Key Strategies for Supporting Teachers in Virtual Learning Environments

Published on August 9, 2021
Written By: 

Christopher Harrington, Ed.D.Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

|

Kristen DeBruler, Ph.D.Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

The strategies for supporting virtual teachers discussed in this report are based on the current practices shared by 1,809 virtual educators (1,721 teachers and 88 supervising administrators) representing 17 statewide virtual schools or programs with a combined 150 years of online and blended learning experience and more than a quarter of a million virtual course enrollments annually. The expertise of these individuals is provided as a way to help school leaders of both traditional and nontraditional schools and districts that have teachers and school leaders who are developing their skills and abilities as virtual educators.

Suggested Citation

Harrington, C. & DeBruler, K. (2021). Key strategies for engaging students in virtual learning environments. Michigan Virtual University. https://michiganvirtual.org/research/publications/key-strategies-for-supporting-teachers/

Introduction and Need for the Study

In spring 2020, traditional K-12 schools and districts throughout the United States were forced to adopt emergency remote teaching and learning practices as a result of extended school closures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. These practices relied heavily on the use of online curricular resources and remote learning tools; however, the effectiveness of these practices, in many instances, was lacking. School administrators in these traditional schools and districts struggled to provide the instructional leadership and support needed to effectively teach in a virtual or remote learning environment as the demands associated with operating a school under pandemic conditions were overwhelming.

During the pandemic, some schools and districts did experience success within their academic programs as they already had implemented virtual learning programs prior to the spring 2020 school closures. The advanced planning and preparation of their virtual programs, including the development of their virtual learning environments and related pedagogical skills, enabled these schools and districts to shift more easily to a fully remote teaching and learning model. Furthermore, schools and programs whose primary learning format is virtual experienced the least disruption as the nation’s educational system shifted to remote learning. The school leaders of established virtual schools or programs had already designed and implemented effective structures to help support teachers, students, and their families.

This study, conducted by researchers at Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute (MVLRI), aimed to provide insights into the effective practices of school administrators who are experiencing high levels of success in their virtual schools or programs. The findings of this study should be particularly helpful to school administrators who are new to leading in a virtual or remote learning environment.

Methodology

This qualitative study utilized an online survey to collect data from 1,809 virtual educators (1,721 teachers and 88 supervising administrators), representing 17 statewide virtual schools or programs across the United States that have a combined 150 years of online and blended learning experience and more than a quarter of a million virtual course enrollments annually. It is important to note that the participants in this study were employed by virtual schools or programs that had well-established programs, professional learning processes, and teacher supervision practices that were developed and refined over time. The findings of this study represent an immense collection of knowledge and experience related to virtual teaching and learning.

The online survey was developed in early February 2021, and data were collected over a 3-week period from late February through mid-March 2021. The data were compiled and analyzed throughout March 2021, and a report specific to the key strategies for effective student engagement by the teachers of this study was published in early April 2021. This report, focusing on the administrative support provided by the supervisors of these teachers, was made publicly available to all schools and districts in early August 2021.

Limitations of the Study

The findings of this study represent the perceptions of teachers and supervising administrators of well-established statewide virtual schools and programs. While the intent of the study is to share effective practices with teachers and administrators new to teaching and leading within virtual learning environments, the practices are not generalizable to all schools across the nation as the participants of this study are working within mature virtual learning programs that have formal structures and supports for teachers and administrators to serve students and families in virtual learning environments. 

Discussion of the Findings

Administrators representing 17 statewide virtual schools and programs shared their perspectives relating to the strategies they used to help support teachers educating students in a virtual learning environment. As a whole, the 88 participating administrators responsible for the supervision of virtual teachers within their programs spanned the entire PreK-12 spectrum. Approximately 97% of the administrator participants served programs at the high school level, 61% served at the middle school level, and 48% served at the elementary school level. These figures reflect the fact that some administrators are leading programs that include multiple grade levels.

In addition, the experience levels of participating administrators varied. The majority of the administrators (72%) reported they had at least 5 years of experience as a leader of a virtual school or program, while only 6% reported having less than 1 year of experience in this role. 

