DA op-ed: What it takes to be a successful virtual teacher


Niyoka McCoy is responsible for teacher talent development for more than 60 virtual schools managed by K12 Inc.
Niyoka McCoy is responsible for teacher talent development for more than 60 virtual schools managed by K12 Inc.

The five years I taught in Atlanta Public Schools prepared me for many things, including keeping my students on task and engaged, dealing with behavioral issues and identifying students who needed more support. But when I transitioned to teaching online, I felt entirely unprepared. How could I continue to do all of this from behind a computer screen?

Today, 75% of all U.S. school districts offer online or blended courses. The same goes for higher education. Federal data shows that more than 6.3 million students are taking at least one online course—a nearly 6% increase from 2015. This means more and more teachers are teaching online.

Surely, I can’t be the only teacher who struggled to adjust to online teaching. Education has traditionally taken place in a brick-and-mortar setting. And in large part, it still does. But with virtual and hybrid learning options on the rise, we need to do more to prepare teachers to be successful online.

Every instructional setting has its own unique set of challenges and recommended methods that build efficacy in the classroom. For example, teachers can be more hands on in a brick-and-mortar setting, so they more easily command a presence and build relationships with their students. Online teachers must learn to embrace a classroom without walls by creating a strong, virtual connection with their students and reducing the virtual distance.

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As a former teacher who is now responsible for teacher talent development for more than 60 virtual schools, I know that teachers want to be empowered to teach in their authentic style and to see their students succeed. Here is what they need:

  • Data: For online teachers to be successful, they must be able to access and understand how to respond to data. This means analyzing metrics weekly to ensure that students are on track and to determine where they can improve instruction. It also means creating tasks and activities that will predict student performance on assessments. For example, the use of interim assessments offers data that allows the teacher to adapt instruction. A teacher’s effectiveness strongly relies on student achievement.
  • Technology: Effective online teachers use technology and apps to engage their students in more personal ways. For example, Kathy Kales from Florida Cyber Charter Academy asks her first-graders to log in to their online classroom and turn on their built-in video cameras every class so that she can see every student’s face and they can see her. Kids are also able to give and receive virtual high-fives for stellar work and for answering questions correctly. Online teachers must think outside of the box to engage their students.
  • Support: Building relationships with students and families in an online setting ensures student and teacher success. To be frank, this process can be challenging. It takes persistence and practice by teachers, who must have support from mentors and school staff. Effective online teachers understand that strong communication skills over the phone and email are a must, particularly with parents. To establish a relationship with students, teachers must command a strong presence online by consistently delivering feedback and leveraging technology.
  • Professional development: Teachers need PD, training and tools to ensure that they are well prepared to be effective online instructors. In addition to a traditional supervisor, they should have access to mentors for peer-to-peer support and be provided with recommendations on virtual teaching or instructional coaches, who can offer creative new approaches for lesson plan development, analyzing data and improving instruction.

Recognizing that online teaching can be very different from traditional classroom teaching, K12 Inc. has partnered with Southern New Hampshire University to develop PD modules to ensure that teachers can be effective in the virtual space and can personalize instruction for students. I encourage every online educator to seek out PD opportunities.

No matter where or how a teacher delivers instruction, they deserve support and PD to allow their creativity to shine. As digital and virtual learning continues to grow, online training and PD should be required for all teachers. By understanding what it takes to be an effective online teacher, we can better prepare online educators to help their students succeed.

Niyoka McCoy is a former public school teacher for Atlanta Public Schools and is now responsible for teacher talent development for more than 60 virtual schools managed by K12 Inc.

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