We’re online, but are we connecting?

By Stephan Seabury

What’s it like to teach online?  It’s sometimes like this…this right now.  You are reading my words, yet you can’t see my eyes, feel my thoughts.  I could create an eloquent soliloquy extolling the beatific and meritorious efforts being made by teachers world wide…but could anyone really get a sense of it? Initially, teaching online has been like going suddenly from live performances to radio. I put all my content online, but how do I put me, or better yet, my students with each other, online?  We all know that a major part of human communication is actually non-verbal. A major hurdle then, for me and many other teachers has been, how do I connect with my students when I cannot physically be there?  

selective focus photo of man in official shirt sitting in office working on laptop
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Thankfully with technology we are able to more easily connect with our students than in previous years.  Now that has brought some interesting issues. For one, I have gotten so many tweets, emails, and administrative suggestions for all kinds of online learning systems that I’ve never heard of.  Thus, many of us have felt simply overwhelmed with trying to learn these new systems, and decide which are really worth our time to learn. The other night we watched the first online video from my little girl’s elementary school teacher.  She looked completely strung out and had posted it at 8:30 pm. You could tell that she had more than likely spent the last two days getting a crash course through Google hangouts, google sites, Loom, video conferencing, Nearpod and even the creation of take home packets.  And, with this new online world everything seems so urgent. I’m seemingly just going from one email, or online message to the next as I try to keep connected with my students. I worry that if I miss that email or message for help, my student may not log on again. As teachers, we are having to learn how to balance efficiently learning new online systems, while also not allowing it to consume our lives. Here are some quick tips for choosing what is worth your time and best for your students

  • Bells and whistles vs practicality:  Sure students can write on my iPad and project to the white board.  But they can also just be handed a marker too. Is the platform you are looking at something that over-complicates the process simply because it looks cool?  Remember impact is more important than style sometimes.
  • Learning curve for you and for them: How long did it take for you to learn the system?  Go through it as your student and think about how their experience might look. Then create a process to help them access your platform.
  • Accessibility for your students:  Is there a multi-step process for a student to login?  Do they need high speed internet or a webcam or other software to be able to interact with your platform?  Is it worth all that? 
  • Take time for you.  The online class will be there just like your real one has been.  So set specific office hours and then stick to them. Turn the phone off if you have to and go outside, connect with family and friends when possible. You can also pre-record things for your students and then post and walk away for a moment. It will be okay, your students will still be there.    

Now,  how do I truly connect with my students through this process?   First off, the students actually miss us, their teachers, and each other.  I teach at the high school level and so, naturally, have personal experiences with what some might gently call, teenage ambivalence.  But, when I did my first online ‘class’, I tossed the curriculum out the window almost immediately. My students just wanted to virtually hang out with me and each other.  Some even messaged later about how much they enjoyed that aspect. Thus the lesson here is, our students need connection. They need to see other humans and interact with them; maintaining some of the human element in online learning.  So whatever platform you choose, just choose it. Just try to find a virtual way to connect with your students. Here are some ideas:

  • Don’t stress the content and don’t throw it out either.  These are difficult times and students have plenty to stress about, so follow Maslow before Blooms.  Find a balance with your content vs student health and insure that students do not become overly penalized for missing assignments. Because their parents may be missing jobs or students may be missing access to your online class.  
  • Have a starter/bell ringer as you would normally:  It can take some time for students to login.  You do not want to just sit in awkward silence as the little blank tiles start to fill the screen. 
  • Greet the students at the ‘virtual door’:  Just as you did when you stood at your door between class periods, say hi to the students as they login either through the video or chat messages. Allow them a way to either emote back or respond in the chat.
  • Themed meetings and let the students be involved in choosing them.  You would be surprised how excited students at all levels will be if they can still share with each other. And as they choose the theme you get increased buy in.  My high school students will be doing a pet show at our next ‘class’.  
  • Interactive lessons with tools students can manipulate on screen.  Some online platforms allow students to annotate and write on the screen just as you would if they were standing at the whiteboard.  Now of course make sure you get your bang for your buck in effort, by creating lessons that allow students to interact with you, but did not take forever to create.  
  • Screen share a game like Kahoot or other trivia styled game.  Students could even share their screens and you could play a pictionary or gestures style review game online.  
  • Take time to interact with each student:  Just as in the regular classroom, acknowledge each student.  You can chat to them during the session, send emails or personal messages.  I allowed each of my students a brief window during our online session just to either chat or talk about how things have been so far.
  • Manage the chat/audio/video:   Most online chats like Google hangouts or Zoom will have a chat feature and video/audio.  Learn to manage these features like you would in class, because it can run off the rails almost immediately.  You can do a gradual release where students first can only chat to you, then to the whole group. 
  • And, finally look at the camera sometimes: by looking at the camera you are attempting to make eye contact with the students; attempting to truly connect with them.

In the end teaching online can be like performing to an unknown audience that you can’t see.  An audience that seems distant and unconnected to what you are saying. But remember, you actually do know this audience, you have met them.  They need that connection still. So breath, find what works and then keep that connection.



Stephan believes that in order to really engage in our rapidly evolving world, we must be able to know how to learn for ourselves and then be adaptable.  Thus, students must have teachers and parents who help them learn how to learn and create, and not memorize and repeat.

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