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Messy Online Teaching = Good News for Students

We teachers stumbled through our unexpected online teaching. Here’s why that’s good news for students.

In an era of “unprecedented” events, I’ll add another example: Never before now have so many teachers and professors appeared this vulnerable to their students. Never before have our weaknesses, uncertainty, and often sheer cluelessness been so apparent! From confused faces on Zoom class meetings to hopelessly unclear assignment instructions to the numerous admissions of “I don’t know how we’ll run that exam,” we have never seemed so far from being experts to our students... What an opportunity.

I just finished 6 weeks of teaching my college courses online, having never really taught distance classes before. Well, there was one semester in the late ‘90s when my university shared a class via an ITV channel with students at a rural campus of my University. I was a graduate student with a well-liked teaching style, so my department figured they could experiment in this new form of course delivery with a grad student like myself (It should be noted that graduate teaching assistants get experimented on for absolutely everything). It went generally ok, but beyond that one time, I haven’t taught from a distance before.

(Side note: I recognize that the teaching of this semester is not real online teaching--it’s an emergency adaptation of a course design that was never meant to go online. If I were starting from scratch, I’d do many things differently, just as all of your teachers would as well. What we are experiencing is not actual online learning, but crisis schooling. Let’s not confuse the two.)

What this unexpected change has created is a flurry of bigger and more notable teacher mistakes than ever before. In the past few weeks I have borne witness to errors of my children’s usually impressive teachers, my coaching clients’ esteemed professors, my own admired faculty colleagues. Each Zoom class features me clumsily sharing the wrong slide, calling on the wrong student, experimenting with features of the technology within a class discussion that would never matter if we were just sitting in person, together. I might have looked stupid. But that would be good. My students watched me stumble around and keep going anyway. Is there any better lesson I have taught them than that?

My students watched me stumble around...
and keep going anyway.
Is there any better lesson I have taught them than that?

The power dynamic of teacher/professor-student has been long-lived in our history. Even though our classes rarely feature corporal punishment or public, verbal embarrassment of previous generations (thank goodness), the role of teacher as Authority Figure remains. One major way we do this is through issuing grades. As long as I have the power to affect a student’s GPA, my power is intact. The facade of a teacher’s flawless authority continues...until they do everything wrong. Students are seeing behind the curtain of the Great and Mighty Oz. Turns out we’re short and confused, at least a lot of the time.

The educators I know are amazingly committed to their students. They have done everything they can to keep students learning, engaged, inspired, supported, and connected. I stand in awe of the example videos and messages spread around about how teachers have made extreme changes in record time. In no way do I discount the impressiveness of this feat. I just want everyone to see that we had to experiment and try new things and mess up every single day, when we once had things mostly under control. And we are showing students how to learn from those mistakes!

When we returned from spring break online instead of in-person, I told my students that our newly remote course was 100% about “progress, not perfection.” If we can a little better as we go, that’s a win! This is growth mindset in action. No longer do we simply promote it as educators and coaches, but we lived it:

Did we quit a technology tool when we couldn't figure it out?

Did we point blame at others when our assignments were mislabeled?

Did we hide out from the students filling the inbox with questions because we very clearly screwed up the settings for that upload?

Or did we show students what it looks like to take personal responsibility, to calmly correct the error, to laugh--yes, laugh!--in the face of stress and confusion.

We teachers taught so much about the learning process this semester.

Amid my own retooling of spring courses, I have also been coaching clients to stay on top of their classes, including how to decode confusing assignments, communicate with teachers from afar, and stay patient and motivated through this process.

I just concluded my free weekly group-coaching workshops, a program to support high-school and college students during this “unprecedented” time of change, of crisis, and of well-meaning--but unavoidable--teacher errors. I was so impressed by the students’ commitment to and insights about their own learning in this new environment!

Want to know more about what we’re all learning through mistakes? Make sure to sign up for my weekly email tips to help all students on their way to happiness and success in school.

(On second thought, maybe the mistakes aren't all that new...)

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