In a report published in April 2021 by MVLRI titled, Key Strategies for Engaging Students in Virtual Learning Environments, the research team reported on the various ways in which the teachers of well-established virtual schools and programs (1,721 teacher participants) nurture the development of relationships with students and engage them in the virtual learning environment. This report and the April 2021 report are based on the same data collected. For this report, the data collected from virtual teachers and the administrators responsible for the supervision of these teachers were compiled and organized into the following themes: sources of teachers’ professional learning, teachers’ perceptions of administrative support, instructional design support, and pedagogical support.

Sources of Teachers’ Professional Learning

Based on survey data collected from the 1,721 virtual teachers participating in this study, the most common source of professional learning for both full-time and part-time teachers were the mandatory opportunities provided by the teachers’ virtual school or program, followed by any optional opportunities their school or program offered. To a lesser extent, teachers also reported additional professional learning experiences through informal peer mentoring with colleagues, attendance in virtual or face-to-face conferences, and participation in online courses and webinars provided by educational organizations. Participating teachers indicated that their undergraduate coursework through a college or university was the least common source of professional learning to help them develop the skills to be an effective virtual teacher. See Table 1 for a detailed distribution of professional learning sources reported by virtual teachers.

Table 1

Sources of Professional Learning for Virtual Teachers

SourcesFull-time TeacherPart-time Teacher
Total Count3931,328
Mandatory opportunities provided by my virtual school/program72.8%73.8%
Optional opportunities provided by my virtual school/program59.8%60.1%
Informal peer mentoring with colleagues59.5%51.4%
Conferences (in-person or virtual)59.0%52.3%
Online courses provided by educational organizations54.7%48.9%
Webinars provided by educational organizations53.9%48.5%
Formal peer mentoring with colleagues32.3%26.6%
Graduate course work through a college or university29.3%26.4%
Social media28.5%24.2%
Undergraduate course work through a college or university15.3%12.9%
Other 2.5%3.2%

Teacher responses regarding their sources of professional learning were also disaggregated by the number of years of experience they have as a virtual teacher. Regardless of the number of years experience teaching in a virtual environment, the mandatory professional learning provided by virtual schools or programs remained the most widely utilized source for teachers and was consistent across all experience bands.The second most utilized source, optional opportunities provided by the virtual school or program, was used notably more by teachers with more years of virtual teaching experience.

This same trend of greater use of professional learning opportunities by teachers with more experience was reflected for the sources of attending face-to-face conferences and participating in online courses and webinars provided by educational organizations (see Table 2).

Table 2

Preferences of Professional Learning Sources by Teacher Experience Level

SourcesLess than 1 year1 – 4 years5 – 10 yearsMore than 10 years
Total Count246387618560
Mandatory opportunities provided by my virtual school/program68.7%67.2%73.3%68.6%
Informal peer mentoring with colleagues54.1%48.8%51.8%48.9%
Optional opportunities provided by my virtual school/program47.2%53.7%60.0%60.4%
Conferences (in-person or virtual)43.9%47.8%52.4%55.4%
Webinars provided by educational organizations38.2%41.3%50.8%51.4%
Online courses provided by educational organizations37.8%42.6%49.8%53.2%
Formal peer mentoring with colleagues27.6%27.4%26.5%25.4%
Social media25.6%24.0%25.1%21.8%
Graduate course work through a college or university21.5%25.3%25.7%27.5%
Undergraduate course work through a college or university12.2%12.9%13.4%12.1%
Other 1.6%3.1%2.8%3.4%

The professional learning source ranked highest by teachers relative to effectiveness was the mandatory opportunities provided by their virtual schools or programs with 356 teachers reporting as such. While other sources of professional development were more widely used by participating teachers, sources such as informal peer mentoring with colleagues (reported by 309 teachers) and in-person or virtual conferences (reported by 208 teachers) ranked second and third, respectively, in terms of being more effective for teachers. 

Teachers’ Perceptions of Administrative Support

The teachers participating in this study reported two primary areas in which they received general support from their supervising administrators. Being provided opportunities for professional development by their supervisor was reported by 78% of the teachers, and 77% indicated their supervisors provided support through the communication of clear expectations of the teachers and their work. 

