Search form

Teacher's Lounge: "I'm Over This Whole Online Instruction Thing"

Dear Teacher’s Lounge,

            I’m really over this whole online instruction thing, which we are still doing to some extent for who knows how long. My students at home don’t take my class seriously and I don’t know how to motivate them. Most of the time, I feel like they are signing in for attendance and then doing whatever they want. How can I help them understand that no matter where they are, they need to take my class seriously?

                                                                                                                                    ~Over It

Dear Over It:

Here we are, 14 months into some form of virtual teaching. Whether our districts have returned to in-person instruction or not, almost all of us teach at least some students remotely at least a few times a week, and we often teach concurrently with kids who physically sit in front of us. I may have mentioned it before, but this is not the job we signed on for, and very few of us feel like we have it all figured out.

First of all, I applaud you for taking the most important step as a teacher: asking for help. That means you truly care not just about your craft, but also about the kids you work with. Sometimes when we care and we’re not sure how to get the results we know are desirable, we get extremely frustrated. What you are feeling is legitimate, and you are not alone. The question then becomes, how do we pull ourselves out of this negative headspace and figure out how to navigate instruction with students who are physically (and sometimes mentally) distant?

As we figure out this whole online teaching challenge, two topics keep cropping up: motivation and engagement. Let’s take a look at them one at a time, starting with motivation. There are two kinds of motivation: extrinsic and intrinsic. When we look at extrinsic motivators, we are typically looking at external systems for punishment or reward. For example, grades are a classic extrinsic motivator, as are rewards like stickers or honor-roll ice cream parties. We often rely heavily on these external methods to coax students into compliance, but we are increasingly discovering that this approach is neither effective nor conducive to forming strong learning habits for students in the long term. Furthermore, since it’s pretty difficult to reward students at a distance (or punish them), a lot of our tried-and-true extrinsic motivational methods have bombed during the pandemic.

Even so, students succeed more effectively and enduringly when they are motivated from within. However (and this is where it can get confusing), it is not their job to create this intrinsic motivation. It is ours. How do we do that? That is where we get into engagement. When we find ways to tap into what kids are interested in, we increase the odds that they will want to be with us. If we combine that with building strong personal rapport in our classroom communities, that ups our chances of success even more. Accomplishing this dual goal of winning the people by understanding (and connecting with) the people is definitely harder when we teach online, but it is possible. Here are some steps to take that will increase our chances of helping students by reaching out to them more effectively:

Use the first 10 minutes of class to engage students in an activator that connects to learning goals. This article offers some great ideas as a place to start. Our colleagues and are often fantastic sources of ideas for activators as well, so I always encourage people to reach out to teaching buddies.

Read this solutions-oriented article about why students turn their cameras off, and what we can do about it.

Get information from students in the form of a survey or questionnaire. Ask them what their experiences and expectations for the class are, what we can do to help them reach their goals, and what other considerations we should bear in mind for their learning, particularly in terms of distance learning needs and camera-related concerns.

Gamify reviews or other checks for understanding using online tools like Quizizz or Kahoot, which will greatly increase engagement and the likelihood that students tune in more actively.

All of the above suggestions seek to meet our students more proactively where they are both academically and emotionally. We take our own classes seriously, but expecting students to feel the same way is often unrealistic unless we do a little more behind-the-scenes work on our end to plan for their investment. While no particular strategies or actions are a magical solution to reaching all of our students, the efforts we make to help them almost always yield positive results. Students are more likely to work with us if they know we care about them.

If all goes well, we will be letting go of a large portion of the online teaching world this coming autumn (fingers crossed and re-crossed). However, virtual teaching probably won’t go away fully, or forever. We all started from scratch about a year ago with teaching remotely and the learning curve has been incredibly steep. Just as we didn’t have it all figured out when we were new teachers, becoming skilled at reaching students at a distance will take a lot of time, trial and error, and patience. One thing to remember throughout our journey is that students want to learn. They want to find their place in our classes; we just need to show them that we want to help them and validate their processes for learning. As such, holding the positive presupposition that our students want to learn is a good starting place. Let’s show them we believe in them and see what comes of our encouragement.

Have a question, comment, or helpful tip about virtual teaching and learning? Send them to the Teacher’s Lounge  We’ll get through this - together!

Read more tips and advice from Teacher's Lounge!

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam is a Learning and Achievement Specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has worked for nearly 20 years as an English teacher, staff developer and department chair. She is a National Board Certified Teacher, and recently earned her certification in Education Administration and Supervision. She can be followed on Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

Copyright© 2021 Education World