A busy work week with many tasks to complete and not enough time. There are endless papers to review and discussions awaiting your participation. It's the weekly balancing act you find yourself part of and for most of the time you can manage it well, until the unexpected questions, demands, and emails or messages start coming in. You are able to balance the week effectively enough, until you find your time taken up by students and the end of the week rush occurs. This is when the feelings of stress really begin to take over and you have to be careful how you respond to your students.
Does this sound familiar? It's something I've experienced as an online educator for many years. While I've learned to develop an effective time management strategy, and become proactive in meeting my responsibilities, I know all too well how it was for me at the beginning of my learning curve. Even today there are times when I have to catch myself feeling caught up in the busyness of work, and make certain I'm managing my disposition, as I know how it translates into my communication with students. If I feel hurried and out of time, it may become easy for me to lose patience, and that is something no one ever wants to demonstrate to a student.
I'm Sorry, I Don't Have Time
As an online educator, it is possible to view the position from the perspective of duties to be completed each week. One of the most significant duties is grading, and it is also the most time consuming. For anyone who dedicates time to providing more than rote comments, they well understand the commitment required to craft personalized feedback, and how disruptive it may feel if someone (a student) were to interrupt the process. Yet online teaching is not just about duties, it's about the students, and this is a motto I remind myself often.
While I utilize the process of feedback as a valuable teaching opportunity, I also know any questions or messages I receive from my students provide me with an opportunity to connect with them one-on-one. If I demonstrate anything other than a willingness to engage with them, they are less likely to care about what I have to say to them in their feedback and perhaps the course as well. If a student asks a question and my only reply is "Go see the syllabus" or "Look it up in the textbook", I'm essentially telling the student: "I'm sorry, I don't have time now for you". While you don't need to give students every answer, you can engage them in a dialogue and build a rapport with them. That one question could be all they need to feel empowered to continue working.
Patience is a Disposition
The process of communication is generally straightforward, especially within an online class. For example, a student sends an email or message to their instructor, the instructor reads it, reacts, and responds. The reaction experienced by the instructor is immediate and framed by their disposition, which is based upon current conditions. If this instructor is in the middle of a time crunch, feeling overwhelmed, over-worked, and out of time, the reaction may or may not be the most affirming and positive.
The instructor's response is going to depend upon a number of factors having to do with their personality and mindset maintenance. If they allow their reaction to be guided by emotions, and they felt a negative reaction, the response to the student may likely be negative. In other words, having a good intention to be responsive to students requires follow-through and conscious involvement. You have to ask yourself: I have a message I want to communicate, what will be the most effective, appropriate, and engaging method of conveying this message to the receiver? Also, what is the appropriate medium for sending this message to the receiver, to demonstrate willingness to help them?
When Your Patience is Tested
The online classroom provides unique benefits and challenges for communication between students and their instructors. The benefits instructors have for online communication include a written record through emails and messages, which is helpful whenever disputes arise. More importantly, you can read the message sent by the student and take time to process it before you respond. A classroom message or email does not demand an instantaneous reply. You always have time to respond, even if an immediate reply was requested. This provides you with an opportunity to think about, and assess thoroughly, what has been stated beforehand. You can also take time to compose yourself, should you feel any negative emotions as a result of the message.
The challenges are related to disposition of the messages sent by students. I remember 16 years ago when I began teaching online and how I thought students would be aggressive at times in their emails; however, that was no comparison to what I am reading today. There is almost feeling of empowerment, hiding behind a sense of anonymity by being in an online environment. I know many people have attributed this to the negative influence of social media and I am not an expert in this subject. However, I will state what I've seen and it is a much more aggressive tone within the messages of students who believe they have not received the grade or outcome they wanted or expected. That's when your patience becomes tested more than ever.
Strategies to Increase Your Level of Patience
What I am suggesting is not to change who you are as a person. Rather it is about how you respond and what you say and do as you interact with your students. For example, you may find yourself in the middle of a busy work week and asked a question or sent a message that disrupts the entire week. What you don't want is to have this disrupt your disposition, as any stress you may be feeling will trickle down into your communication. The following strategies can be used at any time and in any order, just as you may be challenged at any time during the week by a message or email. You never know when a student is going to demonstrate a lack of tact, not have a filter on their communication, or be aggressive. Perhaps then you'll be prepared to better respond because of the following.
Strategy One: Choose the Right Time of Day to Respond.
I know of many educators who like myself, are plugged in and available most of the week. The challenge is knowing when to stop viewing your email inbox, and/or when to stop responding to the messages received. Consider a scenario in which it is late at night, you've had a very long day with numerous meetings, and a student sent an aggressive message that caused a negative initial emotional reaction within you. This is obviously not the time of day to properly address it.
If you were to respond, what you write would likely be something reactive and not very thoughtful, even with the best of intentions and well-managed emotional intelligence. Always consider your energy level and emotional state of mind, which correlates to the right time of day, when choosing to respond to student messages. This will set you up for a positive response, something that demonstrates to your student you have the patience to work with them, no matter how challenging they may behave.
