All the things I wish I knew earlier about online teaching

10 headshots of instructors who share what they wish they knew about online teaching

This past year forced most teachers, even those with decades of experience teaching in face-to-face classrooms, into a brand new way of teaching–online! But what was new for many was my day-to-day work for many years, even those years prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

These days, I use my experience to train and support educators in online teaching and learning. I am reminded that every day is a learning experience when you first start teaching online, and even the most veteran teachers will have those “I wish someone would have told me…” moments. 

Even the most veteran teachers will have those “I wish someone would have told me…” moments.

At MACUL 2021, I led a session with ten of my online instructor colleagues, who together have a combined 60+ years in teaching online, to share the things we wish we’d known earlier about online teaching. I am happy to share their insights with you today!

1. Prioritize your home office to take care of your body

The transition from moving all day in face-to-face classrooms to sitting at a computer screen all day can take a toll on your body. Consider using an app or timer to remind yourself to get up to walk and stretch, invest in an ergonomic chair and keyboard, and try wearing blue-light blocking glasses or install an app on your computer to reduce eye strain. 

“I wish I would have known the importance of building a home office that works for me,” says Allison Gillie, online social studies instructor. “I have developed routines to get me moving, added an amazing standing desk and mat, and found ways to give my body a break.”

2. Expect procrastination and plan to do something about it

“I wish someone would have told me that my students would struggle so much with time management, would procrastinate a lot of their work, and would need a lot of support to stay motivated,” says career and technology instructor Kirstie Swanson. 

Most teachers were taught face-to-face classroom management strategies to motivate students and encourage buy-in and participation. We all know those teachers that have perfected this art and can get their students working with as little as a glance in a student’s direction. While this buy-in can look natural, it has taken a lot of skill and expertise on behalf of the classroom teacher to master. 

In remote, asynchronous classrooms, where teachers are not physically present with their students, the art of motivation especially requires intentional communication and support. The best online instructors communicate expectations upfront, leverage local support, and work hard to make their online classrooms a place where students want to be.

3. Building virtual relationships often come easier than in face-to-face classrooms

Most teachers feel called to this profession for one reason: To build relationships with students. Online teaching doesn’t sacrifice student-teacher relationships. In fact, as lead career & tech instructor, Kevin Santer, has learned, it can often be a medium for more reserved students to open up. 

“I was prepared that building relationships would be different online. What I didn’t realize was that I’d have the chance to reach students who might not get the same attention in a face-to-face.”

Kevin Santer | lead career & tech instructor

Many new-to-online teachers share how surprised they are to hear from students who would normally be quiet and shy in face-to-face classrooms. Encourage these relationships by noting the essential things students share about their lives, remembering their hobbies, and asking them how they’re doing in their other classes. 

Don’t forget to share about yourself as well! Just like face-to-face classrooms, students in online classrooms want to know their teacher. Share about your alma-mater, your family, your pets, your weekend plans, or your favorite holiday dish! You never know what will spur connection.

4. Establish boundaries and then establish more boundaries

In a technology-driven world where we can always connect online, establishing boundaries for how and when students can reach you will help you achieve better work-life balance as an online teacher. 

I recently deleted my email app from my phone, and it’s life-changing. I no longer binge-check my email when I do not intend to, like when I am spending valuable time with my family, taking time for myself, or relaxing before bed. 

Emilia McGuckin, ELA instructor, shares her thoughts on the benefits of boundaries: “I have learned that being available to students does not mean you have to be available 24/7. Something as simple as closing my computer at the end of the day and keeping it closed until the next morning helps me separate work time from family time.” 

Establishing your availability can also help your students. Creating a schedule of when you will respond to students’ queries isn’t just burnout prevention for you; it also helps students gain independent problem-solving skills.

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5. Give yourself some grace

Even the most veteran teachers will be faced with a learning curve when online teaching. Don’t be too hard on yourself. ELA instructor Caitlin Broton says, “Even the best face-to-face teacher is going to flounder a bit at first, and that’s okay.” 

Between learning lots of new technology, new ways of communicating, new classroom management strategies, there is a lot to take on. Instead of beating yourself up, reflect and take stock of all that you have learned and the ways you’ve grown professionally. 

Remember to ask for help when you need it! Just like we learned from our mentor teachers during our teacher training, look to those who know online teaching and do it well to offer you support.

