Being present for our students is a true gift we can offer and these experiences with students are one of the reasons why I’ve loved teaching and being part of an academic environment my entire professional career. As teachers, we have the capacity to change lives in ways that we may not always be fully aware of in the moment. I’m certain we’ve all experienced that moment when a student returns to share some action or word we said that had a deep impact. Our engagement with students can be a big responsibility that can be fostered in many ways: a kind word, a thoughtful smile, a note of encouragement, and even a criticism that comes from a place of wanting to push a student to learn something new.
For those who have taught classes in person, we may have an easier time being in touch with our students and the energy of the classroom. I may notice when a student is having a difficult day or week or even the entire semester. I can linger after class, arrive early, or have a student crying in our office. In those moments, my hope is I am able to practice with empathy and with understanding.
This being present for students may come naturally for you, and for others it may take some effort. But I know we all have this capacity for empathy and understanding. In my life, I have found cultivating this for myself first has allowed me to extend this more easily to my students. It has been through 25-years of meditation practice, allowing for a deeper understanding of my mind, that I’ve been able to bring this directly into the classroom. And just like our students, a beginners’ mind in myself can keep things fresh and help me to discover new ways to work with students.
How does this all extend into my online classroom? Do I know my students in the same way I might as if we are spending three hours per week in person? Am I able to identify a student in need or crisis through the work posted online so that I might reach out and connect to the student? And, within a primarily written medium, how am I being present for my students? We can create the conditions in our online classes that allows us to know our students better and be tuned into their overall learning experience.
Creating the Conditions for Learning
It’s the humanizing work. It’s the touchy-feely stuff that can help the student feel connected to the course material, to me, and to the college as a whole. The classes I’ve taught online – library science, technology, social media and marketing – are not necessarily touchy-feely topics. But as the teacher, we set the tone. In the online environment we need to offer a little bit more of ourselves explicitly. With in-person classes, students know I have a deep sense of humor, that I always wear black, that I like to pause in class and listen to student sharing, and that I like using the white board. These characteristics are part of my character. Online students don’t easily get this part of me, but these characteristics are critical for building a classroom relationship for our semester journey.
Creating a space where communication can be open and responsive to both student learning and student needs is key to building instructor-student relationships online. This means taking risks, and it certainly means taking more time. I write about myself, I share photos or videos so they know who I am as a person, and I incorporate personal life antidotes into the learning materials. More importantly, I create as many opportunities for students to interact with me so that I know who they are as humans. This can achieved through discussion, writing assignments, or video posts. I encourage students to share content they find that is exciting for them. Anything we, as instructors, can do to bring regular, meaningful student interactions into our online class is valuable. And we can build on this foundation to create a learning environment that is grounded in communication and trust. Creating an online classroom that is similar to how I spend 3-hours a week engaging with my students in a classroom is what I try to cultivate. My goal as an online instructor is to foster these human connections to inspire learning. In the end, when I support, guide, and inspire my students, I am nourished by our deep connections as they experience life’s difficulties and joys.