Top 5 Frequently Asked Questions of an Online English Teacher

When people find out that I teach online, they understandably, want to ask questions about my experience, and my decision to “leave the classroom” for the computer. In fact, I chose to change the classroom rather than leave it.
Most of what I do is trail-blazing: delving into new territory in order to improve the way I teach and the way my students learn. This is both exhausting and exhilarating. Luckily, I have awesome colleagues who are willing to collaborate and explore with me. Here is a list of the top five frequently asked questions of an online, English teacher, along with my most honest answers.
1. Why did you begin teaching online?
I wanted to try something different. My husband was teaching a few courses for the Riverside Virtual School. Although at first I was annoyed by the amount of time he was spending on the computer, I started to see some of the cool things he and his students were accomplishing – and became intrigued.
The fact that students who may not speak up in class may be more inclined to participate in a discussion board online was exciting. I liked the idea that website resources, videos, and chats could be used any time of day, or night, and that if a student got stuck and school was over for the day, they did not have to wait until the next day, or longer, to get the help they needed. The idea of getting to work with students in small groups, and without some of the daily classroom management and standardization also interested me.
At first, I was very hesitant to teach students who were not in front of me on a daily basis, but after meeting with the principal, I decided to try it out. My first online teaching assignment was ninth and tenth grade English with students from all of the comprehensive high schools in Riverside Unified School District, in addition to teaching face to face during the day.
2. Do you get to work from home and teach in your pajamas?
No. I have a classroom that I share with three other teachers, and two lab aides. I don’t wear my pajamas (too often, only kidding). I have a desk, phone, chair, art, and pictures of my family on the walls, and even real paper books on bookshelves. I go to work each day, and meet with students one-on-one, in small groups, and sometimes get to help parents as well as students with various projects.
Truthfully, I like the blended model of teaching as much as I like it for my students. Working from home all day, every day, would not be ideal for me, but combining online teaching, with purposeful face-to-face interaction, collaboration, and mixing up the scenery a bit with study tours and other on site activities is most effective.
3. How do you know your students are learning?
I love this question, I really do. I don’t think people ask it because they are questioning whether I am an effective teacher, but they really want to know how in the world you can monitor progress for students who are not sitting with you every day. The most obvious answer to this question is because I watch them.
Teaching in a blended environment means that some of my online students come in for appointments, to work on campus in our labs, instant message, tweet, call, or videoconference with me a great deal. Some students meet with me during my evening office hours on Tuesdays where I get to work with students on whatever it is that they want to work on: blog posts, Prezis, novels, wikis, videos, etc.
It is through these online and face to face interactions that growth, improvement, and personal goals are achieved. Having curriculum that is set up to be as individualized as much as possible is also important.
3. How do you know your students aren’t cheating?
What is “cheating?” If students use notes on an open-resource test, Google information during class, watch a video over and over until it makes sense, collaborate with classmates and the teacher on a project, or instant message/text when they cannot find the answer they are looking for, is that cheating?
My best answer to this question is that I try to create meaningful assignments that are not “cheatable.” Students also participate in proctored assessments to ensure they are in fact the ones completing the coursework. When the goal is learning rather than acquiring points, the focus becomes knowledge rather than grades.
4. Do you worry about your students being isolated from you?
Sometimes. I am constantly asking myself: Am I present enough online? Have I explained things well enough? Did I give the appropriate amount of feedback in a timely manner? Have I been clear? Is there enough interaction? How can I create more collaborative opportunities for students? Where are my students when they are working on my course? Ideally, students are working in a variety of supportive settings, and with a variety of people, and learning is ongoing, engaging, and inspiring, rather than isolating.
5. Is it easier to teach online than in a face to face classroom?
Yes and no. It is different. In many ways it is easier. I do not have a strict daily pace. All of my students are not on the same unit on the same day. There is variety, and there is flexibility. This way of teaching is one that I believe to be beneficial for students. Yet, it is also difficult. My English students are working in every unit and in each semester at any given moment. This is a challenge. As I mentioned before, there is a lot of newness, and pioneering taking place. I have to be curious and take a lot of initiative when it comes to learning new things and putting myself in my student’s shoes as often as possible in order to give them a positive learning experience.
Our students are working at all hours of the day and night, over weekends and holidays, and they contact us when they need us, regardless of the hour and date. Maintaining a healthy balance is a challenge, and must be a priority. Teaching and learning are both rewarding and overwhelming, regardless of delivery model. Remembering that we are all in this together is essential.

Courtney Hanes

Mrs. Courtney Hanes is a Staff Development Specialist for grades 7 - 12 at the Riverside Virtual School in Riverside, Ca

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