by Ben Chase
Ben Chase is a guest blogger and educator from Noble High School.
A few weeks ago, I found myself almost yelling at my high school students because they weren’t participating in online class. They didn’t appreciate it. My frustration came from a place of love, and was my attempt at holding them to high expectations; but at 8:30 in the morning, it was decidedly not helpful for my half-awake students. The whole situation boiled down to their teacher—me—yelling at them while they were in bed. Of course, that was not going to go over well. Though I can see clearly now that my palpable exasperation certainly wasn’t a recipe for success, it made a lot of sense to me at the time. Two classes in a row, I cold called student after student and either got silence or, almost worse, the classic, “Uh, what are we doing?” I felt like I was giving everything I had and still failing hard, again and again.
Talking into the void of muted students with their cameras off is disheartening, but many of my students are actually in it—the void. To bring them out, I realized that I had to return to one of my early learnings of teaching during this pandemic: Students show up and engage when it feels good to do so, when it makes them smile and laugh, and when they trust they will leave class in a better mental space than when they arrived. Feeling, as in actual feelings, is an overlooked part of student engagement right now; the sense of belonging and positive connection to others (besides immediate family and close friends) is a large and important part of what school currently has to offer. If our students are not showing up to and engaging in our online classes, maybe it’s because we as teachers have forgotten that. The solution is simple: ensuring that students are happier when they leave our classes than when they arrived.
The Many Challenges of Teaching (and Learning) Online
My students keep telling me that it’s hard to do work at home because “the environment just isn’t right.” What these students seem to be saying is that the feeling of connection to us, their teachers, and to their classmates, needs to overcome all of the other negative feelings and easy distractions they have at home. Otherwise our voices are just more noise coming out of another device, no different than the TV. The feelings of belonging and connection, which give our learning communities a center of gravity that pulls students in, are essential to overcome that challenge.
I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that difficult circumstances and inequities may be the reason many students are disengaged or not showing up at all. For some students, showing up on time for class and participating might be an impossibility on a day-to-day, week-to-week, or month-to-month basis. These issues of inequity have rightfully been brought to national attention and should stay at the fore until things change. For the purposes of this school year, though, many hardships our students face are what Stanford professors Bill Burnett and Dave Evans would call “gravity problems.” Like gravity, these circumstances are not necessarily solvable, at least in the short term. They just exist. As a teacher, however, I gain some agency over such circumstances by acknowledging my relationship to them. I can either offer a reprieve or I can exacerbate the problem. If a student was up late into the night listening to an argument in their home, the last thing they need is me to use a similar tone of voice first thing in the morning.
The Quality of Teaching Matters
As was the case before the pandemic and will be after, the quality of my teaching matters, and it’s really the only thing I have control over. In just my second year of teaching, with my first cut in half by school closure, the struggle is real. I have an overwhelming amount to learn before I am a great teacher. In the four months of school so far this academic year, I have had weeks of high engagement and weeks of low engagement. My insight upon significant reflection is the only difference is in how I was engaging with my students; either I made it feel good for them to be in class, or I didn’t.
I learned this lesson the hard way. Before I made the pivot, I started to get stressed, a little less funny, and much less fun as a teacher. First, my content wasn’t working for my students; then, I wasn’t working for my students. It was a double whammy that all came to a head on a Friday when I was overcome by self-doubt—an internalized belief that I wasn’t good enough to do this work. But thanks to some expert coaching from a mentor, I dug for every scrap of motivation I had that Saturday to adjust my practice and content in order to address my new essential question: How could I get my students to once again feel good when they came to my class?
Adjusting the content that I taught was certainly part of the answer to my problem. But the biggest impact continues to be found in the small adjustments to my daily practice. Here are the non-content adjustments that I intentionally practice every single day:
I accept that I am the emotional leader of my class.
In the article “Primal Leadership: The Hidden Driver of Great Performance,” Dan Goleman and co-authors make a compelling argument that any leader’s primary focus should be on emotional leadership. They write, “The leader’s mood and behaviors drive the moods and behaviors of everyone else… “[Their] mood is quite literally contagious, spreading quickly and inexorably through the business” (23-24). As a teacher, I am the leader of my class’s mood. Do my students feel lighter, freer, and happier when they arrive and even more so when they leave? Accepting the fact that I am an emotional leader as truth has given me the permission that I needed to step away from my computer a little earlier each day. It makes no difference how perfect my lesson plan is if I’m too tired to be excited about it.
I intentionally greet every kid by name when they show up.
Before my “adjustment Saturday,” I was almost doing this, but I lacked intentionality. The reality of distance learning for teachers and students alike: It’s very hard to have a sense of the presence of others. Are they there or not there? Are they paying attention? Are they actually asleep? But when students come in, especially the shy ones, it’s a time when I know that I have a moment in which they can feel like their presence is known and appreciated. This might cost me a couple of minutes of class time, but it’s worth it.
I allow time for students to connect with one another.
One of the biggest bummers of distance learning is that there is no time between classes for all the high school social awkwardness and beauty to play out. Sure, my students are texting with their core friend group and many are seeing each other in person, but all of those acquaintances and budding friendships are put on hold when there is no time for them. In this teaching reality, there is a clear conundrum because it is impossible to get through content fast enough in a virtual environment. But no amount of content covered matters if my students aren’t there for it or if they aren’t paying attention. I believe that a little informal social time is essential because it makes students look forward to my class. I know this to be true from my own graduate studies online. A breakout room with an extra five minutes to chat and connect adds immeasurable value to the experience of class.
I encourage humor.
We are all in need of a good laugh these days. The problem is that my sense of humor is dry and typically provokes only a smirk or maybe a chuckle, neither of which I can readily see or hear online. If I want my students to really laugh, I need students to be funny. It can certainly feel like a huge distraction when a student starts to ramp up their humor and take over the online format, but when the few kids whose cameras are on are in stitches, there’s never doubt in my mind: it was worth it. The same is true with the chat box. When students started commenting about how soft Simon Sinek’s hair looks while I played an excerpt of one of his speeches, I let them go for it. This causal disruption lightens the mood of the class.
I end with connection.
In The Power of Moments, the Heath brothers explain that the end of experiences matter more than just about any other part; we remember experiences by their peak moments and by their endings. The lesson for me is that if I end class in a way that ensures my students feel connected to one another, the content, and to me, they will think fondly of the class as a whole. What is liberating about this truth is that the middle of class doesn’t always need to be great. Students will forget about it. I don’t nail the last five minutes every time, but I plan for them now. It’s not perfect, just better than before.
As Seth Godin states again and again in his new book The Practice, we have no control over outcomes, only how we engage with our work. I feel immeasurably lighter and more inspired now that I feel like I have found the process that works for me. And I am beyond grateful to work with a team of educators who inspire me daily with their love and kindness for our students and ourselves.