So what does an online teacher do anyway?

When I left my classroom teaching job, my son was a year and a half old, my 70 mile round trip commute was taking upwards of two hours a day, I had gone down to half-time teaching (every other day), and a looming state financial crisis meant that my pay was going to be slashed so far that it did not seem worth it. In addition, my husband had been working from home every other day when I was teaching, and while it was pretty easy to work around a six month old’s schedule, it was getting difficult to work around the schedule and needs of an extremely active, extremely talkative toddler, and his boss was getting impatient with my husband’s unpredictable presence in the office. But, we, like many people, did not have the financial means to live on one income. I was lucky enough to luck onto an online teaching position before my final salary ran out, and it provided me much needed flexibility and my son, my presence.

However, I really felt that I had betrayed my profession, and for the first two years, I did not tell people what I did, because I did not (and still really do not) feel like a real teacher. I did not have to stand in front of a room full of fidgety kids, get interrupted by fire drills, announcements, or random drop-ins from the principal (or, in my old school, tours of other principals who came to see “how we did it.”). I did not have to fill out discipline paperwork or send anyone to the office or fight with the copy machine. I don’t write lessons or curriculum, which I love doing. I felt like I was a paper scorer, and not much else. Certainly, some of the adult staff in the programs I was teaching treated me that way. (Memorably, one mentor refused to tell me what accommodations I was required to meet for a student on an IEP, because “IEPs are confidential; for the teachers only.”)

What I do, however – and this took me a while to figure out – is actually teach.

I teach students who are in the hospital, being treated for serious diseases.

I teach students whose health is so fragile that they cannot be in a room full of people, and because they some days cannot physically get out of bed.

I teach students who are in lockdown rehab or mental health treatment centers.

I teach students in prison.

I teach students who want to travel, and need flexibility in their schedules to do so.

I teach students who split their time between two continents.

I teach students who suffer from crippling anxiety or depression.

I teach teenage girls who are pregnant, or who cannot attend school while caring for their infants.

I teach students who are internationally ranked in their sport of choice.

I teach students who are escaping bullying.

I teach students who live far, far from town.

I teach students in small districts whose schools cannot offer Advanced Placement classes.

I teach students for whom online learning is the last ditch opportunity to earn the credits needed for graduation.

I teach students who work full time and take classes at night.

I teach students who travel from place to place with their herds.

I teach students from many nationalities, language groups, religions, and income brackets, and all levels of skill, from IEP students to Advanced Placement students who are planning to graduate a year or two early.

I teach language learners and language experts.

I teach students whose families need to move a lot, but who do not have to keep changing schools.

In short, I teach a well rounded mix of kids, just like in any classroom. Except my students are often the empty seats in a regular classroom. The names we call, but with faces that we can barely recall. The ones who we roll our eyes about, or who (to every teacher’s secret shame) we are partly glad are absent, because everything is just so unmanageable when they drop in, once every few weeks, like clockwork, to avoid being dropped altogether.

And what I do for these kids is much the same, except in a different format. I help them with assignments. We email back and forth, and I send explanations and resources to show them how to do – or improve – their work. I make them custom videos and recorded explanations and send those. We can meet in our virtual classroom, where we can be looking at the same screen and working together, for example – editing an essay – while hundreds or thousands of miles apart. Picture sitting down with a student after school, and helping him or her with assignments. This is the same thing. Each of my students gets my attention, for virtual one-on-one teaching.

I do grade papers. And while I do not get to decide what those papers will be about, I do get to see students progress and make strides in learning, and hear about their burgeoning pride in themselves and their skills. You know what else? I do get to know my students! While I am always faintly confused by not knowing what anyone looks like, and tend to fill in those mental gaps with any student from my past who shares a name or an attitude or a set of specific skills or problems, I still know a ton about them. I ask how the swim meet went. I ask when the next skiing competition will be. I ask about the weather in Alaska, how their family vacation went, or whether or not their choir group is going to state again this year. I make notes. I think about my students. I spend a lot of time on email.

