[Ask an Educator] Back-to-School Tips from Virtual Teaching Pros
It’s been said before, but we’ll say it again: “‘Back to school’ takes on a whole new meaning this academic year.” If you’re one of the many educators starting off your school year with distance learning, this back-to-school period is a whole new ballgame. Last spring, the switch to virtual learning was abrupt, but you knew your students and had an idea of how they learned best. This new academic year, it’s understandable that the unknown of meeting a new group of students and parents could create a new wave of uncertainty.
Before you hit the panic button, Edmentum’s virtual teachers are coming to the rescue! We reached out to some of our EdOptions Academy virtual teachers to get their secret recipe for back-to-school success in a virtual environment. Check out their responses to questions about setting classroom expectations, getting to know new students, and offering general advice below.
How do you set expectations with students and parents?
“I do it from the start. I send a welcome email with tips and expectations. Then, I follow up with a phone call. That verbal communication is important to back my words up with a real human. I let them know what I am looking for in the work, communication, and in the live Zoom sessions. Just like in the brick-and-mortar classroom, defining the expectations from the start will help the rest of the school year.”
— Maggie Champlin, middle and high school virtual social science teacher, 10 years of virtual teaching experience
“At the beginning of a new school year, hosting virtual orientations is my go-to method for setting expectations. In this live event, students will have an opportunity to interact with me, meet other students, and receive an overview of their course requirements. I use the gathering as a time to showcase tips for navigating the platform. Most importantly, the event is an opportunity to promote open communication by establishing a teacher presence.”
— Natasha Sumner, secondary English teacher, 4 years of virtual teaching experience
“It’s really no different than in is in brick and mortar. I set rules and expectations just like any teacher would and send out the same communication that I would typically send home to my students and their parents, but in email form. That goes for when and how to submit assignments, how to reach me if they need help, and how to participate in live lessons. I even model many of my expectations by recording videos, like a screencast of how to submit an assignment. I have all of this information available on my website so that they can reference it at any time.”
— Jennifer Parnell, CTE and social studies teacher, 6 years of virtual teaching experience
“I reach out as soon as I can to welcome students. In this, I like to include parents. I lay out expectations in clear language. My go-to for this communication is bullet points versus paragraphs. This way, they know exactly what they need to do to be successful in my class. When students do not meet expectations, I kindly and gently correct them. Remember, you are training them on how to be successful—not punishing them for doing something wrong. Remind them how to email teachers well. Remind them how to submit an assignment using only their own words. Remind them to leave you a voicemail and wait for a response rather than calling nine times in a row. I like to remember to use language that reminds the students that I am on their team. It’s likely that your students will feel overwhelmed in this newer environment. Let them know you have their back.”
— Ashleigh O’Neill, math teacher, 11 years of virtual teaching experience
Are there any go-to activities you like to do to build relationships with your new students?
“When I begin working with a group of students, I opt for low-risk, community-building activities such as getting-to-know-you bingo, virtual scavenger hunts, and student-interest inventories. By hosting a variety of activities, I can institute a trusting community that bolsters student participation and engagement.”
— Natasha Sumner
“Asking personal questions that are about them from the first contact. In the welcome letter, I ask what subject or topics they like to study. I have an open house where I do a get-to-know-me activity. I play games like bingo [or] go on virtual field trips to the Louvre. I want to make a connection between the curriculum and SEL [social-emotional learning]. Putting an emphasis on SEL, helps the relationship build.”
— Maggie Champlin
“There are lots of activities that I used in my brick-and-mortar days that can be modified and used in Zoom or Google [Meet video conferences]. One of my favorites is a scavenger hunt. You can always learn a little about a kid by what they choose when I tell them to go find and put on a hat—trust me. It’s a lot of fun; plus, it gives me a chance to learn a little about my students and them about their classmates.”
— Jennifer Parnell
“I connect with students in a number of different ways. Most importantly, I try to connect with my new students on a personal level as much as possible. If a student says that they want to join the National Guard, I ask them what the requirements are to be able to do that. If they don’t know, I’ll help them search to find out. This reinforces that I am on their team trying to help them achieve their goals. I also have a set time (think office hours) where I will be in an online classroom (a Zoom room) each day so that students and parents can pop in without needing to schedule an appointment. The key for this is to make sure you are using consistency in these schedules. The last thing I do is make a video of myself to welcome students. This will help to ‘humanize’ you … you aren’t just a name on the screen but an actual person who cares about them and has interests and hobbies.”
— Ashleigh O’Neill
As a virtual teaching pro, what is one thing you do at the beginning of the school year that you’d recommend to every teacher?
“Have an open house and do the icebreakers just like the traditional classroom during the first week of school. The students like this! It creates a familiar space for them and helps them connect with you. Use virtual games, virtual field trips—anything that creates an interactive live lesson—so you learn what your students like and dislike. The more you know about them outside of the assignments, the better your connection will be with the students.”
— Maggie Champlin
“Before the start of a school year, I typically revamp vital communications, such as my welcoming letter and website. I scout resources to enhance ideas around rapport with students, instructional strategies, and content. Additionally, incorporating tools from summer professional development is a staple of my back-to-school regime. While collaboration is ongoing throughout the year, at the start of the school year, it’s paramount for me to collaborate closely with the team of teachers in our department. We support each other and share ideas; we’re an online family!”
— Natasha Sumner
“Do as many of the same things that you did in brick and mortar in the first weeks of school with your virtual students. Setting expectations, reviewing rules, and getting to know your students is just as important in the virtual setting.”
— Jennifer Parnell
“Give your students, your families, and yourself grace. Remember that you are in the trenches together! That doesn’t mean it won’t be hard and there won’t be frustrations, but you are all on the same team!”
— Ashleigh O’Neill
“Give yourself grace. Give your students grace. You know your content and are an exceptional teacher. Embrace learning new things—I know it’s hard, but you can do it. Don’t forget to schedule breaks and wellness activities for yourself and your students. Just like you need brain breaks in the classroom, you will need them online. If you don’t know what to do in a situation, there are tons of people that want to help you. Google is your friend. Most importantly, breathe.”
— Deanna Wright, special education teacher, 3 years of virtual teaching experience
Looking for more back-to-school tips from virtual educators? Check out our virtual teaching best practice webinars that feature more advice from these rock star educators. But, don’t stop there! Get everything you need for back-to-school success with our 2020–21 Planning & Success Toolkit.