Advice on Teaching
To be honest, I haven’t done much actual teaching of English online. I have, however, done a lot of teacher education/training online and in blended courses. It was just about 10 years ago I began doing teacher education work online. I was sometimes a bit out of my depth and could have used some advice and help on that course and in the following years. With that in mind, and at the risk of disrupting the space-time continuum, below I will share the advice I’d give to a young(er) Mike of 10 years ago who’d just started teaching online.
Dear 2009 Mike,
Greetings from your future self! In this fictional world where letters can be sent back in time you will have already received a letter from me, so this letter will not be as much of a surprise as the previous one, perhaps. It’s September 2009 and you are soon to be finishing up your MA TESOL at the New School. As you are aware, the majority of your classes were online. You’ve seen some great role models and models for teaching online. I’m writing to you about teaching teachers online. You might be surprised to hear that this will be a big part of your life in the future. In fact, now in September 2019 the bulk of your work is related to online teacher education. I have some hard-earned advice and key points that I’d like you to remember as you embark on this journey.
You have been teaching face-to-face for 10 years already so you know a fair bit about how it goes. Of course, you still have a lot to learn about that, too. The good news is that much of what you know and believe about teaching English can also be applied to teaching teachers online. Just like in teaching face-to-face, scaffolding and modeling are two big things to keep in mind at all times. That’s the first piece of advice: Remember that it’s still teaching.
As in teaching English, affect is incredibly important when teaching online. The catch is that you will not be able to “read the room” like you normally would in person. You need to hone your intuition and, more importantly, find ways to collect feedback and data on how participants are feeling. You have to try to pick up on hints of how people are feeling based on what they write and how they interact with you and others. Journals can be a good way to see this.
The biggest difference I notice between teaching and training online versus offline is that it’s much harder and takes much longer to repair confusing instructions. In class you can easily see what’s wrong and then step in. This process might take much longer online, so be sure to have everything in order and try to be as clear as possible about assignments and steps. Of course, the use of models and rubrics can be very helpful in this regard.
Try to see things from a student’s perspective. Revisit assignments and units with fresh eyes and do the activities yourself. Some learning management systems have a “student view” option so you can see things as your students would. Use this idea of student view both literally and figuratively when you can. Another way to see things from a student’s perspective is to take as many online courses as you can. You can kill two birds with one stone by experiencing online classes as a participant and learning the content.
I mentioned affect above and something else I’d like you to keep in mind related to affect is how studying online can be a scary thing for some folks. What might seem normal and easy to you could be tricky and thus time-consuming and frustrating for others. It’s hard enough to contend with the content so you want to remember to make things as easy as possible for course participants. Don’t waste their time! Don’t make them learn a great new tool that will only be beneficial for one activity. Remember that your class is just one of the many things they have going on. Make sure that all the important information can be found easily. When considering how to make the online component easier for participants, screenshots and patience are your friends.
Speaking of patience, we both know that this is not always your strong suit. A great part about teaching online (especially asynchronously, as you will do for the most part) is that you’ll almost always have a chance to put some distance between yourself and the course. If a participant says something that strikes you as rude, you can sleep on it before responding. Also, please remember that tone can be confusing when things are in writing (especially for those not so accustomed to such communication), so do try to give people the benefit of the doubt. That is, try to consider seemingly rude responses in the most positive light possible.
An important piece of advice (and another tightrope to walk) is related to the idea of being present. You will want to make sure that participants know you are active and involved but you will also want to leave room and oxygen for conversations to develop without you. A neat trick is to acknowledge a question and share a quick response while leaving room for the group to jump in. You can come back to it later as needed. Writing up summaries of discussions is a great way to make your presence felt. Through these you can highlight learning and shed light on confusions while making connections between what participants said and the course material.
A final piece of advice is to feel free to make personal connections with participants and let your personality show. Don’t be afraid to make corny jokes. Be yourself and don’t feel constricted by the medium. If you get sick of typing, you can make a recording or even set up a synchronous meeting.
I am not sure if everything here will make sense to you as you read it now in 2010, but hopefully it will give you some things to think about and keep in mind. Best of luck in the journey! I am cheering for you.
Mike in 2019
PS – Find out what a PLN is and get one of them as soon as possible. You will hear about iTDi soon. Be sure to check out what they are up to.
PPS – I know you are not on Twitter yet, so I am not sure if you are familiar with the term humblebrag. I’d like to share something a participant wrote about you in 2018. She wrote, “I used to think that the role of the teacher in online learning is less significant than in the traditional classroom. Not only did Mike manage to make me change this idea but also convinced me into thinking that only the teacher can make online learning effective. It was his insightful guidance, patience and positive way of thinking that made me understand many things about teaching.” Can you believe it was written about you/me/us?