7 Things You Can Do to be a Better Virtual High School Teacher

  1. Align your course with the values and expectations of the school.

The principal or headmaster of the school is the captain of the ship and establishes the school culture and values.  From the school administration, you should also have a clear idea of expectations for both yourself and your students.  With this combined knowledge, the best virtual high school teacher transitions this from the classroom to the virtual learning space.  

Do you use certain vocabulary or phases that reflect the school culture? Do you have shared experiences or traditions? Use these in your virtual classroom.  One example is that in my school we have a strong culture of honor and trust. During our transition to a virtual learning space at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, I made sure that I upheld my word and was honest with them about changes.  I also trusted my students when they would mention internet issues etc.  

  1. Be clear about expectations of class time and assessments.

Clear communication is the hallmark of a great teacher and that stands true for a virtual teacher.  Communicate all expectations of this virtual experience such as the format of assessments, homework, lectures, etc. I especially want to note expectations during tests/quizzes for notes, textbook/course website, internet searches, peers, tutors, etc. This might appear in the form of an email, syllabus, assignment handout, and on your course website (such as Canvas).  

When the transition occurred, my colleague and I met early to decide how we are going to assess the students for the next month [at that point we did not know we were not returning that school year].  We then communicated THE PLAN with the students as soon as possible, even communicating what we weren’t sure about yet, which for us was lab assignments.  When the governor closed all schools for the year, we maintained our expectations and kept going with our curriculum and format.  The students appreciated the clear communication and learning format that was consistent throughout our virtual learning period.   And for the most part we covered the same material as we would have in the same time frame in a normal school year. 

With that same vein of thought, if you are team teaching, make sure that you are all on the same page.  I am really lucky to work within two great teaching teams.  Virtual teaching did present some troubles with being on the same page.  We were working via email and had limited time to Zoom with each other, compared to swinging around my computer chair in our shared office space.  Regardless we already had a great working relationship, which was fundamental to a synchronous virtual learning experience for all chemistry students.  My colleagues were also great sounding boards at the time about reasonable expectations of the students as we faced this new challenge. 

  1. Set a schedule for the course and stick to it!

Teenagers thrive on knowing things and find comfort in a system, despite their statements of otherwise.  This means that they thrive if they know what is expected of them that week. If you have a course website, I highly recommend communicating this schedule on a calendar function or as a part of your website. 

Our students appreciated that we also set a consistent schedule of due dates for assignments and lectures from the very beginning and stuck to it.  We had homework/projects/labs due on M/W, lectures on Tu/Th, and quizzes/tests on Fridays.  There were no surprises and we rarely had a student forget about a quiz, lecture, or test. 

  1. Make resource videos yourself

,This actually has a lot to do with consistency in content delivery and building a connection with the student.  I have taken a few online classes myself such as Coursera’s Mountains 101 course [highly recommend!]. Despite never meeting any of my instructors, I felt like I could trust them and had positive feelings toward them by the end of the course.  This course had the instructors in the resource videos. However, when I took another online course, which had resource videos without any humans, I did not have the same positive feelings toward the course creators. Moreover I did not end up wanting to continue with the next level course with the same teachers unlike with the Mountains Courses (please make a 201!).  This speaks volumes for building a connection between the student and the teachers.

The same is true for high school students and virtual learning that replaces a traditional experience.  If you prepare the resource videos, which admittedly takes a few hours to prepare, the students will feel a closer bond to you the teacher.  This is helpful for student engagement and completion of assignments.  

To make them, I ended up using Zoom, recording meetings with just myself, using the shared screen function or just the video function.  Loom is a great free option that I’m exploring more in 2020-2021 school year. Regardless of your recording software, you should keep the videos to 10 minutes and, at the beginning of each video, listed three major content points that I was going to cover.  My students would watch these resource videos before my next lecture, which then could mostly consist of solving problems [adopting an active learning style].  The students could also watch the resource videos later for help with homework and studying for a formative assessment.  In a survey that I sent to my students during our Covid-19 virtual learning experience, the students said that they wished that they had my resource videos during the normal school year and that they were a great lifeli

  1. Be responsive by email and communicate your working hours to the students.

Admittedly I burnt myself out with being too responsive by email when we went to virtual teaching and I was having a tough time with all the screen time toward the end.  I can only offer what I would do next time and that would be to adhere to stricter working hours and have definitive breaks – advice that I gleaned from how-to’s on work-life balance when you work from home. Good luck! 

  1. Consider creative assignments like infographics, videos, or a FlipGrid discussion.

I hate to bring this up, but it is an important consideration – cheating.  One way to avoid that and also give your students an outlet for creativity is to have non-traditional assignments.  I did this with our end-of-the-year project.  Typically we have a powerpoint and 2-page paper about an every-day redox reaction.  During the Covid-19 pandemic, we had to switch gears a bit and offer a project on an earlier topic.  With my co-teacher on board, we ended up doing infographics about energy.  The students were asked to put together two infographics, one on a traditional energy resource and one on an alternative energy resource, along with a 1-page paper on each topic.  We recommended getting a free account with Canva and having at least 5 statistics about the energy source. 

It was a lot of fun and I received some really neat and creative infographics.  Some students told me how glad they were to have a different assignment and to not have to write a lot, which was being ramped up for the humanities classrooms during our virtual learning period. I included a non-science example about leadership and The Lord of the Flies, which again would help to connect assignments and our virtual learning experience to the school’s values. 

  1. Communicate personally via email if there is a problem with an assignment submission.

Another helpful piece of feedback from my students was about personal touch.  Every time an assignment was missing or the submission was corrupted, I sent a personal email to the student, friendly in nature and indicated that I was just checking in, in case there was an error.  One student thanked me for the personal touch and mentioned how other teachers would not have taken the time. Admittedly this might have led to exhaustion on my part down the road, but it helped to foster the teacher-student relationship and the school’s culture, which I spoke about earlier. 

I found out from a colleague that you could send helpful reminders through our learning platform (Canvas) by selecting an email option to all of those who haven’t submitted.  On Canvas, it was easy to personalize the email a bit too with a message and sending it to select students.  The latter was helpful in not bothering students who already communicated etc.

Well this is what I learned from Spring 2020. New challenges await for 2020-2021 school year. If you have thoughts or suggestions, feel free to drop me a line through the contact me page.

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