When I began teaching online two years ago, I was highly skeptical. As a teacher with private, independent school and public, four-year college experience, the classroom was my stage. I operated like a conductor organizing a beautiful symphony of learning. When I hopped into AP English Literature and Composition for OC Online, hosting only one 30-minute live session in a virtual classroom each week, I worried.
My real hang-ups were philosophical and somewhat intangible. Could students really learn and engage with the material though we only “met” for 30 minutes each week? How could I condense a week’s worth of content and instruction into 30 minutes? When one student could never meet for those 30 minutes due to a demanding tennis schedule, would we ever connect? How could I know that my students were truly learning the material? Could I really do this and still be a “teacher”?
I’m not here to offer any pedagogical research or irrefutable empirical data. I’m just here to share my personal experiences in the trenches. At first, teaching felt slow, and I couldn’t fathom what we all were doing. Then their assignments began to trickle in.
As the semester progressed, I found myself in the backseat as the students took the wheel of their learning. Suddenly, the teacher became less important to the learning. While they moved through the curriculum, interacting with various pieces of literature and crafting essays, I became a facilitator, coach, or director. In the physical classroom of years ago, while I did much to create an environment where I operated as the conductor of the symphony, too frequently I was the main performer on a stage. The online learning platform simply didn’t allow that.
Student engagement, the often elusive, magical quality that we attempt to track measurably, cropped up in unexpected places. I found it in one on one emails from students wondering why an assignment was only worth 15 points when it took them five hours to complete. They challenged quiz and test questions, supplying information from their reading and in the course. They asked about the purpose of particular tasks or assignments. Now, a critic could say these were simply students obsessed with grades, but I found my students were obsessed with understanding why we did what we did and why it mattered. They wanted to be right and yes, do well, but they were more concerned about the truth in our material.
More shocking to me was the way we connected personally, over significant distances, while only meeting remotely. We argued over favorite characters in stories. They showed me their pets. They emailed when facing challenges and confessed if they were behind. My one student, who could only watch recordings of our class sessions, had to submit notes of our classes. Her notes were littered with little asides – “I really like your shirt today.” “That’s so funny, I think that too!” “No, I’m not going to do that.” “You’re so right.” At first, these comments were a little disarming, but as I got to know the student more, they were utterly charming anecdotes of how she connected with me via video in a way some students never do in a classroom environment. Through the miracle of technology, I was able to watch a video feed from one of her tennis matches and return the favor.
To be fair, I was teaching a senior level English course with the added pressure of an AP exam in the spring, but my students had a range of abilities and skills. They were also kids – high school kids – with all that entails. One of my most brilliant students hit second semester and came down with that most irritating disease—Senioritis. Separated by distance, missing our live sessions, and not turning in work, my student hit the top of my prayer list. He was too intelligent not to graduate, but he was in serious danger of that reality. I remember emailing him that sometimes we are measured by our diligence rather than our intelligence. Thankfully for all involved, particularly his exasperated parents, he pulled it together in the end. After all that, at graduation, which I could not attend, he asked for me, saying I was one of the best teachers he’d had in all his years at the school. I was flabbergasted.
Yes, students could engage and learn—both with the material and with me. The problem with my hang-ups and questions was that they were all about ME when learning should be all about the students. When we flipped the classroom experience and put students in the driver’s seat, they excelled. Suddenly, the individual melodies and harmonies relied much less on what I could do and more on what students were already doing.
Dean of Instruction, OC Online