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What Makes an Excellent Online Teacher?

Strong decision-making skills can help educators build engaging and welcoming virtual classrooms
Teacher and class on computer screen

As states begin to roll out plans for instruction next year, most involve some form of online or hybrid learning. For some teachers, the virtual classroom has felt like a new frontier, full of technological uncertainties that inhibit traditional curriculum.

Yet according to Rhonda Bondie, director of professional learning and lecturer on education, excellent online teaching isn’t based on the ability to navigate a Zoom room or create a Google doc. Excellent instruction is based on decision-making — how teachers decide to respond to and engage with students, select curriculum materials, organize learning, and use communication strategies. That principle, Bondie says, holds true in physical and virtual spaces alike.

Making sound decisions as an educator

A teacher’s “decision-making base” helps determine whether instruction engages students and fosters deeper learning, as Bondie explores in her book Differentiated Instruction Made Practical (co-authored with Akane Zusho). Good decisions are informed by the intersections of

  • content knowledge
  • pedagogical knowledge
  • cultural awareness
  • self-awareness

Excellent teaching is rooted in the kinds of decisions that are shaped by these four elements. As students enter classrooms, teachers need to be prepared to reflect on how their decision-making base supports and limits their ability to respond to a wider range of student experiences. “During this time, teachers need to develop their instructional decision-making base to better prepare themselves to understand and value their students and their experiences,” says Bondie.

How does technology factor into decision-making?

In online learning, technology threads together those four elements of decision-making. Even with expert technology skills, Bondie observes, “teachers also need cultural awareness to ensure that their curriculum and teaching practices are both relevant and sustaining, and they need content knowledge to ensure that the technology-rich activities enable students to develop accurate conceptual understandings. Isolated technology skills that are not aligned and integrated into the teacher decision-making base are often unused or not used effectively during teaching.”

Take the chalkboard, for example. It's a piece of technology that teachers know how to use, but it only becomes a powerful vehicle for instruction when it is incorporated into a lesson in ways informed by content knowledge, pedagogical knowledge, cultural awareness, and self-awareness. The same principle applies in the virtual space. 

New approaches to classroom community, learning time

While the principles guiding the use of technology have stayed the same, two major factors that influence decision making have changed: classroom space and learning time.

Creating a virtual classroom community 
The strength of a physical learning space is that it fosters connection, but it can also limit effective instruction. “Teachers may have been relying on physical presence to manage students without making instruction that’s worth learning to motivate and engage students,” Bondie says. “Now, teachers need to make deliberate decisions about how students will feel belonging in a classroom community in a space without walls, see themselves reflected in the virtual space, feel both independence and belonging, and share power dynamics intentionally.”

Think carefully about how to:

  • Nurture connections and build relationships with students.
  • Leave space and time for students to connect and socialize with peers.
  • Invite students to share something from where they are currently located in the virtual classroom space.
  • Manage time for individual check-ins and for giving feedback.
  • Circulate and observe student learning.
  • Translate physical supports, like bulletin boards that celebrate student work, to a virtual space.

Making new decisions on learning time
One of the greatest benefits of online learning is that it affords teachers and students flexible time periods. However, this means students must be able to manage their own learning time, independent of a teacher. “We know learning time is variable and depends on the learner,” Bondie says. “A school schedule can be a huge constraint because students have 40 minutes to finish something before the class has to move on. But now, students can be much more autonomous in their pursuit of learning.”

Encourage autonomy and engagement by making decisions that:

  • Set up different learning pathways. Is it helpful to watch a video to give students background knowledge before they start reading? Or do they want to read first and then watch the video?
  • Provide a variety of materials that allow students to make choices that align with their interests and what they have access to at home.
  • Scaffold time management. Timers and schedules provide this structure in a physical classroom and can still be used in a virtual space.
  • Get students to reflect on what they need as a learner, not what their peers may be doing or interested in.
  • Ask students for feedback — teachers don’t have to have all the answers. Students are a great resource for technology tips and suggestions about learning that is truly important.

Recommendations for Teachers:
Teachers, too, have the gift of time in a virtual classroom. Written and recorded discussions provide teachers with time to analyze their decisions. “Teachers can use this time to think about what students are saying in discussions or in written postings and then respond in very deliberate ways, practicing giving high-quality feedback that generalizes or transfers from one task to another through carefully considered responses,” says Bondie, noting that it’s also a chance to look for and reflect on biases that may inadvertently be impacting class dynamics. 

On being flexible and nimble

“It’s not that teachers don’t have ideas about what they could do, it’s that they’re afraid of losing time, of losing the engagement of students, afraid of the management of materials and how chaotic it might get, or the expectation from leadership that all classrooms are moving through the curriculum. All these fears make it difficult to adjust instruction so teachers finish at expense of some students not benefiting from lesson,” Bondie says.

The pandemic has removed many of those hurdles. With no physical materials to manage and fewer physical time commitments, teachers can and should feel empowered to be more agile. "You're never going to have the perfect environment to teach every learner," says Bondie, underscoring the importance of flexible teaching at this time. "So, you can never say I'm going to wait for tomorrow when it will be a better day. You teach for today in hopes of making a better tomorrow."

Recommendations for teachers:

  • Mark places in their lessons where they can listen and learn from students. This will build in time and space to make changes.
  • Anticipate problems before they happen. Make contingency plans for when the physical environment prevents students from engaging in online learning.
  • Remember that there are only three levers you can use or combine to adjust the student task and each task structure has different opportunities for engagement:
    1. Task structures: Are students learning with peers or independently or receiving direct instruction? lesson or assignment.
    2. Help resources: Are students required to get help and from what sources?
    3. Choices offered: Do they choose the topic? The materials? Are they selecting from a series of teacher-vetted options?

For educators planning virtual classrooms:

  • Examine how technology supports your content knowledge, pedagogical knowledge, and cultural and self-awareness. Strengthen the area where you have the least expertise in using technology.
  • Leverage opportunities that online learning affords, such as differentiated instruction and collaborating with experts and with students from around the world.
  • Continue to communicate with students and families using every means available — send letters, make podcasts, or put up signs outside of the school with vital information.

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