Originally published in The Hechinger Report – July 4, 2019
After 17 years of teaching in a brick-and-mortar school, I was pretty sure I had the whole teaching thing figured out. I had taught students from second grade to college. I knew how to keep them on task and engaged, deal with behavioral issues and identify those who needed more support.
So, when a friend suggested that I try online teaching, I was skeptical. I wasn’t a huge fan of online schools and didn’t believe online education would be the right fit for me or my teaching philosophy. How could I continue to engage students from behind a computer screen, so far physically removed from them?
After some convincing, I decided to give it a shot — just as a stop-gap before transferring to another brick-and-mortar school. Three years later, I’m still teaching online.
In my first class, I had a homeless student from St. Paul and another who was training for the Olympics in the Duluth area. Both were concerned about their education and wanted to succeed. They had unique circumstances, yet they shared many common challenges — internet access, enough time to complete assignments, anxiety about failure. The entire class shared their stories, and their worries, with one another and reinforced each student’s strengths and perseverance. We worked hard as a class to find common ground and cultivate our strengths.
This online teaching thing, I soon realized, wasn’t that different after all. I was still teaching students with diverse backgrounds, capabilities and challenges. I was still engaging with students and identifying their individual needs — but instead of doing this face to face, I was using technology to teach the same way I had been for the past 17 years.
Technology has enabled me to connect with my students in ways I never had when I taught in a traditional classroom. Once, a student of mine told me that he hated reading, but when I asked him why, he struggled to explain. I had a hunch that his vision might be to blame. He agreed to take his laptop — which included the classroom and me — with him to the eye doctor. By interacting with the platform, the doctor figured out that he was suffering from an eye condition that was affecting his vision. After he was diagnosed and treated for the condition, it turned out that he loved to read — once he could see the words.
I’ve also taught students with life-threatening diseases who continue their educations while receiving treatment, traveling to and from appointments or recovering from the comfort of their own home. These students take the classroom with them and participate in school, often with no one knowing the battle they are fighting.
Every good teacher has stories like these — whether you teach in person, online or both. A good teacher connects with each student and meets all students where they are — even if they are homeless, training for the Olympics, suffering from a visual impairment or hospitalized with an illness. We know that each student is unique, and we strive to engage them as individuals. This is the foundation of good teaching, and technology gives us one more platform from which to build that connection.
Pretty soon we won’t distinguish online teachers from traditional classroom teachers because most are already, or will soon be, teaching at least some of the time online. Seventy-five percent of all U.S. school districts offer online or blended courses. The same is true in higher education. Federal data show that more than 6.3 million college students are taking at least one online course — nearly a 6 percent increase since 2015.
Of course, there are differences between traditional brick-and-mortar and online schools. Many of my students may have chosen an online school because they need more flexibility, want an accelerated curriculum, or are struggling with the pace of a traditional classroom. They may have felt unsafe or bullied in their previous school, or may be struggling with illness and unable to leave their home. These circumstances make it likely that they have a different set of needs than their peers in traditional schools.
Unlike a traditional classroom teacher, I don’t get to see my students in person every day. Instead, I engage my students and their families online, and via email, text and phone — and at times of the day that work for them. I also see my students in person if the need arises.
My job really hasn’t changed since my days in a traditional classroom. Just like every good teacher, I do everything I can to help my students learn and succeed in school.
Teaching is teaching. All good teachers share a common goal: to help our students overcome obstacles to achieve their dreams.
The platform we use to reach them is really just a technicality.