A Day in the Life of an Online Teacher

A Day in the Life of an Online Teacher

A Middlebury Interactive virtual teacher shares the importance of making personal connections in digital learning

July 8, 2014

I am old enough to remember when there were public meetings about whether or not to fund computers in brick-and-mortar schools. There is book that was originally published in 1939 called The Saber-Tooth Curriculum by Abner Peddiwell. It was required reading in my teacher training program.

The point of this book is that what was relevant in the past does not need to be taught as relevant today. An argument was made against allowing calculators, computers, SMART boards, etc., in the classroom. Here are some of the “myths” that I hear frequently about online learning and my responses:

1. How can you learn a language without a person? Why not just buy Rosetta Stone and do that?

The human touch is the most important part of learning a language. Language is communication, isn’t it? Not asking and answering questions with someone is like learning to paint with no one ever viewing your art or singing with an audience. Can you do it? Yes, but you’ll have significant limitations. At Middlebury Interactive, I talk with my students, live in my virtual classroom. I send them personal messages attached to every single written or spoken assignment. 

2. We are raising a generation of kids who don’t know how to look up from their iPhones, laptops, video games, etc. They need interaction.

Well, no kidding. This is largely a problem… for parents! One thing I have learned in all my years of teaching adolescents and teens is that most of them are trying to separate from their parents. They want so badly to be with their peers, and they would rather be texting with their friends than interacting with adults. 

By being ‘the adult’ on the other end of their technology, I can reach them! We are interacting. Our language programs pose personal questions, getting students to think about themselves and their opinions in the world. The upper levels are full of activities encouraging students to express their opinions and back them up. Instead of whiling away hours playing Angry Birds or Candy Crush, students could be asking and answering questions, participating in a discussion board or writing about their favorite hobbies. Technology is not a bad thing; it can foster connections between humans and deeper language acquisition when used correctly. 

I hear this all the time. It is interesting how “educated” folks with strong opinions on education can make such narrow minded and judgmental comments.

3. Only “strange, homeschooled” kids learn online, right?

I have had the entire spectrum of “types of students.” Who takes world language online? Why aren’t they in a ‘normal’ school? Here are some reasons my students have ended up with me online:

  • Students in large public schools where funding has been diverted away from world languages, where they only have one or two languages to choose from, so they take German online because they want to learn German.
  • Students in small public schools where funding is limited, so they learn their world languages online.
  • Students in pre-professional schools who have unpredictable hours. I have had a large number of pre-professional ballet students. I have also had a tennis pro and a hockey player. 
  • Students who want to take more than one world language, and the school they attend does not allow any exceptions. 
  • Students who are medically unable to go to school. I have had many students with various health issues that make brick-and-mortar schools and schedules impossible. I have had students take class from hospitals.
  • Students who are musicians or artists, and their school program does not allow one to do both a language and an artistic pursuit.
  • I have had students who are online because either a) their public school was deemed unsafe for them or b) they had been bullied so much, they felt the need to leave.
  • Students who are not permitted to attend their local school…(side story: In the beginning of each course, there is a get-to-know-you portion. In one of my French classes, the student responded to the questions quite completely and honestly. When he answered the question: Where do you live? He replied: “In the county jail.”  

When I say that I have had the entire spectrum of students, I mean that. My students are not any ‘stranger’ than other people. They are choosing to spend their time learning something useful and horizon-broadening.

Overall, students are students. Some show initiative, ask questions and work hard. Others look for an easy solution. In a brick-and-mortar situation, I had the advantage of reading a student’s personality when he/she entered the room. I learned quickly which students responded to my humor and who was more literal and needed ‘kid gloves.’

Online, it takes a little more to discern that, so one needs to play it safer. I love humor, but I express it carefully. In a brick-and-mortar school, they are trapped with you in a classroom, and they can’t help but pick up something by osmosis. Online students must demonstrate more initiative and are expected to be more self-directed.

We provide them an excellent curriculum with plenty of opportunities to practice, use and hear the language. We cannot force them to listen. On the flip side, online students are more likely to feel they can reach out any time with a question, and I encourage that. I get messages from students all day, all night and every day. A student will suddenly wonder why a past participle looks a certain way and send me a question. Brick-and-mortar students are less likely to do that kind of direct outreach.

In fact, the digital venue can even turn student-skeptics into believers. One of my rotation students began the course with a rather nasty note to me about how she didn't want to take German in the first place, they made her take it. She didn't like it; she wanted to be in Spanish. I responded and told her what I liked about German (some of its really funny words, etc.) and asked her to have an open mind. She had been communicating with me regularly about retaking assignments and had slowly been coming around. One day I got the following message: 

“I got a 92% on that test. The feedback helped a lot. That is the best grade I have ever gotten. I am finally getting German/Deutch!!! I now like German> YEAHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!”

That little note made me smile all weekend.

Have you had an online language learning experience? I would love to hear about your virtual education story or questions in the comments below.

Susan Lafky
Susan Lafky, Middlebury Interactive’s lead German teacher, has been teaching world languages for parts of four decades, mostly in the Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia. At Fairfax, she also served as the Chair of the Foreign Language Department. Susan joined Middlebury Interactive full-time three years ago after health reasons made it impossible for her to continue at her classroom position. In our blog, she shares her thoughts on digital education, her students and the differences between teaching in the digital and brick-and-mortar classrooms.
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