I experienced culture shock during my first year as a virtual teacher at Virginia Virtual Academy (VAVA). After six years in a brick-and-mortar setting, I thought I had the skills necessary to be an effective virtual teacher from the start. I soon learned that virtual teaching requires a different skill set and a different approach than I had mastered during my brick-and-mortar days.
Virtual classrooms have all of the same components of a brick-and-mortar classroom, but in a different format. Our virtual classes are held live with a teacher certified in Virginia state standards. Although we do not ‘see’ the children’s faces every day in our classroom, teachers still deliver live instruction through an online platform called Blackboard Collaborate. Students are able to communicate through direct chat, microphone and even video. After much research, amazing training from veteran VAVA teachers, K12 professional development, and first-hand experience, I have formed my own ‘best practices’ for teaching in a virtual setting.
Before the Session
My online classes, also called Class Connect sessions, require preparation. Before my Class Connect session, I create a PowerPoint on the lesson and post it online for the students. This allows students to preview or print the slides before class. As a reading teacher, I often have long passages that we work on in class. The day before, I also send the reading passage to students through our internal emailing system. I encourage students to print the passages before class for easier reading, to refer back to, or even highlight when working on comprehension questions.
All students are required to keep notes for each of my classes. Students are asked to print our note template before coming to class. My amazing colleague, VAVA teacher Elizabeth Clark, created a Cornell-inspired note template that we have adapted for our virtual classes. By having the students keep a note sheet for each session, they are not only learning skills for organization, but also note-taking. These note sheets not only serve as excellent review sheets, but also help keep the students engaged in the lesson.
Create a Class Routine
I make it a point to keep the same structure week-to-week in all of my classes. Some students are able to adapt to spontaneous situations, but others find it challenging to switch gears. Class always begins at five minutes past the hour. I spend the first minute of class allowing students to share – what they did over the weekend, birthdays, special events, etc. I found that by including this fun activity at the beginning of my class, students are more likely to be on time because they look forward to participating.
My lesson is always preceded with a look at what we did in our last class, a review of the schedule for the day, and a fast forward to the next few classes. For my lesson, I preview the topic, give direct instruction, facilitate guided practice, and then provide individual or group practice in a breakout room. Don’t let breakout rooms scare you. I suggest no more than five breakout rooms at a time for easier management. Be sure to have very clear instructions on the board and an activity that can be easily completed independently and reflects learning on the class topic. I assign students to rooms individually and make sure that each room has a student with strong leadership and participation skills to keep the group actively engaged. Having a consistent class schedule will help to improve overall student engagement.
One of the most critical pieces to virtual learning is monitoring student engagement. At the beginning of the year, I ask that all students have a working microphone. This ensures that all students are able to participate fully in all of my sessions. A minimum of three times throughout the session, I will ask a question that requires all students to enter either a checkmark or choose a multiple choice answer. This ensures that students are listening and participating. When individual students are non-responsive, I give several verbal warnings, remove the student from my class, document in a note, and follow up with the learning coach after class. By setting the expectation that students are expected to not only attend class, but also to remain engaged for the entire session, I am ensuring that students are participating in the learning.
Positive consequence for student participation is vital to the morale of my classroom. I will choose student ‘stars’ that are actively participating in class to receive something special in the mail. Students love mail! I send handwritten notes, VAVA bumper stickers, bookmarks, or flat fruit strips to these students. Students always strive to be the star students of the session and I have seen a great improvement in class participation since initiating this best practice.
Closing Shop: Always Leave Them With an Action Item
The end of your lesson is just as important as the beginning and the middle. I want the students to reflect on our class and have significant takeaways. I always leave them with a ‘to do’ that reviews what we worked on in class. Whether it is brainstorming for their next writing assignment, or completing an exit activity on the topic we covered, students leave my class ready to demonstrate their learning.
Some students are not able to attend my live sessions, so a recording is available. To ensure that they have watched the recording, I will give a ‘buzzword’ within the lesson. Students complete a survey after watching the recording and must note the buzzword in that survey to ensure that they have watched the recording in its entirety.
Building a Culture
All of these ‘best practices’ for teaching in a virtual setting are ineffective if you don’t have a positive and safe class culture and climate. My focus is always showing my students that I not only care about them, but that I also believe in their success. I address my students as “wonderful” or “awesome” in class or in any messaging I send. I close my messaging for assignments with “I know you will do great” or “keep up the fantastic work.” Carl Buehner said, “They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.” Building relationships with your students, setting clear expectations, and truly individualizing the experience for your students will ensure success for both yourself and your students.