6 things no one tells you about teaching online

Building relationships with families and working with them virtually means recognizing the need for lesson flexibility, professional boundaries and increased communication
Sharon Soliday is CEO of The Hello Foundation.
Sharon Soliday is CEO of The Hello Foundation.

When my company began providing speech and occupational therapy services online a decade ago, I couldn’t have imagined in a thousand years I’d be living through a time in which entire school districts would shut down and find themselves moving educational opportunities into the virtual realm.

Alas, the world has turned upside down and our best solution appears to meet each other in the virtual world. After all, in the realm of special education where I hang out, online services are effective, engaging, and provide a consistent path to appropriately differentiated instruction in a manner never before possible for specialists in our brick-and-mortar school buildings.

However, the last decade has taught our staff a great deal about the realities of working online with kids and families, and I find, regretfully, not enough folks are thinking about how to teach their staff about these considerations, let alone talking about how to address them.

Read: Updated: 160 free K-12 resources during coronavirus pandemic

And so from our deep and collective wisdom, here is a list of six things no one else will tell you about teaching students, including those with special needs, online.

1. Build a relationship with parents

This is the most important starting point. Many educators and special education staff go online expecting to focus immediately on the students. In reality, educators are becoming coaches for parents as well as online educators. Parents come in all sizes and shapes with varying priorities and goals for their kids. Educators need parents to buy into an education plan if parents are expected to play any supporting role.

Many educators and special education staff go online expecting to focus immediately on the students. In reality, educators are becoming coaches for parents as well as online educators.

How do you build that relationship? Take time to ask questions. Survey parents regarding their priorities for the class. Ask directly if a parent is able or wants to support their child’s effort online. Be compassionate with a parent’s situation. Respectfully, lower your standards. Don’t let perfection be the enemy of the good.

2. Attendance is different online

In the virtual world, educators are on family schedules, and families may weigh priorities differently. The mental mindset going into this virtual work is that an educator may contact a family with one particular child in mind. Well, what if the family has multiple children? Other commitments? Parents working from home? Siblings requiring care? An educator’s expectations for consistent attendance can dissolve pretty quickly.

What can you do to capture good attendance? Talk directly with parents when setting up services, for example, to ask what kind of time commitment they are able to make. Do parents need to be nearby? Sitting with their student? Describe the expectations. Ask about potential challenges to meeting online. Why would a student possibly need to miss a day? Be flexible. Never make your schedule and then contact parents to inform them of such. That’s a recipe for disaster and limited learning for kids.

Read: Share your stories of teacher creativity in online learning

3. Set professional boundaries

Set limits and set them early. The virtual world is a window into someone’s home life. Every time you log on, you see what’s happening in the background. You see how families interact. You see distractions, limitations, and inequities among family members. Simultaneously, you are rather anonymous in comparison to someone sitting at the kitchen table or a conference room at school. It’s not unheard of for students and some strained parents to disclose personal information. You can find yourself unexpectedly pulled into a family’s emotional story.

How do you establish professional limits? It can be as simple as outlining in advance what your role will be. As conversations with parents evolve, avoid personal reflections that invite more personal commentary. At the same time, our roles as mandatory reporters stand, and anything that is observed that raises a red flag should be reported.

4. Some parents simply can’t or don’t want to be tutors

An educator’s content lessons may rely heavily on additional parental or sibling follow-up. Be prepared when parents don’t want to do the homework, either.

Read: Tips to share with parents of students with executive functioning deficits

How can you make parents become partners? You can’t. Period. Educators are better off identifying upfront with families what kind of role parents may want to or can play. This could result in some students receiving longer time online with a teacher to ensure that an objective is clarified. Different amounts of time with different students does not create an inequitable learning experience. In fact, it’s called differentiation. Much like we wouldn’t penalize a student for having learning challenges, we shouldn’t punish a student for having a mom and dad who simply cannot assist with instruction.

5. Be prepared to articulate why you’re teaching what when

Periodically, with the entire family enmeshed in the online school experience, parents will seek more information and ask smart questions. How does this assignment further develop student writing? Why do you want my student to have a group discussion with us about the Oregon Trail? Dust off Bloom’s Taxonomy thinking to justify in layman’s terms what you want from the student and why.

Why are parents asking this? It’s rare in the day-to-day classroom for educators to be quizzed on their practices. However, some parents want to understand the scaffolding of instruction for different content areas and ask questions. Don’t interpret this as parents being distrustful. Rather view the questions as curious points of interest. Many times, parents are simply interested in knowing how long before their student can do X.

Read: Online learning: Balancing students’ diverse communication, learning styles

6. Recognize that working online is more than screen time

Many district administrators believe working online equates to planning content and holding lessons online. Every teacher, specialist and administrator we have worked with underestimates the amount of time required for providing consistent communication through email, phone calls and texting.

Why is instruction so time consuming? Preparing lessons, following up with parents and differentiating instruction are still required when working online. The key to success for educators is lots of communication and having a firm grasp of students’ skill sets—all of which require time. Expect it. Plan for it.

And when you still underestimate the time something will take, be kind to yourself. Tomorrow is another day.

Sharon Soliday is CEO of The Hello Foundation and a thought leader in online service for kids. She sits on the Oregon board of directors for Our Children Oregon. 

DA’s coronavirus page offers complete coverage of the impacts on K-12.

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