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Instructional Leadership: Supporting Online Teachers

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Supporting your online teachers seems like it should be easy, but what do they really need? Where should you start? In this article, we explore what it means to be a good instructional leader and give you some guidance as to how you can get started.
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While many school leaders feel comfortable supporting teachers in a face-to-face setting, some school leaders have little to no experience working with or supporting teachers in an online environment.

Whether you are working with teachers or in an online environment for the first time or this is familiar territory, we all know that successful online programs require very strong leadership. 

We also know that school administrators have a LOT of responsibilities, one being instructional leadership.

In order to understand what you can do to be an effective leader, we will first define what instructional leadership is, why it matters, and what effective online teaching looks like. 

What is Instructional Leadership?

The NSQOL Quality Online Programs standards define the standard of “leadership” as: 

“The leadership of a quality online program is accountable to the program’s governance body and is responsible for setting and meeting the operational and strategic goals in support of the program’s mission and vision statements.”

In the subsequent indicators, key objectives are included, such as maintaining knowledge of trends in the educational environment and providing a productive collaborative environment for learning and work to take place.

You can see examples of these indicators in “Standard C” of the NSQOL Quality Online Programs Standards.

School leaders focused on instructional leadership are not only concerned with their administrative and programmatic leadership duties — they make teaching and learning their priority.

They involve themselves in the curriculum, the instruction, and in helping to mold and support effective teachers. 

Why Does Instructional Leadership Matter? 

Opportunities for school leaders to show understanding about and vision for developing successful online programs typically occur at the professional level.

However, the impact of instructional leadership occurs at home, at the district and school building level, where the superintendent and principals set the tone and expectations for students, staff, parents, vendors, and community. 

A successful online program requires strong leadership.

Most school administrators may not have much experience establishing and maintaining online learning programs, but many have a good start on the endeavor and can and do provide ideas, encouragement, and support to their colleagues who are at earlier stages of development.

Administrators at all levels are important advocates for online learning policies and options that expand opportunities for students and prepare them to be successful digital citizens in post-secondary studies and their work lives.

Learn more about strategies for successful online learning leadership in our Administrator Guide to Online Learning.

What Does Effective Online Teaching Look Like? 

Effective instructional leaders know what is expected of their online teachers, understand what effective online teaching looks like, and give their online teachers the support that they need.  

As outlined in the NSQOL Quality Online Teaching standards and as discussed in Michigan Virtual’s Teacher Guide to Online Learning, some of the core responsibilities of the online teacher include: 

  • Digital Pedagogy: Use digital pedagogical tools to foster communication, collaboration, encourage learner interaction, and monitor and motivate learner engagement. 
  • Community Building: Facilitate interactions and collaboration among online learners, their parents/guardians, and the student’s on-site mentor to create a supportive online community. 
  • Diverse Instruction: Personalize instruction, implement accommodations and modifications indicated on 504s and IEPs, provide opportunities for differentiation, and understand the variety of culturally diverse students that teachers may provide instruction to online. 
  • Assessment and Measurement: Design reliable and valid assessments to pinpoint areas for further instruction and make sure to offer meaningful feedback.

By more clearly understanding the role of the online teacher, school leaders are able to provide them with appropriate support so they can in turn better support their students.

How Can School Leaders Support Online Teachers?

So given what we know about their core responsibilities, how can you best support your online teachers?

Here are some suggestions based on information in Michigan Virtual’s Administrator Guide for Online Learning and the NSQOL Quality Online Programs standards

Participate in ongoing professional development to maintain disciplined knowledge of educational trends

Technology, pedagogy, and best practices in online teaching are changing very rapidly, so it is crucial that administrators at all levels participate in professional development in order to meet the challenges of online learning and to provide the optimum learning environment for students, teachers, and staff. 

Offer best practices and guidance

When leadership exhibits knowledge of and support for best practices in online learning, your teachers will feel more comfortable exploring new strategies and stepping out of their comfort zone to implement them in their classroom. 

Provide your online teachers with ongoing training, support, and professional development, which are aligned to the National Standards for Quality Online Teaching

Professional development specifically for online teaching is crucial for the success of not only your online program but also of your online teachers. Whether they are new to teaching online or not, teachers need ongoing professional development specifically related to online learning pedagogy in areas such as: 

  • Student motivation
  • Interaction and involvement between students in the course and the teacher
  • How to differentiate and personalize instruction in the online learning environment
  • Meeting the learning support needs of special education students in the online learning environment
  • Effective communication (email, discussion posts, tone of writing, etc.)
  • Comprehensive formative assessment techniques for the online learning environment
  • Academic integrity

Create a teaching environment supportive of change

Give your online teachers the trust, confidence, and support to try new things and take risks. 

Provide your online teachers with regular, timely feedback in the form of evaluations of their performance and student achievement

Make sure to use consistent, clear measures. Evaluations and timely feedback help teachers determine areas in which they excel and also areas for improvement. 

Offer your online teachers opportunities for collaboration and encourage participation in a mentoring program

Provide teachers newer to online learning with a more seasoned mentor who can help guide them. Ensure that your online teachers are provided with opportunities to collaborate, share ideas, build relationships, and learn from each other.  

Final Thoughts

Strong, invested leadership is critical in that it sets the direction of the K-12 online learning program.

Leadership is responsible for steering the program towards its mission and taking steps to achieve that mission.

Support your online teachers where they are, giving them what they need and making sure to give them the confidence and support to try new things. 

One of the most important ways that you can support your online teachers will be discussed in the next blog post in our Success in Online Learning blog series, which will be all about professional development. 

Success in Online Learning blog series

In our Success in Online Learning blog series, we discuss all things K-12 online learning in Michigan and across the nation. Our hope with this series is to provide a primer on K-12 online learning, cover established and emerging topics, and provide relevant research and resources. Stay up to date on future blogs in this series by signing up for email notifications!

About the Authors 

Christa Green

Christa received her master’s in Curriculum and Instruction from Kent State University, as well as a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration. She taught middle school language arts and social studies for seven years before coming to work for Michigan Virtual in 2018. As a Research Specialist with the Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute, Christa enjoys using her passion for education, curriculum, research, and writing to share and shape best practices in online and blended learning with other educators not only in Michigan, but nationwide. 

Kristen DeBruler

Dr. Kristen DeBruler received her doctorate in Educational Psychology and Educational Technology from Michigan State University. She taught in the Master of Arts in Educational Technology program at Michigan State University for three years. Her work focuses on K-12 online learning policy in Michigan and nation wide as well as understanding online learning best practices.

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Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

The Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute (MVLRI) is a non-biased organization that exists to expand Michigan’s ability to support new learning models, engage in active research to inform new policies in online and blended learning, and strengthen the state’s infrastructures for sharing best practices. MVLRI works with all online learning environments to develop the best practices for the industry as a whole.

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