When I heard last March that we would be teaching online for at least a few weeks, like many teachers, I worried about how I would translate in-person learning to online. I was relieved to remember my years facilitating online courses in the McGrath Institute for Church Life’s STEP program and everything I had learned from the program’s leaders and other facilitators about how to welcome students, communicate online, and see the meaning we find together even without in-person connection.
Show hospitality from the beginning, including making your systems simple and accessible.
We can show hospitality in an online class by showering the students with help and direction, including a clear orientation page, a low-stakes assignment to get them used to the system, and directions for what they should do if they need extra help. In STEP, I learned quickly how overwhelming it was learning only one online system, and in my high school classroom, I remember that I can decrease student stress by using our school’s learning management system that they use in every class and online tools that integrate with it, rather than asking them to learn many more online tools and systems.
When I teach a synchronous online lesson, just like in school, I try to be the first to enter and the last to leave. I noticed in STEP classes how nice it was when facilitators would begin the chat early, even to say, “Hi, you’re in the right place,” and I’ve seen the same welcome message when teachers share a slide with a welcome or agenda at the beginning of an online class. Sometimes students will wait until the end of the chat or video to ask a question, just like they do in school, so it’s a good practice to wait to sign off until everyone else has left.
Be proactive on feedback, and begin from a place of understanding and flexibility.
The first STEP class I facilitated, I thought, "Everything is very clear, and they can ask me if they need help." I was surprised at how big a positive difference it made in my evaluations when I would ask proactively about the help they needed, asking about it in our weekly chats, sending a check-in email halfway through the course, and following up with brief messages to check in on missing assignments. Now, in my high school classes, I email all students and parents a weekly report on the class every week, and I regularly send quick messages about missing work, using a template to save time.
Especially in online learning, a missing assignment can be the first sign that a sheep is leaving the fold and needs extra help and attention (see Luke 15:4–6). As I email students, I always imagine that they are going through something difficult; the times I’ve had a student email back about an illness, a death in the family, or a struggle with mental health have taught me to write the email I’d send to that struggling student, not the email I’d send to a student I assume is avoiding assignments. This is an opportunity to be like the sower who puts out the seed without assuming how the land will receive it, always offering our best support and encouraging the student to accept it (see Matthew 13:3b–8).
Expect transformation, even when you don’t see it.
Now that I have facilitated STEP courses many times, I can think of many instances in which participants began with worries or hesitations and ended sharing their joy in being in online class with each other. I remember similar moments of transformation in my years of teaching in person. With relatively little experience teaching high school online, though, it’s more difficult to identify those encouraging moments.
One method I used last year was to ask my students to keep a weekly reflection log, and when they turned them in at the end of the semester, I was surprised to see them find meaning in lessons and reflections that I had thought hadn’t resonated well. This year, I am asking students to take turns writing weekly reflections to post on our class’s message board to help bring their positive ideas to everyone’s minds, and I have colleagues who have had great results checking in with students individually or in small groups, as time allows and keeping safety and privacy policies in mind.
When I am discouraged about online and hybrid learning, I often think of the many times I have heard a meaningful homily and not told the priest, or read a beautiful book and not reviewed it. We teachers are used to seeing and hearing feedback from students, even with the expressions on their faces and overheard casual conversations, and so the challenges of connecting through face masks and online learning require us to remember that there are many positive things happening that we can’t see. I hope that offering hospitality, soliciting feedback, reaching out to struggling students, and looking for moments of transformation can help my fellow teachers make more connections in online learning.