This semester, I am teaching a shortened, seven-week class for undergraduates that started in mid-October. Over the last month or so, I’ve found the class to be highly interactive and engaged. They’re a group of teacher candidates and, due to the cohort nature of our program, they spend a lot of time together as a group. By the time my course started, the group had already coalesced into a community. They knew each other and seemed to have their own inside jokes and back stories. During our first class together, I felt a little like an outsider who was late to a party that started weeks ago. But those feelings have subsided as the students have made space for me in their learning community.
When I say this class is highly interactive and engaged, I mean that there are times when I feel like I’m surfing a wave of conversation and discourse and I don’t always have complete control over where things will go. They’re a lively group with a lot to say. They’re working through their identities as beginning teachers and I’m grateful that they feel comfortable enough to use our classroom space to talk through their successes, their wonderings, and their challenges. Despite our short time together so far, I feel like I’ve really gotten to know this group of students and connect with them.
This week, I had to move our class online. After an entire academic year of teaching through Zoom, I wasn’t really that excited about teaching a synchronous class again. But I was interested to see how this class would interact in the Zoom space. For most of my classes last year, I didn’t have any prior experiences with the students. I met them through Zoom and relied on the Zoom space to support our communication and interaction. This experience would be different, though. I had already worked with this group for several weeks in a face-to-face environment. The students also knew each other well. I was hopeful that our online class would reflect the engaged classes we had during our face-to-face interactions.
I’d love to say that the class was as equally engaged and interactive, but that would be overstating reality. While the students were definitely involved, there were several times when I waited in silence for students to answer a question. I started the class with an ice breaker and with my regular Rose/Thorn/Bud check in. In our face-to-face class, these would prompt all sorts of conversations. Today, only a few students regularly contributed. Some students didn’t share their voices at all.
Just to be clear, I’m not blaming the students or myself. They’re a great group of students and I worked to engage them as much as possible. Even though I’m a proponent for online teaching, I believe we need to recognize that fostering community and engagement online is hard. We also can’t be confident that the rich and deep relationships we have with our students, colleagues, friends, and family will easily translate to other modes of interaction. That’s a harsh reality, but one of which I’m sure many teachers are becoming acutely aware.