The majority of responding teachers also identified other supports provided by administrators, which included direct guidance for teachers related to the use of effective virtual teaching strategies (71%), listening to teachers’ concerns and partnering with the teachers to identify solutions to challenges (67%), and providing an outlet for discussion of effective practices for virtual teaching (63%). To a lesser extent, administrators were reported to have offered additional support such as establishing a supportive school culture that offers both the validation of the value of teachers’ work and general social and emotional support. Responsive communication and feedback were also identified as supports provided by administrators. Please see Table 3 for a detailed distribution of general administrator support reported by virtual teachers.

Table 3

Teacher Perceptions of Support Provided by Supervising Administrators

Type of General Administrative SupportTotal Teachers
Total Count1,721
They provide professional development opportunities affiliated with my virtual school/program78.3%
They communicate clear expectations of me and my work77.1%
They provide guidance and expertise on the use of virtual teaching strategies70.9%
They listen to my concerns and help identify solutions to challenges66.9%
They provide an outlet for discussion of best practices62.6%
They provide social/emotional support to me as an educator49.7%
They provide other personnel needed to support students (counselors, coaches, mentors, specialists, etc.)47.5%
They provide guidance and expertise on the use of assessment strategies44.6%
They assist by engaging in conversations with families30.7%
They provide me with extra time to develop content and assessments19.0%
Other1.5%

Teachers reported the top-ranked type of support provided by administrators, in terms of effectiveness, was the communication of clear expectations of the teachers’ work with 433 teachers reporting as such. Supporting teachers by providing professional development opportunities emerged as the next highest ranked type of support (reported by 409 teachers). Listening to teachers’ concerns and helping to identify solutions to challenges was ranked as the third most effective type of support as reported by 187 teachers.

Instructional Design Support

The 88 administrators participating in this study were asked to share the ways in which they nurtured the development of teachers’ instructional design skills as they relate to digital learning environments. While 40% of the respondents indicated teachers in their schools or programs were not responsible for instructional design, the remainder offered their insight. Of these administrators, the vast majority (81%) reported they ensure professional opportunities related to instructional design are made available to teachers. A slight majority (53%) of administrators also indicated they provide support by offering one-on-one guidance and expertise related to the design and structuring of teachers’ virtual courses. To a lesser extent, 36% of administrators provide teachers with extra time in their schedule to develop content and assessments as part of the support provided. Of these three types of support reported by administrators, ensuring professional development was available to teachers was ranked as most effective, while providing teachers with extra time in their schedule was ranked as least effective.

Pedagogical Support

Participating administrators were also asked to identify the ways in which they provide pedagogical support to teachers of virtual courses whom they supervise. Three primary methods of providing support were reported by administrators with 71% indicating they provided support and development to teachers through virtual course walkthroughs and/or teacher observations. Ensuring professional development opportunities for teachers was also reported by a majority of the administrators with 63% identifying opportunities related to instructional practices (pedagogy) within a virtual learning environment and 61% citing professional development opportunities specific to the development of teacher-student relationships in these environments. 

To a lesser extent, administrators provided peer mentors to new teachers or experienced teachers in need of extra support, and they ensured professional development related to the analysis and application of student performance data in a virtual setting was available to teachers. Other ways supervising administrators provided support was through one-on-one consultation with teachers and developing or connecting teachers to specific resources that can solve immediate needs or challenges individual teachers face. Please see Table 4 for a detailed distribution of pedagogical supports provided by administrators.

Table 4

Pedagogical Support Provided to Teachers by Administrators

Type of Pedagogical SupportTotal Supervising Administrators
Total Count88
I provide support and development to teachers through course walkthroughs and/or teacher observations70.5%
I ensure professional development opportunities related to pedagogy in a virtual learning environment are available to teachers62.5%
I ensure professional development opportunities related to the development of teacher-student relationships in a virtual learning environment are available to teachers61.4%
I provide peer mentors to new teachers or experienced teachers in need extra support53.4%
I ensure professional development opportunities related to the analysis and application of student performance data in a virtual learning environment are available to teachers47.7%
I ensure professional development opportunities related to the design of assessments in a virtual learning environment are available to teachers34.1%
Other6.8%

The most effective type of pedagogical support cited by administrators was that of providing peer mentors to new teachers or experienced teachers in need of extra support, as reported by 26 administrators. Ensuring professional development related to the development of teacher-student relationships in a virtual learning environment ranked second in effectiveness with 14 administrators reporting as such. The third highest ranked method was providing support and development to teachers through course walkthroughs and/or teacher observations (reported by 13 administrators).

