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15 Lessons Learned From Online Teaching

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I’m a San Marino High School social studies teacher with more than 30 years of face-to-face, in the classroom, teaching experience. I’m also someone who has acquired a great deal of online teaching experience.

As you begin to venture into the world of online teaching this fall, here are some important lessons I've learned.

  1. You are not alone!
    In the world of online teaching, there is just too much to learn to go at it alone. So be sure to reach out to and learn from the other teachers at your school. Also be sure to look to Edutopia and right here at PBS TeachersLounge for free and high-quality guidance, as well as to the Resource Sharing for Distance Learning Facebook group, and other similar Facebook groups.  
  2. When venturing out, do so with the mindset of an explorer.
    The world that you are about to explore, at least in this teachers opinion, should prove vastly different from the world that any of us has ever explored in the past. We head to relatively uncharted terrain, but for the brief explorations that some of us experienced March to June, 2020.

    No matter the online teaching knowledge and experience you may have, if/when you head into this world, you are bound to learn something new and jaw-dropping -- both in terms of discoveries and challenges -- every single day.

    The 2020 academic school year should prove for most teachers one of the greatest learning adventures ever! 
  3. Share what you have learned.
    In the fall, we won’t have all the answers. As you learn something of value as a result of your own exploration, please share. And when you share, consider reflecting on how you teach. Self-reflection is an important first step in professional growth and development.  
  4. Start every class period with a detailed and well written description of what you are going to do and why. 
    This is so important when teaching online. As one parent said to me recently, “A structured, detailed agenda is absolutely critical to maintaining engagement with my daughter, and I would suspect the same is true with all other students...And that’s because the responsibility for learning, in an online setting, appears to shift more to the student, thus, a structured, detailed agenda helps provide clear expectations.”

    The parent makes a good point, one that all teachers should follow. Since hearing from this parent, I surely have come around. I’ve even gone so far as to include in my agenda “notes to self.” Examples include: get a glass of water, log in, turn on camera, conduct audio check, give class a break, provide rationale for today’s group work and take roll.

    As Bloomberg University professor Karl Kapp points out, “When you teach online, you are managing the content, the environment and the experience, and that's a lot to manage...(so) creat(ing) a (detailed) checklist or agenda (will) help you and (your students) immensely.”
  5. Work to build rapport.
    Most dictionaries define the word rapport as “the ability to maintain harmonious relationships based on affinity.” In education, it’s what happens when a teacher and class click, connect, interact well, and respond to each other favorably. I believe that rapport is needed for both students and teachers to give it their best AND for teachers and students to work together to avoid burnout.

    Many teachers say it’s much harder to build rapport online than it is to build it face to face. Building rapport online will require more conscientious, disciplined and strategic work on the teacher’s part. This area of connection is particularly important to me, as you’ll see in this post I’ve recently written: Building Rapport in the Era of Online Teaching.

    Other worthwhile reads: 
  6. An on camera presence is not the only way to check attendance.
    The fact is, there are far less intrusive ways to check for attendance and engagement than to require an on camera presence. When teachers use Zoom, for example, they can print out an attendance report, even with the free version, with this report also showing how many minutes a student was in the room. But there are many other good reasons why you should think twice about requiring an on camera presence:
      • Not all cameras work and not all students have the ability to troubleshoot camera issues.
      • Not all students want their homes viewed by their classmates and/or teacher.
      • Some students may be doing double duty — learning and babysitting — and they should be afforded this opportunity without either the teacher/students making a judgement.
      • Not all students want to blast their image all over the internet.
      • Zoom fatigue is real. As pointed out in a a May 2020 TED-Ed blog post, “(With online teaching, both teacher and students) feel like they have to make more emotional effort to appear interested, and in the absence of many non-verbal cues, the intense focus on words and sustained eye contact is exhausting,” 
      • According to the National Institute of Mental Health, “the fear of public speaking is the most common phobia ahead of death, spiders, or heights,” and it “affects about 73% of the population.”
      • Many policy makers nationwide have already signed onto this issue, stating publicly that teachers should allow their students some degree of privacy.
  7. Show your face.
    Research has shown that teachers who show their faces are more effective than teachers who don’t.

    Here’s why, according to Professor Kapp. “For many students, hearing a disembodied voice over their computer is not a normal or natural way of thinking about "being in class."  In a 2018 Forbes article,How to Build Real Relationships in the Virtual World, “It’s  harder to connect on a human level with people when they exist in two dimensions on your computer screen or mobile device. You need to work extra hard to make sure you’re interacting in a way that allows you to build genuine, meaningful relationships.

