The last post wrapped-up the Create topic for Georgia Virtual Learning TOOL, and before I continue on to the last section, Evaluation, I want to interrupt the sequence and return to communication. After all, virtual teachers may find that they need to interrupt the flow of the lesson to reconnect with parents and students.
Any time you hear the discussion, “Effective communication is an essential part of online instruction,” please end it now. We know. No one is saying otherwise. Both supporters and critics of online instruction know that communication is critical to student achievement. No teacher, parent, student, administrator, or any other stakeholder in education is wishing that people communicate less frequently or less intimately.
What we need are discussions about why and how effective communication breaks down. Even ineffective teachers know and desire effective communication among the stakeholders. Ignorance is not the problem. What we need are consistent strategies to maintain the communication we form at the beginning.
This post offers two things: first, a To-Do list that will help you start effective communication with parents and students at the beginning of the year, and second, a trouble-shooting list of ideas with tools you can use when communication breakdown.
In the Beginning:
Your welcoming email and phone call is a great start to effective communication, but there are some things you should also do in the beginning to help you maintain effective communication at the beginning. As I suggested in my earlier post on communication guidelines, you should find out more about the individual parents though a Google form or basic questionnaire. You need to know when and how parents want to be contacted and how frequently they want to be updated. It’s likely that your SIS will have parent contact information, but by asking parents what their preferences are, you open dialogues further. Parents feel valued and included.
Depending on the age and independence of the student, parents’ needs will vary. Parents of younger children taking an online course will need more guidance on how to access and deliver the content. They might also need additional tips for good study habits. Links and tips on your website will meet their needs. On the other hand, parents whose students are in high school might feel insulted if you barrage their inboxes with pedagogical blasts. These parents may only want and need a weekly, or even bi-weekly, grade report. If the student starts slipping, then reach out.
Finally, parents will want to know what it is their student should be doing. Since the class is online, parents might feel anxious because a child playing on the computer and working on the computer looks the same. If you provide examples of finished products, checklists/to-do lists, and exhibit student-work, then parents will have an idea of what it is their child should be producing and learning. Your newsletter might have key questions that families can discuss—which will also deepen the student’s understanding of the content—or your website might have a place for students to post pictures and videos of their work. Parents want to hold their child accountable and these simple procedures set-up in the beginning will help them.
Also early on you want to learn as much about how your students communicate online and with teachers. A simple survey is a chance for students to voice how they feel comfortable talking with a teacher. You should ask whether a student does better asking questions in email, on a discussion page, or in an online chat. You should also find out what motivates each student by asking which of the following they value the most: personal note from the teacher, peer recognition, good grades, creating something new, critical feedback. More intrinsically motivated students will value specific teacher feedback on their work over a generalized “Super Star” postcard, but extrinsically motivated students might need the teacher to nag them through constant communication. A survey at the beginning will let you know how to reach out to your students so that they feel more comfortable asking questions during the course and seek your advice.
- “Needy parents” expect unrealistically quick responses to their questions and nag the teacher with frequent emails.
- Reassure them that you will respond within a 24 hour period, and remind them about your availability throughout the week. Depending on your comfort level, ask to set-up weekly or semi-weekly parent-teacher 15 minute conferences on the phone.
- Parents feel left out of the learning and are confused about what their student should be doing.
- Start sending “Student work of the week” examples in your newsletter or invite students to submit pictures of themselves at work. Even if the student in question doesn’t participate, the parents will see what other students are doing and will be able to nag accordingly.
- Parents don’t respond to emails or phone calls.
- After a couple tries, talk with the administrator, and ask him/her to contact the parent on your behalf. Once you reestablish contact, make sure your records are updated, and ask the parent how you can best reach him/her.
- Parents become less engaged. At the beginning you heard from them frequently, but now their emails are few and far between.
- At first, ask them about it. Perhaps they are more comfortable with online learning, and don’t feel as anxious as they did before. In this case, their silence is a good thing provided that the child is still doing well in the course. Perhaps they have other restraints on their time or other personal concerns (like their computer died, they lost their job, or there is a move). Whatever the reason, you should send a personal note to the parents acknowledging the change. Then, if the parents feel comfortable, they will disclose what’s been going on. Either way, they will appreciate that you noticed and bothered to inquire.
- The student does not respond to emails to the class or direct messages from you.
- First try calling the student; maybe talking is more comfortable for him/her. If that does not work, send an email to the student and CC the parent. If there is still no response, contact the parent directly, or seek the help of the administrator.
- The student does not participate on discussion boards and/or during synchronous sessions.
- Email the student. Begin your email with some positive feedback about the student’s most recent work. Perhaps the student doesn’t engage because he/she doubts his/her abilities. Then ask the student why he/she does not participate.
- The student does not submit assignments on time.
- Email the student and remind him/her of policies. If the student begins turning work in on time, send a positive message after each submission for the first few subsequent assignments. Then try to wean the student from this support. If the student continues to turn in work late, contact the parent.
- The student completes assignments without using the Learning Management System’s practice or content. This may or may not cause below average work.
- If the assignments are not correct, email the student pointing out the correlation between low grades and low engagement. If the student is doing fine on the assignments, ask how this is the case and find out why the student ignores the course material.
- The student emails you frequently with questions that are easily answered on the LMS.
- The first one or two times this happens, always email with a screen shot of where the information is on the course site. If the student continues to ask these types of questions, address it directly and tell the student that you expect screen shots of all the places on the course where he/she looked for answers before you respond. If the student is lazily asking you, this extra work will force the student to work it out himself. Do this only if the questions are easily answered by reading your emails, newsletters, and announcements, something like, “When is X due?”
- The student emails you frequently with questions about the quality of his/her work before turning it in or asks you to check it for him.
- Respond by teaching him how you use rubrics to grade assignments and send the rubric if you haven’t already.
- The student emails you with last minute questions on assignments.
- Respond by setting up weekly office hours with the student. Tell the student that he/she must be prepared with questions ahead of time.
- The student is excelling at all of the work and much further along than the other students.
- This student needs to be challenged! Ask him/her to develop a project, class templates, examples, or to lead a discussion.