Challenges Reported by Teachers

When asked directly about the challenges associated with teaching virtually, teachers’ responses to open-ended survey questions varied but coalesced into four main areas. Most responses spoke directly to the challenges associated with developing and maintaining student relationships, motivating and engaging students, instructional challenges, and personal challenges. 

Developing and maintaining student relationships, along with motivating and engaging students, was the most frequently cited challenge by virtual teachers. Teachers noted that it is difficult to make their presence known online, and that they have to be very deliberate about building student relationships as there is no opportunity for casual conversations and interactions like in face-to-face classrooms. In the recent MVLRI report titled, Key Strategies for Engaging Students in Virtual Learning Environments, teachers noted a number of effective strategies for building relationships with students: the consistent use of multiple forms of communication, individualized and formative feedback, appealing to students individual interests, humanizing themselves, and using synchronous meetings to build a sense of community and strengthen relationships. While these strategies are effective for many virtual teachers, they do require considerable time and effort on the part of the teacher. Relationship-building in a virtual classroom is a deliberate, and multi-faceted effort.

Virtual teachers also noted the challenges of motivating and engaging students online. Teachers specifically cited the distinct challenge of reaching students who ignore communication attempts and fall behind in their virtual courses. Even for students who “show up” and appear to be completing their assignments, teachers reported missing physical or behavioral “cues” such as facial expressions or body language that subtly indicate student understanding or engagement. Again, virtual teachers reported appealing to student interest and making connections between that and the course content to engage students, as well as through the use of encouraging feedback. However, it is clear from teacher responses that virtual teaching requires new strategies beyond what is used in face-to-face classrooms to engage and motivate students. 

Instructional challenges were also commonly noted by virtual teachers. Teachers identified some obvious technological challenges of teaching virtually such as broken links, internet outages, and having to learn how to use new technologies like a learning management system (LMS); however, several teachers also noted the challenge of transitioning from being a passive facilitator of online content to that of being an active virtual teacher. They mentioned specific challenges such as how to provide formative instruction when separated not only physically but also temporally (for asynchronous courses, which are the majority nationally) as well as how to scaffold student learning online. 

Finally, teachers noted personal challenges associated with virtual teaching. These challenges are less about how to provide instruction or engage students and more about how teachers manage their own social and emotional health. Many virtual teachers shared challenges with setting clear work boundaries. Teachers reported having difficulty maintaining a work-life balance when the work is “always there” in the sense that students work at all hours of the day, and that work is completely online and always accessible. Teachers also frequently cited feelings of isolation and reported missing informal interactions with colleagues. They missed the camaraderie and support of their colleagues and feeling like they were a part of an instructional team. Many teachers also reported feelings of loss of connectedness with their students, which is closely related to the challenges of building and maintaining relationships. While there are effective strategies virtual teachers can employ to build relationships with students, those relationships remain markedly different than those in face-to-face classrooms. 

Challenges Reported by Administrators

When administrators were asked through open-ended survey questions to reflect on the challenges faced by virtual teachers, they identified challenges similar to those reported by teachers. Administrators reported making connections with students and developing personal relationships as the greatest challenge to teaching virtually. They also shared that teachers often struggled to establish consistent and effective communication, and in turn, understand students’ personal and family needs. Relatedly, some administrators also mentioned that their teachers struggled to support students with special needs, such as those with learning disabilities or non-native English Language Learners (ELL). Administrators also indicated that it could be difficult for teachers to do things like adapt the curriculum to meet the needs of individual students if they aren’t clear on the best practices for virtual teaching. 

Similar to the instructional challenges reported by teachers and detailed above, administrators reported that in addition to teaching content and providing feedback, virtual teachers were also tasked with helping students adjust to new ways of learning online as well as the increased accountability in virtual courses. Furthermore, instructional challenges noted by teachers, and echoed by administrators, were related to teachers helping students navigate issues with their personal technology or the LMS. Teachers may not always be comfortable with technology themselves, and troubleshooting at a distance, perhaps even asynchronously, can be challenging.  

