As we kick off the New Year, I’d like to look back and recognize the achievements of two of my fellow Connections Academy instructors in 2012. Justin Siddall, a secondary language arts teacher, was named the 2012 Colorado Online Teacher of the Year, while fourth grade intervention specialist Emily Wallace was named the 2012 Teacher of the Year by the Ohio Council of Community Schools.
These awards are a testament to the degree of excellence our teachers strive for at Connections Academy. I’m proud to say that I was named the 2010 Online Elementary Teacher of the Year by the Colorado Department of Education, and I can attest to the fact that our teachers truly bring their “A” Game to offer our students the quality education they deserve.
Annual Teacher of the Year awards recognize the important role that online teachers play in today’s virtual schools. Being able to successfully understand and guide each student’s learning from a distance (over the phone, through a learning management system, and via web-conferencing sessions)—while keeping each student engaged—requires a high level of knowledge of the curriculum and state requirements, lots of preparation, proactive intervention, and plenty of creativity.
However, there are many other skills that make an online teacher effective. Some of the most important skills and qualities an online teacher should possess include:
- State certification and expertise.
Almost a given is that a virtual school teacher needs to be state-certified. However, exceptional online schools look for teachers who are exceptionally knowledgeable about their discipline’s content area. Not only do these teachers respond quickly and appropriately to students, but also their expertise enables them to engage students more thoroughly.
- Technology skills.
While online teachers need to understand and feel comfortable with technology in general, they specifically need to be proficient in their school’s learning management system (LMS) and with the tools to gather and organize data (i.e., spreadsheets and pivot tables). By pulling and organizing their students’ data (i.e., learning styles; placement; and formative and summative assessments), teachers know how to guide students in their personalized learning. It’s also helpful if teachers have experience as online learners, so they more directly understand this learning environment and can anticipate questions and problems their students may have. Connections Academy provides a comprehensive training and professional development program for teachers.
Because they aren’t facilitating students’ learning face-to-face, it’s critical for online teachers to be able to explain tough concepts and answer questions over the phone, through online tools, or via a one-on-one web-conferencing session—and to know which approach will work best for which students. As a consequence, the best online teachers are often called upon by software developers to, for example, review proposed icons in learning management systems—because the teacher needs to be able to describe such visual images in words. Because learning takes place over the Internet, there’s a possibility for technical issues to arise. Online teachers need patience and knowledge to know what to do for their students and themselves when those situations arise.
- Encouraging attitude.
The best online teachers know how to encourage their students from a distance. How, when, and how often they provide feedback, ask and answer questions, and interact through virtual classrooms directly impacts each student’s learning experience. The effective online teacher needs to be there for each of his or her students, encouraging them all to learn and succeed at the highest levels.
Because students don’t see their online teachers every day in person, they have to be able to get in contact with them when they need help. Online teachers have to know their discipline so well that they can respond quickly and appropriately to student requests, especially when working with students one-on-one. Answering email messages, taking questions over the phone, holding known and predictable open office hours, and providing feedback on assessments in a timely manner are all necessary—and incredibly important—parts of the job.
In virtual schools, teachers have to be prepared to handle the unexpected. Presentations don’t always load correctly, students don’t always respond predictably, and the first attempt at explaining something doesn’t always work. Online teachers have to be able to change their plans when the unexpected occurs, and they must demonstrate extra resourcefulness and competencies in adjusting instructional methods and content to personalize student learning.
As you can see, online teachers have their work cut out for them. However, the work we do is incredibly rewarding and greatly impacts today’s online learners.
What have your child’s online teachers done to make the virtual classroom an engaging, supportive, and exciting place to learn? Share your stories with us!