Online Teaching Is The PD You Don't Know About Yet

Online teaching is more than just a job or side gig, but an opportunity to develop a unique skillset that is in high demand. We break down the different opportunities for professional development when you teach online and how to get started.

Three lightbulbs

No matter how long you’ve taught, every year feels like the first year. There are new challenges, new opportunities, and what I loved about teaching was how no two days were the same. Because we are so busy teaching, we don’t always have the time or mental space to pause and reflect. Your core beliefs around teaching and learning should drive the decisions you make in the classroom. What are three things you know for sure about teaching?

This time of year can feel challenging. It’s winter. It’s testing season. You might be losing some of your passion and energy (and if you aren’t, please let me know your secret!). No matter how tiring this work can be, we all became teachers because we have strong beliefs about how important children and learning are. I encourage you to take some time to pause and think about why you teach and what your core teaching beliefs are. Here are mine:

1. Students Need Places to Hang Their Hats

I believe that in the classroom and out, we all need to feel seen and heard. It is very difficult to learn when you feel misunderstood. It is equally difficult to learn when the teacher’s instruction doesn’t align with your learning preferences or is given at a too fast or too slow pace. I learned this important lesson about teaching because I slowed down and really started to pay attention.

"No matter how tiring this work can be, we all became teachers because we have strong beliefs about how important children and learning are."

I had a student who wasn’t participating in class. She wasn’t doing the work. She wore a baseball cap to class each day even though the dress code didn’t allow it. Rather than ask her questions or try to understand what was happening, she was given consequences and asked to stop. She had recently moved from another state and we were mid-way through the year. I started watching her, and I noticed that she was writing haikus in a notebook. I wrote her a haiku and I left it on her desk. Slowly, she started looking at me during class. I continued to write to her and eventually, she spoke up in class. One day towards the end of the year, she took off her hat. She told me she didn’t need it anymore. I will never forget that moment, and what my student taught me has become a metaphor for my teaching values and beliefs: every student needs a place to hang her hat. We have to be patient, and try to understand what is happening before we label our students.

When a student is acting out or disengaged, punishment isn’t usually an effective solution. We are more likely to better understand our struggling student when we try to get to know her as a person and a learner. I know this sounds too good to be true. It took a long time, and a lot of patience to get there. It also meant I had to slow down, which is hard. Time is one of the greatest barriers for us in our work.

If you think I am onto something here, try this:

Identify a student in your class who is struggling. This student may be have academic challenges, social challenges, or both. Observe your student and try to notice what s/he is doing, and how s/he is responding. Take notes, and look for patterns. Identify something you could try to engage this student positively based on your learnings.

2. Language Has Power

In my last few years of teaching, I taught at a private all girls’ school. My students were very anxious about their work. They were even more anxious about sharing their work. As an experiment, I decided to make small shifts in the language I used while teaching. For example, when I said to my students, “you will present your work to the class,” they either became frantic or shut down. When I shifted my language to, “we are going to share our work with each other,” my students were more relaxed and willing to engage in the task. I began to consciously remove “I” and “you” from my teaching vocabulary and replace it with “we.” It was a small shift, and very manageable. I would write the words I wanted to use on a Post-It note and keep it near me throughout my classes.

I was thrilled when my students started making shifts in their language as well. When students worked in pairs or groups I heard more “we” than “I and you”. Another word that I removed from my teaching vocabulary was should. I can’t tell you how many times I heard my students say, “ I should have studied harder,” “I should be better at writing,” and “I should know how to do this by now.” There is nothing empowering about the word should, and I wanted to raise my students’ up, not drag them down.

I also experimented with using less imperative sentences in my instruction. Instead of saying, “what is the answer?” I asked, “what process helped you come to that conclusion?” Placing emphasis on the process of learning and understanding rather than placing emphasis on the product, answer or result, helped my students see that learning is a process, an often messy journey. I helped them see that the final grade, the test result or the acceptance letter isn’t everything, but understanding how they learn and what strategies they can use to be successful is.

If you think I am onto something here, try this:

For two weeks, replace “I” and “you” with “we” in your classroom, and see how your students respond. Consider removing other words and phrases that you feel don’t align with your beliefs and values around teaching and learning.

3. Ask, Don't Assume

Kyle Schwartz was teaching 3rd grade in Denver, Colorado when she asked her students to complete this sentence, “I wish my teacher knew_______.” What her students shared with her was incredibly revealing and powerful. This one sentence stem became an entire movement on Twitter as teachers across the country began to give their students the same task. I remember reading about Kyle and her work in The New York Times, What Kids Wish Their Teachers Knew, and I thought, yes. Yes! This is exactly what students need from their teachers.

"Placing emphasis on the process of learning and understanding rather than placing emphasis on the product, answer or result, helped my students see that learning is a process, an often messy journey."

What would happen if we stopped telling students who they are and what they need, and we start asking them?

We come into our teaching with a lot of assumptions, and this isn’t our fault. Our own experiences, values, and beliefs are carried into our teaching. We make assumptions about what students should know and be able to do. We make assumptions about how our students feel and how they should behave. These assumptions don’t serve anyone. They frustrate us and they make our students feel bad about themselves.

When I coached teachers and I saw that they were making an assumption, I would ask them what their students were doing and what their students were saying that led to this assumption. When we begin to unpack the assumption together, the teacher realizes that the assumption is more about her than her students.

One of the reasons why I strongly believe that every year is the first year of teaching is because we open our classroom doors to individual human beings each year. Teaching is never one-size-fits-all, and I believe that the most effective teachers get to know their students as individual people and learners rather than make assumptions about what they should know, do, think, or be.

If you think I am onto something here, try this:

Create a paper Exit Ticket or a Google Form and Invite your students to respond to these questions:

  • What do you need from me to learn best?
  • What do you need from your classmates to learn best?
  • What is working well for you in this class?
  • What is a suggestion for something I can do to help you learn best?
  • What is one thing you wish I knew about you?

What do you suggest doing in your classroom? Share with us on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.

Author Bio:

Julie Mason is the Head of Curriculum and Content for TeacherVision. She taught middle and high school English for eight years, and then worked as an instructional coach, supporting K-12 teachers to blend and personalize their classrooms.

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