What made my relationship with these individuals special and rewarding? It was the human interaction marked by the personal connection that teachers can have with their students. It was the act of seeing the students regularly whether the setting was in a public school or a higher education classroom. It was the discussions, in and out of class, the sharing of ideas, helping students consider their futures, discussing the difficulties some were experiencing, and it was hearing about their successes that made teaching enjoyable and satisfying.
Then something changed that began to diminish the satisfaction I felt from teaching.
Over the last several years, as market demands changed and graduate students, already engaged in the teaching profession, demanded, the school leadership program I teach in transitioned and is now conducted primarily online. As I moved from the in-the-classroom teaching experience to a fully online experience, I felt increasingly isolated from the human elements of teaching that made my work joyful and continually enriching.
Two years ago, I was asked by my chairperson if I knew a student I could recommend as the student speaker at graduation. I realized that I could not in good conscience suggest anyone. I knew their work, but I did not know them. How could I? I only knew them from the written responses they made to weekly assignments. I had never had an extended conversation about their goals and aspirations. How sad it is to not have the ability to really gauge the substance, intelligence, abilities, and personalities of your students.
I began a soul-searching exercise. I asked myself, where are we going with the impersonal nature of online teaching? Are we really preparing students for life in the real world? Where had the joy I derived from teaching gone? It had practically disappeared. What could I do to break down this isolation and maintain my own excitement about teaching?
To address my need for more personal interaction with my students I implemented several changes in my courses. Since our program is asynchronous, we cannot require students to participate in mandated meetings, online or in person. However, we are permitted to hold meetings and ask for our students' voluntary participation. I now hold three sessions over our 12-week semester using ZOOM, a real-time video conference tool. In these meetings, I respond to student questions, clarify sticky points from the course curriculum, and most importantly I ask them to share with me and their classmates issues they are confronting in their coursework or professional lives. This provides the opportunity for the sharing of ideas and it re-establishes the mentor–mentee role I believe a teacher must have with students.
For several years, I have required collaborative group work in each of my courses. In the past, the groups worked independently. They were required to submit two progress reports during the semester but there was no interaction with me. Now I hold two medial group meetings, using the same ZOOM meeting space. During the sessions, the group members share the progress they are making on their projects and get live feedback from me. I can see how they work with each other, who's providing leadership in the group, and how they are working through the problems related to the project.
I firmly believe that it is the responsibility of a teacher to provide formative feedback to students. In face-to-face settings, this is typically done in writing and in conference with students. The tendency in online teaching is to provide all feedback in written form. Wanting to parallel the traditional process for my online students, especially those who are having difficulty with concepts or in expressing their ideas, I now hold online ZOOM advisement conferences. This replicates what I did for years when teaching in the face-to-face format. It has helped me restore supportive interactions with my online students and has helped make teaching meaningful to me again.
Have these initiatives fully replaced the level of interaction with students that I was accustomed to and broken down the feeling of isolation? Not completely. However, I do feel I know my students better now. If asked now, I could recommend a student to speak for graduation. I believe these simple changes have also improved the online experience of my students and impacted their learning positively. On a personal and professional level, these simply enacted changes have given me a renewed sense of the joy of teaching.
Alan Sebel, EdD,
) is an associate professor in the Touro College Graduate School of Education School Leadership Program. Prior to joining Touro, he was an adjunct professor at St. John's University in New York. His professional background includes more than 30 years as an educator in New York City schools. He served in a variety of supervisory titles, ending his career with the New York City Department of Education as deputy assistant superintendent.