I look at data. Nowadays, there is no such thing as education without tests and reports, right? Although mine tend to be less about reading levels, and more about who has logged in and who has not, who is turning in assignments, who is working erratically, who is struggling with assignments and who is doing a fantastic job, I still need to process the information and respond to it. I can, and do, use this information to customize my approach to each student. It is not easy- this year, I am teaching 25 different courses, and as of today, I have 177 students. I am teaching every 10th, 11th, and 12th grade English student in Oregon, at every curriculum level, and all of the 9-12 grade English honors students and Advanced Placement students. I have to know a lot of material, and a lot of assignments and different grading expectations, and I have to communicate with a lot of different students, with very different needs and requirements. As I said, there is a lot of email. A lot of specialized help. A lot of support and encouragement. I have even found a way to include my sense of humor and my penchant for bright colors and silly pictures.

I teach my colleagues some of my techniques and short cuts. I argue for emphasizing support and recognition of accomplishment more than using data to punish students who are already struggling and need help. I present information in staff meetings, because those will never go away. Probably when the world is obliterated and only cockroaches are left, they will get together once a week for a staff meeting. In the meantime, I have to go to them, but, like my students, I am virtual, so I can knit and roll my eyes as much as I feel necessary.

I have also been promoted in this job, so I do lead five hours of live English lessons every week, broadcast out, live and via recording, to online high school English students across the country. For this, I do write lessons, have become a master at Power Point, and have developed the ability to sound exceptionally engaged and interesting for a recording, even on days when no one is able to attend a lesson live. (My secret is the teddy bears. My son gave me two of his special animals- ones he would go nowhere without for his first three years- in case I get lonely while I am teaching. If I don’t have a student to talk to directly, I look at the bears and imagine that they are my audience. They are now the best educated teddy bears in town, and I get regular praise from my boss for sessions that are so interactive and dynamic, even when I am working in an empty virtual classroom.)

You know what? I think I may still be a real teacher after all.






10 thoughts on “So what does an online teacher do anyway?

    1. Quite a lot of our teachers have classrooms and also teach online, so it is certainly possible. Several companies offer online education in various places across the country, and I know in my area, our Educational Service District does too. It’s certainly worth looking in to.


  1. I loved this so much. You teach virtual high school then?

    Online teaching is an exceptional service you (we) provide. There are so many people I know who would never have been able to finish their degrees without online courses and programs.


    1. That is so true. People are often surprised that I teach high schoolers on line, because everyone knows about online college courses. But it is a growing field, and I know that I, at least, am offering a great education for kids who – for about a million different reasons- don’t want to be (or cannot be) in a school building all day. 20 years ago, those kids had no other options! That fact that it gives me flexibility to be a better mom is a huge bonus too. I loved my classroom job, had respect from my peers and administrators, had exactly the courses I wanted to teach, and adored my students. But it was all-consuming, and I couldn’t be the parent I wanted to be. Just not having to commute allows me so much more time with my family!


      1. My friend had health problems this past year, and online teaching allowed her to keep her job because she couldn’t teach face-to-face classes. So yes! They are helpful for us as well.


  2. I loved reading more about what you do! You are a real teacher, and in many ways, you work much harder! I’m glad you are there to help those students who need you the most!! 🙂


  3. I really enjoyed reading this post and learning about how you teach online. I also do a fair bit of online teaching, and my liking for it varies. I struggle to get to know the students in that format, but it sounds like you get to know them really well. I loved the list poem part of this piece where you list all of the different students you teach.


  4. Thank you for sharing what it’s like to teach online. I have often wondered. It’s good that we have opportunities now to be more inclusive and to differentiate learning.


  5. It definitely sounds that you have come to terms with your profession. I found your post very thought provoking because I’m not sure how I feel and this new paradigm shift. But it’s real and it’s happening. Kudos to you for doing what is best for your family! Thanks for sharing.


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