve met the attendance requirement, they have flexibility on how to get the work done.
How does teaching online differ from interacting with students in a traditional classroom?
In some ways, I know my students better. I work one-on-one with them as a tutor and cheerleader so they’re not afraid to share who they are. There’s a lot more flexibility and I have to be far more flexible as a teacher. We work with some very challenging situations and that means extreme flexibility while meeting kids needs but also ensuring they meet content standards.
What are some similarities between an online classroom and a traditional classroom?
Tons! The planning is the same. You’re still building content and meeting standards. The grading is very similar except the system for returning papers is far more streamlined! You use many of the same skills on how to talk with kids in a way that communicates your expectations while also showing them that you care about them.
What challenges do you encounter as an online teacher?
One of the hardest things is creating a work/life balance. Since you’re working on a flexible schedule and so are your students, it’s easy to let work slip into every nook and cranny of your life so you’re never “off.” That’s not totally healthy. I had to learn to shut down and unplug regularly so I wouldn’t burn out. I also think there’s a lot of “vicarious trauma” as we work with tough situations and feel for kids. We love our students and I absolutely hate that so many of them have such tough life situations.
What benefits do you find in working with students in an online environment?
The flexibility! I can assign students different content and fully differentiate for them without the worry that the rest of the class isn’t getting what they need. That online course environment is so amazing for meeting kids where they’re at. I also love the organization of working in an LMS. All my course content, grading, and communications are in one place and I can keep better tabs on how everyone is doing.
What online tools do you use to communicate with students?
I think as educators it’s our job to use whatever tools kids are most comfortable with. Our job is to work hard to reach them, not make them work hard to reach us. That means I use “whatever works.” Since kids text message so much these days, I spend a lot of time texting with kids. I use Google Voice to do that so I can text via a real keyboard and I don’t have to give out my personal cell number. I also email and call with kids too. I’ve offered to use Skype or Hangout with kids too but they generally prefer more traditional options (surprisingly!).
What other questions do YOU have? I love to “pull back the curtain” to online teaching and help others whenever possible!