When you think about what it takes to be an effective online instructor, you may consider how to efficiently complete the many duties required each week. This would be a normal response as the online instructor is task-driven. From a purely classroom management perspective, there are always questions to answer, papers to evaluate, discussions to be involved in, timelines to meet, and so. Beyond the typical duties, an instructor will find themselves nurturing the developmental learning abilities of their students, and stimulate their intellectual curiosity. To be highly effective in the online environment, the instructor must have basic qualities, such as empathy and emotional intelligence. These are the qualities that are responsible for helping an instructor respond to conditions in the most appropriate manner.
Then there needs to be a quality or characteristic of an online instructor that is not dependent upon conditions, a basic human trait which can be applied to all situations. I believe that characteristic is kindness, which is an ability to have a positive disposition with all those you interact with each day. It’s a state of mind that has a direct impact on how you feel and perform, just as it does for your students when they interact with you. It’s also directly related to another quality I recommend every instructor demonstrate for their students, and that’s showing appreciation for them. But being kind should become an automatic response to everyone encountered, no matter how nice or aggressive their initial tone may be. If this isn’t a natural state of mind for your now, it is possible to cultivate it through intentional practice.
Kindness in a World of Strong Emotions
I’ve chosen to focus on kindness as we all need a reminder from time-to-time about the importance of our basic humanity, especially when this is a time when it is so easy to experience strong emotions from events of the world around us. I have found within my online teaching practice now, more than ever, there are pre-conceived ideas about who I am, what I will be like, and what it will be like to work with me. This is all based upon my photo and introduction, which clearly shows my race, gives an indication of my age (likely older vs. younger), and possible sexual orientation (there is no mention of a wife and children).
I am also sensing an immediate hesitation among certain ethnic groups to work with me, believing I will not be open-minded. Or I may be automatically viewed as “one of them” because of my race. This is very different than when I first began teaching online 16 years ago. Those who are willing to speak with me find themselves surprised that I can be very easy to talk to, get along with, and always accepting of others. I rely upon a basic act of kindness to begin with, which I believe every person is entitled to, regardless of how strongly their initial words may be. I know the learning process can be challenging for some, and the simple act of kindness can go a long way towards helping someone overcome their frustrations and begin to listen to the advice being offered.
Is Kindness Always Reciprocated?
I believe we know the answer to that question and it is a resounding no, and I never make my approach to working with students based upon a condition they must act the same way in return. While I do expect a level of professionalism and respect, in accordance with school policies for student conduct, I know that basic kindness is not always going to be a natural response for some students. In fact, if a student does not receive the grade or outcome they expected, believed they earned, or thought they were entitled to, they may act in every manner but kind. This is when I will continue to show not only kindness towards them, but empathy as well.
I’ve found there is an interesting reaction to my approach which has occurred over the past couple of years by students. I can be as caring and understanding as I possibly am able to be, listen to the student as they continue to explain why they were owed a perfect score, and yet some of them will not back down unless they receive the perfect score sought. It doesn’t matter if I try to explain the learning process to them, offer to spend time one-on-one with them, or any other strategy to help them from a developmental perspective, if they do not receive what was expected, I become their enemy.
This is frustrating for me as I know it shows up on the end-of-course evaluation, one metric used to evaluate my position. There will likely be comments written in retaliation, and a low rating score given. Then I’ll find myself having to explain why these comments were written, regardless of how many positive comments were received. There’s only one way to prevent this from happening, and it’s to grade without giving proper consideration to the scoring rubric. But to me, that is not the best approach and it is a disservice to the students in the long-term, from a developmental perspective.
Regardless of how I believe students may perceive me, or the disposition they may hold when I interact with them, I always want to be kind while communicating with them. The characteristic of kindness is a form of caring, and it is applied equally to all students. It’s also a form of patience, and when you make it part of your disposition, it helps create a measured reaction to classroom circumstances. The following strategies can help you cultivate this important quality.
Keep an Open Mind: Within an online classroom it can be easy to pre-assess a student simply by their name, which is the first visual clue an instructor has about them. But this is where a self-check is needed, a reminder to be open-minded and conscious of any filters that may interrupt your ability to be kind. What you want is to approach any student, in any situation, and be able to listen while expressing your support. You must be a role model for your students and demonstrate that you’ve created an inclusive and safe learning environment for all of them.
Invest in Direct Communication: The idea of speaking directly with students may seem to be something they would not want, and a commitment of time you do not have to offer. While both may be true to a certain degree, I’ve found that speaking with students, those who are willing to communicate with me directly, offers incredible value. I provide office hours that includes weekdays, weeknights, and one weekend day. When a student calls, I have an opportunity to start the call with a warm welcome and immediately set a welcoming disposition. No matter how the student feels, my goal is to make certain they understand I want to help them.
Never Respond When Strong Emotions are Felt: There will always be situations in which a student is going to send a message and use improper communication techniques. If you feel a strong emotional reaction in any manner, this is not the time to respond. You must give yourself time to find your sense of balance, so that you can approach the student in a kind and calming manner. If the student were to contact you direct, and they are extremely upset, do your best to remain calm. If you find the student will not change their tone, the best suggestion might be to ask them if you can look into the matter and respond back by a specified date.
Develop Kindness in all Communication: There are cues you can insert into your communication to demonstrate your ability to have a kind and caring disposition. Take for instance an email you’ve received and it is addressed only to your first name. Now consider the same email and it is addressed to your first name; however, there is the word “Hello” inserted before your first name. Can you tell the perceived difference in the tone of the two messages? The second message gives an impression the sender is starting the message in a much more open and inviting manner. The first message sounds much less personable. The same holds true for classroom posts, especially discussion posts. The manner in which you word your messages and posts can create an impression of what it might be to interact with you.
Don’t Mistake Kindness for Leniency
One of the challenges for being perceived as someone who can be easier to get along with is it can be mistaken for someone who is also lenient when it comes to due dates and missed work. What I’ve found is I can maintain a balance between a caring individual as a personality, and still be strict when it comes to upholding academic policies. I always keep in mind my students are people too, which means I recognize the fact with online students they are often non-traditional learners and have other responsibilities. Many of my students have pressures from life beyond their classwork, and they need someone to care about how well they are doing, is able to support their growth and development, and be patient with them. If you can develop a disposition that puts students at ease, you are going to find yourself approaching your work with much more enjoyment, and they in turn will soon discover how much you care about them.
About Dr. Johnson
Dr. Bruce A. Johnson has been working in the field of higher education and distance learning since 2005, with roles including Doctoral Chair and Committee Member, Faculty Development Manager, Core Faculty, and Faculty Development Specialist. Dr. J’s background also includes work as a Human Performance Improvement Consultant, and prior to 2005, he was a Manager of Training and Development.
Dr. Johnson is an inspirational author, writer, and educator. His life mission to teach, mentor, write, and inspire others. He has earned a PhD in Postsecondary and Adult Education, a Certificate in Training and Performance Improvement (TPI), a Master’s in Adult Education, and a Master of Business Administration (MBA).
As a scholar practitioner, Dr. J was published in a scholarly journal and he has been a featured presenter at an international distance learning conference. He has published three books related to higher education, including two about online teaching. Dr. J has also published over 230 online articles about adult learning, higher education, distance learning, online teaching, and mindset development.
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