Practicing what I preach

I’m happy to say that I’m nearing my 300th blog post on this site. With all of the content housed on the site, I often go back and read old posts to see what my frame of mind was at different points of this blogging journey.  By reading old posts, I get the chance to trace back to specific events that helped me develop as an instructor and helped to inform my practice in online and face-to-face learning environments.  It also provides me an opportunity to reflect on where I am as an instructor today and where I am heading.  While I’m blogging for a larger audience, the writing process forces a degree of self-reflection and self-evaluation, which is both instructive and humbling.

This morning I revisited a post from last year.  Titled Communicating Online, the post outlined an email exchange I had with a student.  In the post, I wrote about how important it was to use a compassionate tone in your communications with students, especially when the exchange is mediated online.  I told the story of a student who hadn’t participated in an online class for several days.  Rather than send a stern email demanding increased participation, I sent a general “are you having any technical issues?” email to the student. The student’s response outlined the medical issues she was having and how she had been hospitalized.  Through our communication, we were able to craft a more successful route for her completion of the class once she recovered.

While some may read the post and think I’m just being a pushover as an instructor, I like to position my work with research.  I shared work from Garrison, Anderson and Archer’s Community of Inquiry framework, which outlines the importance of developing social, cognitive and teaching presences in online classes.  In another post, I shared an article from the Journal of Interactive Online Learning about the need for instructors to be “VOCAL” (note, the C in the acronym stands for Compassionate).  In Garrison’s 2011 book E-Learning in the 21st Century, he expands the “teaching presence” construct further and discusses the different roles that instructors must play online.  To develop a strong teaching presence, instructors must provide design and organization in online classes so students can capably access course material and navigate requirements.  Instructors must also provide direct instruction to students and help them learn content through the creation and selection of course material.  Lastly, and most importantly, online instructors must facilitate discourse.  While this instructor-facilitated discourse helps students learn content through participation and interaction, it also helps to create the climate for learning by encouraging and reinforcing positive student behavior.  This last component is so critical because it helps to foster a larger social element in the class which has been shown to lead to increased student satisfaction in online classes (Shea, Frederickson, Picket, and Pelz, 2003).

I outline all of this because I messed up.  A few weeks ago, I received a plea from an online student for an extension.  The email went something like this:

I wanted to let you know, that I’m doing the best I can to complete module 2 but I am going to struggle to get it done by the 5 PM deadline.  Is there any way I can get a little more time without penalty?  I am going to do my best but I had final exams this week for classes I was taking at another institution.  I apologize but I promise I will get caught up.

Here was my response:

I understand your situation.  I would have appreciated an email earlier in the week rather than a few hours before the deadline.  I’ll give you an extension until 8 PM.  Through the remainder of the course, however, my hope is that I see sustained engagement from you.  This isn’t an independent study course.  The course will have the most value when you engage over a sustained period with the content and with the class community.

Reading it again, the email wasn’t horribly stern or mean.  I gave the student an extension (albeit, a VERY short one) and outlined my expectations for the remainder of the class. Then again, I definitely could have been more compassionate and supportive.  After sending that email, the student decided to drop the class without any additional communication with me.   In hindsight, my curt response was mostly influenced by the fact that the student was prioritizing her other classes over mine and she made that point known in her email.

I share all of this because sometimes emotions get in the way and even well intentioned instructors make decisions not grounded in good practice.  While I’m knowledgeable about the research that fosters positive learning environments in online and face-to-face settings, I didn’t practice what I preach and I missed a teachable opportunity with a student.  Maybe I’m being a little hard on myself.  Then again, maybe I just need another two or three hundred blog posts to get this teaching thing down.

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3 thoughts on “Practicing what I preach

  1. Great reflection on your professional practices! I think that although, in general, teachers in education emphasize the importance of holding high expectations in the classroom for students, exemplified in your email response, we sometimes fail to see the entire picture in our students’ lives. We think we know our students, and in general, we do; however, there is much that happens outside of the classroom that we do not know about.

    I know personally there have been times that I have failed to ask a student if there was anything I could do to help him or her finish a project that was not turned in on time. I would remind them to “turn something in for some points;” however, I didn’t offer him or her my help for a late project. I believe that there is a stark contrast between reminding a student to turn something in when it is late and offering your assistance to help the student complete the work. I never thought about the difference between the two; that is something I will reflect on for the future.

    I believe your blog post applies to both the university and K-12 levels of education. It is a fine line to walk between being a “pushover” and a “dictator.” Expectations are important; however, if we don’t allow students to turn in their work, what evidence do we have that they have learned?

  2. I enjoyed this honest reflection. I know that students of any age respond to compassion; developing an atmosphere of ‘we’re in this together’ helps to facilitate honest dialogue. I have found grad students to be more honest generally than high school students, but when they see that I am in their court, even when they are in the wrong, they ‘fess up.’ I am definitely done being the dictator, and it’s probably due to the wisdom of age and letting go of ego. I spent way too many years demanding the discipline of hard deadlines and sacrificing authentic learning that sometimes can take a bit longer than my arbitrary timeline.

  3. Ollie, I just wanted to thank you for your openness and honesty in sharing this story. I have no idea whether you truly messed up, but that you are willing to ask this question in an open forum speaks volumes for your commitment to students.

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