Any educator who engages in ongoing professional development knows most of the topics written about are usually related to classroom management, technology, future trends, and even online classroom presence. Yet the one topic that is not readily available, and isn’t easy to train faculty about, is supporting the needs and growth of online students. This is not a procedural matter, rather it’s a disposition held by each individual educator.
Online teaching can be a transformative experience for educators and students alike. One of the reasons this occurs is the discourse available through online discussion boards, when both exchange ideas and engage in intellectual discourse. But then when an educator engages their heart into the process, and students feel or perceive they are cared about, learning becomes even more meaningful to them. For an educator, this transforms teaching from a mandatory function into a purpose-driven role.
I have found there are individuals who are good with the delivery of information or excel as public speakers in a traditional classroom. Others are effective with the process of facilitating the basic functions of an online class. But what is it that makes an online classroom feel much more inviting, and the instructor seem to be more supportive of their students? More importantly, how does an educator uplift their students as a matter of practice? Is it necessary for every instructor to care that much about their role? Is it important for students to interact with someone who exhibits that type of passion? These are the questions I explore further, based upon my work as an educator.
Being Present Without Being Seen
Most of my experience has been teaching adult students (and faculty as students) in non-traditional online classes. I have worked in an industry that requires classroom engagement and interactions virtually every day and evening. In other words, there may not be stated hours that are required of faculty; however, there is an expectation the students will be a top priority regardless of the day of week. Also consider in this environment I do not see my students, unless they have uploaded a photo or I hold a live seminar. This means I’ve had to learn how to take static, written communication and use it in a manner that can still convey a sense of warmth through the choice of words used.
There are three possible approaches an educator can take when managing a virtual classroom environment. The first is to be “always on” or always plugged into the classroom environment, and alert for messages or new posts. The second is to be plugged in and present on a regular basis, while also allowing for downtime breaks. The last approach is to check-in with the class only when required, which means taking a minimalist approach to the required faculty duties. The best of the three first depends upon the demeanor of the person; however, a consistent presence is beneficial for students, along with downtime for the health and well-being of the instructor.
Supporting Open and Closed Minds
When students interact with others in the classroom, they are not always open-minded to begin with as they have their own beliefs, opinions, established patterns of thought, and habitual ways of thinking. They see the world in a particular manner and point of view. They are interacting with an environment that is going to make demands of them, present ideas and information that may conflict with what they know or think or believe, and it is their instructor who is going to influence them and matter the most.
Instructors also have a set of beliefs, personal opinions, world views, and habitual ways of thinking. What an instructor sees, thinks, and feels may be in direct opposition to what a student writes or posts. It is up to the instructor to be supportive of students, and maintain an open mind, as they need to nurture and support any student who has a closed mind. There are also going to be students who do not meet the expectations of their instructor, and again, the instructor must consider what they expect of them, how realistic those expectations are, and how to support students.
Students also hold expectations about the learning process. They expect the class to conform to what they want, confirm what they already believe, meet their personal and professional needs, and operate according to their views. Sometimes those expectations are met, and other times there is a clash of beliefs and opinions. If expectations are not met, and there is a disconnect, it is the instructor’s disposition and support that matters most. An instructor must uplift and guide, not punish their students for thinking different or expecting something unrealistic.
How to Uplift and Support Your Students
For any educator reading this now, who feels a connection to what is written, you likely have a supportive and nurturing approach to online teaching already. Anyone who cares about their students can adopt this approach. From my experience, a caring instructor is much more effective in the long-term than someone who demands strict compliance to the requirements, and cannot empathize with students. What I am referring to though goes beyond caring, and I call it uplifting and supporting students.
For me, this disposition has occurred as a product of time, along with a process of trial and error. When you put your heart into a career, you stick with it during the times when you feel alive and are fully engaged in it, along with the times when it challenges you and you are taught life lessons. What I’m sharing with you are the strategies I use to be student-centered, regardless of the circumstances within the job itself. My belief is simple: I’m in this career for my students. I recognize the workload and problems many faculty like myself are facing. Yet no matter what is going on around the job, students must always come first.
Supportive Strategy #1: Care Personally
To care about your students personally means you are able to empathize with them, any time they share a personal moment with you, be it a triumph or struggle. It doesn’t mean you are adjusting rules for them, rather it means you can offer words of care and concern as needed. When students are able to perceive you as a “real” human, not just an online instructor who is “somewhere out there”, then you can build a bond with them. I have been able to develop these types of connections with students, and it is gratifying to watch their progress because of it.
Supportive Strategy #2: Connect Professionally
I teach doctoral students and one of the strategies I use to connect with them on a professional level is to share my social media links. These are my professional social media links, inclusive of LinkedIn and Twitter. For any form of social media I share, I make certain to keep it education and career focused. I do this to help encourage students to think of what they will pursue after their degree is completed, and it also allows me to keep in touch after the class has concluded. It also allows them to build an academic community, which can help them avoid a sense of isolation while they are working on their degree.
Supportive Strategy #3: Motivation Matters
I’ve been writing and posting motivational picture quotes for many years now on social media. What I’ve found is that by sharing some of these in class on occasion, it can really help to uplift students. If you have any additional words of encouragement that you can share in a course announcement or post of some kind, you may find it helps inspire your students as well. There are times when they may feel challenged and need some words of encouragement.
Supportive Strategy #4: Manage the Details
When I write about the details, I’m referring to the word choices made when you develop a classroom post, classroom message, or email. The receiver of anything you post or send is going to perceive what you have written, as to the tone and intent, which means you want to be certain you are clear about the message. A simple strategy you can implement is to create your posts and messages in a Word document first, as a means of proofreading what you write. Why is this a supportive strategy? When you pay attention to what and how you write, you demonstrate to students you do care about all aspects of your interactions with them.
Supportive Strategy #5: Stay Vigilant
Being vigilant as an online instructor means you are aware of the potential for your students to disconnect or disengage from the course. If you notice a student has missed a deadline, send them a message. But instead of just quoting the late policy, let them know you care in some manner. The purpose of this strategy is to always be aware of the conditions of your class, and more importantly, the status of your students. You want to be ready to act as support.
Make Students Your Priority
Teaching has always been second nature for me. It is one of the first memories I had as a child, even before I knew what I was really doing, and throughout my career I found myself in a classroom no matter what my job titles might have been at the time. It was a natural progression for me to move from corporate training into higher education. I can tell you there have been many times in which I have worked as a faculty member (full-time and adjunct), and my positive disposition was challenged, simply because of the workload and nature of the institutional politics. During those times I always came back to a focus on my students, and why I love to teach.
For anyone who believes they have put their heart into their work, your students will notice it. Your support is going to make a difference for students during times when they feel challenged. Your ability to care and empathize, while being a coach, mentor, and teacher, will serve you and them well. You are going to also feel challenged at times by institutional circumstances, situations, conditions, and expectations. If you can stay focused on your ability to uplift students, and how much they depend upon your caring attitude and positive disposition, perhaps you can maintain your own balance during those challenging moments. No matter what external conditions may be, when students are your top priority, then all of the effort put into your job will never feel like time wasted.
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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