6. Communicate, communicate, communicate

The most effective online teachers have learned the value of communicating early, clearly, and often. Probably because they’ve had one too many “You didn’t tell me…” or “I didn’t know…” student conversations at the start of their online teaching career. 

In face-to-face classrooms, where conversations often happen class-wide and on a whim, quickly getting everyone on the same page, communicating effectively to students online takes some planning. 

Communication in an online classroom requires you to be deliberate in sharing and reminding students of classroom policies and being transparent in your assignment instructions and grading practices. 

Additionally, online teachers must provide clear communication with other stakeholders (e.g., parents, administrators, other teachers) so everyone is on the same page. Math instructor Christy Trombetta reiterates this when she says, “I have found that reaching out frequently with instructions, reminders, motivation, progress checks, etc., is really key in helping students succeed online.”

7. Teaching online = teaching content and teaching technology

Last year, the Michigan Department of Education estimated that about a third of students across Michigan do not have reliable access to a computer at home or internet access. While we expect K-12 students to have been born and raised with digital skills, it’s inaccurate and unfair to assume students will intuitively know how to learn online. 

“It’s easy to think our students are tech natives and I wish I would have known how much training and support they often need in technology use. I often teach technology just as much as my content.”

Alanna Prieditis | lead world language instructor

Alanna Prieditis, lead world language instructor, says that she wishes she would have known how much training and support students would often need with technology. 

As a seasoned online teacher, she now instructs students on how to use their online learning platforms and online tools first and provides thoughtful ongoing support throughout the term. She especially likes screen-recording resources like Loom, which allows you to record a video with voice instruction and screen sharing.

8. Realize that your thoughts about online learning may be wrong

World languages instructor Judy Nixon shares, “I wish someone had told me that all of my preconceived notions about online teaching and learning were wrong.” 

Whereas Judy once thought that online learning might be impersonal, a bit dumbed down, possibly confusing, or altogether less valuable than face-to-face learning, she now sees the benefits online learning has for students, schools, and even teachers! 

Online learning provides something for everyone, such as: 

  • Giving a student the ability to take a desired course that’s not provided face-to-face at their local school, 
  • Providing a student with a health issue to continue their education, or 
  • Allowing an administrator to fill a teaching gap at their school.

Judy suggests current online teachers share their experiences with their face-to-face classroom colleagues, as it might demonstrate how fulfilling online teaching and learning can be:

9. Organize your resources from day one

The nature of online teaching and learning usually cultures a “work smarter, not harder” mentality in those who do it well. Online teachers may be asked the same question several times in one day or need to share a re-teaching resource several times throughout the week. 

Organize those common responses, resources, and links into documents and spreadsheets for easy copying and pasting. Spend time arranging the digital resources you create and use so that they can easily be referenced and reused in the future. 

Science instructor Nicole Ehle reflects on how organizing your online teaching resources can help you be more efficient and also increase your effectiveness as an online teacher:

10. Discard educational technology tools that aren’t working

After MACUL 2021, I had a notebook full of new apps, software, platforms, and ideas to try. Online teachers know that tech overwhelm is real. There is always a new tool to try, and tech innovation certainly is not slowing down. 

“Trying to use every new tool can create unintentional burdens for both you and your students. Start with one and add and discard as you become comfortable and you see they are working for your students.”

Heather Murphy | lead ELA instructor

Heather Murphy, lead ELA instructor, suggests we use what we like and toss what we don’t. There is certainly no harm in trying a new tool or idea in your online classrooms–in fact, it is recommended you do–but also be mindful of not abandoning what’s working for you and your students at the same time. 

Ready to try a new tool in your online class? Be sure to learn them first by experimenting on your own, working with a fellow teacher, or doing some online research. After all, you can’t help or support your students with technology that you barely understand yourself.

I hope you see some of yourself, your teaching, and your past year’s work in the thoughts of these Michigan Virtual instructors. I also hope you leave with an expanded sense of what online teaching is all about and be better prepared to master your online classrooms of today and tomorrow!

Interested in becoming an online teacher? We’re hiring! View open positions

Picture of Holly Boleski

Holly Boleski

Holly is the lead instructor of collaborative partnerships at Michigan Virtual. She has worked in the online teaching and learning field for many years, including many years pre-COVID. She enjoys being a fully online teacher and an instructional coach to those teachers who use or are interested in Michigan Virtual’s systems and practices. Holly enjoys talking about best practices and expectations for teaching and learning online.

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