Administrators also reported some of the same personal challenges faced by virtual teachers related to maintaining professional connections and work-life balance. Several administrators noted the lack of causal interaction and relationship-building, facilitated by working in a shared physical space, as a challenge faced by virtual teachers. This limited interaction with colleagues and peers can lead to feelings of isolation by virtual teachers and make it difficult to develop trust between teachers and administrators. 

When administrators were asked about challenges they themselves faced as administrators in virtual programs, they reported helping teachers support and engage students as their primary challenge. Relationship-building, between teachers and students, and administrators and teachers, was by far the most commonly cited challenge by administrators. Many administrators added that they struggled to provide effective solutions for teachers to help engage and motivate disengaged, uncommunicative, or unmotivated students.  

Participating administrators elaborated, indicating that it was difficult to build relationships with teachers both professionally, having the time to observe their teaching and provide quality feedback, as well as personally, to develop trust and support with their staff. Administrators felt that trust between teachers and themselves was critical to having teachers accept administrators’ feedback as well as helping teachers to trust administrative leadership and welcome programmatic change. 

Providing the necessary levels of support for teachers, both in terms of keeping them engaged but not overwhelmed, as well as providing appropriate technology support for less technologically advanced teachers was also cited by administrators as a challenge. In addition, they also reported some logistical challenges associated with supporting virtual teaching such as limited funding to hire teachers in mentor or leadership positions and issues related to the coordination of part-time teacher schedules. Some administrators also shared that much like the participating teachers noted with their students, working remotely as an individual with limited interactions with the teachers whom they supervise can be a challenge because it can be difficult to understand teachers’ knowledge gaps and provide appropriate and in-time support for them. 

Implications

The administrative support strategies discussed in this report are based on the reported needs of the 1,721 virtual teachers and the current practices of the 88 supervising administrators who participated in this study. These individuals worked within 17 well-established, statewide virtual schools or programs, in which providing high-quality virtual education was their primary focus. Recommendations based on the expertise of the participating teachers and administrators are provided here by MVLRI researchers to help administrators of both traditional and nontraditional schools and districts that have school leaders who are developing their skills and abilities to lead teachers in a virtual setting. 

Provide Relevant and Intentional Professional Development

Engaging in professional development opportunities is essential for the ongoing development of teachers’ skills. Data collected in this study indicate that administrators who supervise virtual teachers should provide a combination of mandatory and optional professional learning opportunities that focuses on student engagement strategies, developing relationships with students, and the use of their school’s or program’s technology systems. Such opportunities could be led by the administrators, teachers, or perhaps a third party via conferences, webinars, or customized experiences.

Different teachers have different needs, so administrators should be intentional about identifying the true needs of each virtual teacher whom they supervise. Through a collaborative teacher supervision process, the needs of each teacher can be identified, and professional learning experiences can be tailored in a way that is highly relevant and impactful.

Ensure Mentorship and Collaboration

Providing ample opportunities for new virtual teachers to “see” effective virtual teaching, either during onboarding or through a mentorship opportunity with an experienced virtual teacher, was reported to be an effective way to develop teachers’ virtual teaching skills. Administrators should create opportunities that allow teachers to work together to share effective virtual teaching practices. This type of job-embedded, ongoing professional development can be accomplished by establishing a peer mentoring program or protocol, coupled with shared access to teachers’ virtual courses. 

In addition to establishing teacher-to-teacher collaboration opportunities, supervising administrators should be intentional about developing their own relationships with teachers and provide coaching based on individual teachers’ needs. When administrators develop trusting relationships with teachers, they can be more effective in collaboratively identifying teachers’ professional needs and supporting their growth.

Maintain a Supportive Professional Culture

Some teacher and administrator participants of this study reported that the feeling of isolation when working in a virtual setting can be a challenge. Administrators should intentionally build processes for virtual teachers to collaborate regularly, creating opportunities for teachers to share their knowledge and their effective practices with each other. In addition, nurturing such collaboration and the development of supportive relationships among the staff can be highly effective in creating a high-performing professional culture.