    So take a few moments upfront to wave to the students, make a joke, hold up your coffee cup -- add the human element. You are showing that you are settled and ready to teach. You can turn off the camera as class continues because video still uses a lot of bandwidth but periodically turn it back on. The human connection is key.
  8. Keep your videos short. 
    Though there are some who suggest that your videos should be kept to 15 minutes or less, I  suggest never producing a video that exceeds 5 minutes in length. For other good suggestions, check out the links below. 
  9. Share the spotlight.
    In a March 2020 article on The Conversation website entitled 14 Simple Tips for Better Online Teaching, “It is unrealistic to expect that you, on your own, will produce a semester’s worth of high quality videos.” Now is a good time to consider using “pre-developed, open access, resources available online (that allow you to provide your students) with clickable links.” 

    I frequently use high quality, and on topic, three to five minute videos produced by super talented U.S. History teachers such as Tom Richey, Adam Norris, the teachers behind what’s called Reading Through History and Course Hero, the Green Brothers and their Crash Course videos, and the teachers who produce so many outstanding history-related TED-Ed Lessons.
  10. Consider using positive reinforcement to hold students accountable.
    Think football coach and the dispensing of helmet stickers for those who have played well. In other words, digitally award students who participate in class online. Your students, like most football players, will work hard to earn them, even if they can be only digitally applied. Mine surely do.
  11. Stay engaged, even when allowing students to work on their own.
    Periodically check in with students to see how they are progressing. Be clear that when you send them out of the main meeting room either to work on their own or in small groups, it means the students’ work should continue. Remind them to stay focused on the work, not other non-school related business. 
  12. Continue to offer opportunities for personalization.
    “Just as we differentiate for learners in the classroom, so should we continue to create multiple learning pathways in online spaces,” say the folks who head the Global Online Academy. I agree. But how to do it. That’s the question. Such a challenge. Below, four articles I’ve found helpful as a start.
  13. Give alternative methods of assessment a chance.
    The world of online teaching just might require the rejection of the traditional forms of assessment (such as the multiple choice test). Below, some very good articles describing various alternative methods of assessment, with the last article describing oral assessment.
  14. Reimagine your office hour setting.
    If you are required to offer regularly scheduled office hours and continue to think of your office hour setting as a place for test prep or assignment help,  chances are no one will show. But can you blame them? Test prep? Help with an assignment? After all, a student can reach out to a teacher via email at any time. The concept of the traditional office hour seems so outdated!

    TIP! Invite your students, during your office hour, to share or discuss something less traditional. Examples: 
      • Share a favorite stay-at-home coping strategy
      • Share a favorite song, painting, work of art, poem, etc.
      • Discuss an all-important, school-related question (what should school look like after school reopens, should teachers require students to present on camera, how should teachers hold students accountable for class discussion).
      • Share something baked or otherwise created.
      • Share a talent (the playing of a musical instrument)
      • Invite a guest speaker (your students favorite middle school teacher, for example) to meet with your students. 
    This will show your students the online twist you’ve created to re-frame the traditional office hour.
  15. Ask for feedback from both your students and their parents.
    And not just at the end of the year but frequently throughout. Even in the course of the past few weeks, I have learned so much from student and parent feedback. As a result, I’ve made two significant changes, one in terms of how I teach and the other in terms of how I assess. If parents and students know you are also open to learning, they will be less harsh in their criticism and complaints.

Final Thoughts
Self care will be very important. The following reads could prove helpful, How Teachers Can Prioritize Self-Care While Working From Home, had the greatest impact on me.

Don’t be surprised if your exploration of online teaching leaves you feeling exhausted at the end of each day. That’s been my experience. There are so many new things to take in, so many new challenges to face. On the other hand, we’re also bound to make many great discoveries. Indeed, there is already evidence that some of you are well on your way. We just need to keep putting one foot forward at a time and sharing with others our successes -- for we are better together.

“Exploring is delightful to look forward to and back upon, but it is not comfortable at the time, unless it be of such an easy nature as not to deserve the name.” -Samuel Butler

Peter Paccone

Peter Paccone Social Studies Teacher

Peter Paccone is a San Marino High School social studies teacher with more than thirty years of teaching experience. He's also a blogger, keynote speaker, podcast host, and frequent teacher conference presenter. Over the years, Mr. Paccone has received several state and national innovative teacher awards, including a Henry Ford Innovative Teacher Award, an ISTE Video Conference Teacher of the Year Award, a Flipped Learning Global Initiative Master Teacher Award, and a PBS Digital Innovator Award. He's also served as the KQED In the Classroom Coordinating Editor.

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