Strategy Two: Type, Read, Delete, Re-Write.
There are going to be times in which you may feel challenged by communication from your students. It may be a result of a student who wants attention, doesn't know how to express their feelings appropriately, cannot ask for assistance properly, or any other number of reasons. There's a strategy I've been using, and perhaps it will help you as well. It's a way of releasing your negative reactions, in a safe and productive manner, so these feeling do not build up within you.
What I do is open up a Word document and type out the response I'd like to send. It would be my reactive response, if I could say anything I want in reply to the student. Then I read it aloud and delete the document. It is really quite freeing to get it out, as a means of dealing first with my own emotions. Then I can go back and address the student's message in a calm and rational manner. Even if I still have to give myself time to process the message and anything requested, at least I've taken care of my reactive response first, before I attempt to create an actual reply.
Strategy Three: Connect with a Colleague.
Another lesson I've learned through time and experience is the value in connecting with my colleagues. If I am attempting to address a challenging student, it is very likely a colleague of mine has been in this same situation, or something similar. Whether or not they have doesn't even matter as it's the ability connect with and share the experience that is most helpful. It's similar to writing out the reactive reply and discarding it. You have an ability to express what you are feeling to someone who can relate, and just as important, someone who can offer guidance as to how this situation might be best addressed. I'm fortunate to work with a manager who is someone I can speak with about student situations, while receiving guidance and support.
Strategy Four: Manage Your Self-Care.
The ability to demonstrate patience with students is a matter of maintaining a positive frame of reference. In order to do this on a consistent basis, you should think about how you are managing your self-care. If you are feeling run-down and worn out, these feelings can work against the best of your intentions. One aspect of my self-care I pay close attention to each week is ensuring I am getting enough sleep. I also allocate downtime during the week, to unplug from technology and prepare for the next day. Even if you allocate just a few minutes downtime, it does help your state of mind.
The strategies you choose will help you feel renewed, and it will also ensure your disposition is well-maintained. Whatever your state of mind may be at the time of your communication, it will be reflected within your communication. With online communication it will be experienced through a perceived tone. Without realizing it, you are selecting words based upon your current mood or state of mind. That's the challenge of communicating without seeing students face-to-face, and why you should be concerned about how you feel while you are involved in the process. This is not to state you have to be perfect, just prepared for the best and possibly worst forms of communication from your students.
You Do Have Time to Help Students Persist
As an educator you may not think about your ability to be patient with students, and yet, it plays such a critical role in how they perceive your involvement with them in the class. When I first started teaching online, I would think, "oh no, more questions". But now, flashforward 16 years and I'm happy when I see classroom messages. I view each one as having potential to teach, interact, engage, and build a connection with the student. I remember what it was like to be an online student, and how it felt when the instructor waited days to answer, barely answered, or didn't seem to care. I take the complete opposite approach. When students send a message, I see it as an opportunity to encourage their growth and development, and hopefully they will persist.
Yes, there are going to be messages sent from students with aggressive and improper communication. And yes, the level of aggression and a lack of a filter has gotten worse over time. Thankfully this is the exception rather than the rule. Most of my messages are those students who first take a chance and "test the waters" so to speak. The first message is a test to see how I respond to them. When they see I care, they send another message whenever they need assistance. Then it continues. This is especially important when a student feels discouraged or wants to give up. I can help encourage them and by maintaining my own disposition, I am able to keep my messages upbeat and positive.
I always have time to help students as they are my first priority. All other tasks will be completed after students have been assisted. In a student-centered classroom, students persist when an instructor is available, responsive, and willing to spend time listening, teaching, and guiding students. Maintain your self-care and you will have a disposition that reflects the good intention you've established to patiently assist your students. As a result, your students will more likely to be engaged in the course, receptive to your feedback, and willing to listen to you.
About Dr. Johnson
Dr. Johnson has been working in the field of higher education and distance learning since 2005. He specializes in distance learning, adult education, faculty development, online teaching, career management, and career development. Dr. J has a Ph.D. in Postsecondary and Adult Education, a Certificate in Training and Performance Improvement, and a Master of Business Administration, MBA. Presently Dr. J is a Core Faculty member for one of the premiere online universities, helping to fulfill his life's mission to teach, mentor, write, and inspire others.
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 also published over 200 online articles about adult learning, higher education, distance learning, online teaching, and career development.
Dr. J offers the following transformative resource:
• Brand New: Mindset Tune-Up Inspirational Card Deck.
Start your morning or transform your day with words of encouragement. Any time of the day, pick a card from the deck. You will feel uplifted and inspired, and the words will provide you with a sense of mental renewal. You can also keep a card out during the day to remind yourself to stay focused on your best qualities and strengths. These are more than affirmations; these cards are personal self-empowerment statements.
Dr. J also offers the following resources:
• Transform Online Teaching: Expert Strategies and Essential Resources Every Educator Needs
• Getting Down to Business: A Handbook for Adjunct Faculty Who Teach Business
Please Visit: http://www.drbruceajohnson.com/resources-and-store
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