Effective communication between administrators and teachers is another key component to developing and maintaining a strong, positive culture within the school or district. Keeping lines of communication open throughout an organization encourages ongoing dialog relative to roles, responsibilities, and organizational priorities. Administrators should evaluate the communication practices that are currently in place in their organizations to determine whether changes are needed to ensure overall clarity of roles, responsibilities, and priorities.

Encourage Healthy Work-Life Boundaries

Participating administrators reported struggling with their own work-life balance, yet also wanting to better support teachers in establishing firm work-life boundaries. Having clear expectations for teacher communication (e.g., responding to emails, providing feedback to students, communicating with parents, etc.) will help, but ultimately administrators need to model healthy work-life boundaries by not communicating or expecting communication outside of established work hours. In doing so, and respecting their own time, administrators can build a culture of trust and support where teachers feel like they, too, can reclaim their personal time and not be “on the clock” all day and night.

Model Supportive Practices

There are a number of different ways administrators can model supportive practices, both personally and professionally, and many of these reflect effective practices for teaching virtual K-12 courses. By modeling the actions described above in these recommendations, both district- and school-level administrators will demonstrate similar effective ways that teachers can support their students.

Administrators should model the design of new learning opportunities (professional development) for teachers that reflects the administrator’s understanding of the true needs of each teacher. Such opportunities may include offering a variety of options for teachers, which adds an element of personalization for them. Moreover, providing opportunities for teachers to learn together by sharing thoughts and ideas related to effective instructional practices (collaboration) is a proven way to empower teachers to take ownership of their own professional growth.

Honoring the needs of teachers as adult learners and providing relevance to their professional learning experiences has the potential to be a catalyst to developing and maintaining a highly-effective and positive work environment (culture). Administrators can further nurture the development of a positive school culture by providing clear and intentional communication around teacher responsibilities, performance expectations, and time management (work-life balance).

Conclusion

In spring 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools and districts across the nation to close their doors to face-to-face learning, and many were forced to implement “makeshift” versions of virtual learning. This rapid transition to emergency remote teaching and learning resulted in learning experiences that, in many cases, fell short of the quality of learning that school leaders had hoped to achieve. To a large extent, leaders of traditional face-to-face schools struggled to support teachers who were pushed into the remote teaching format as a result of the school closures. It is the hope of the research team at Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute that the strategies and recommendations resulting from this study will aid K-12 school and district administrators as they continue to refine and implement virtual learning within their own academic programs.

In many ways, the recommendations resulting from this study should seem logical. While education and pedagogy will change and evolve over time, providing relevant, engaging, and flexible professional learning will ensure that we are all constantly learning. School administrators must give teachers ample opportunity to learn from each other and collaborate. They must also lead by example— if we want teachers to have a healthy work-life balance and to promote a culture of trust, they need to see it being modeled for them. In the words of Helen Keller, “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.”

Table of Contents

Limited Course Capacity

We’re sorry to inform you that we have reached capacity for several of our Semester 1 and Trimester 1 courses. You’ll notice when attempting to enroll students in our Student Learning Portal that some courses are unavailable. While we are no longer accepting new enrollments for these courses at this time, many courses continue to remain open for enrollment.

With many students across the state 100% remote, demand for our online courses is greater than ever before. Because every course we offer is taught by a Michigan-certified teacher, this high volume of enrollments has created capacity issues for our teachers who provide each and every student with individual feedback.

While the Michigan Virtual team anticipated and planned for significant increases in student enrollments this Fall, the increased demand we’ve experienced has been unprecedented. As a result, we are taking steps to hire even more part-and full-time teachers to support larger numbers of student enrollments for Semester 2 as well as for Trimester 2 and 3. 

For schools that still need online learning options this year, please fill out the form at the bottom of our virtual pathways page to meet with someone to discuss other solutions. While some of our teacher-led courses are full, we may still have the capacity to help you in upcoming terms or can discuss timing to implement a whole-school or collaborative program in which local teachers from your school/district use our online course content to teach students. We also have free course content and resources available for you to use.

We know this is an incredibly stressful time for all, and we’re sorry if the courses you’re looking for are unavailable. We never want to turn away a student who wants to learn from us. Our top concern, however, is student success, and we have a policy to not take on additional enrollments if we cannot guarantee that all students will have a quality online learning experience. 

We appreciate your patience and understanding as we navigate the unusually high volume of enrollments we are receiving.