Why It’s Important to be Approachable, Available, and Empathetic When Teaching Online

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It’s that time of year when spring classes have officially started and us instructors are once again trying to bring the best version of ourselves to the classroom and make a difference, especially for those students that may be struggling.

I think it’s important to take a minute and talk about how to handle students who might seem unorganized, flaky, a bit “prickly,” or all of the above.

Since I teach primarily online, I believe I’ve gotten pretty good at noticing the warning signs when certain students are overwhelmed by school and/or life by communicating with them via email.

It can be difficult to see the red flags when I don’t have the opportunity to spend time with them face-to-face, but I try to create a very approachable and supportive online classroom environment so that my students feel comfortable coming to me when they feel overwhelmed (and I’m always encouraging them to come to me with questions and concerns). As a result, my students tend to be open  in their emails, and I do my best to work with them and ease their anxiety when needed (which is very common in a public speaking course).

Typically my students will submit late work or send short, defensive emails when they’re having family issues at home, or when they’ve taken on too much (there are plenty of students returning to school after a number of years who are working full time, have a family, and are also trying to get their degree) and are stressed out as a result (don’t take it too personally if they direct it at you- that’s something I’m still trying to get better at!)

Understanding and empathizing with what students are going through, and keeping tabs on them, definitely increases their chances of success in the class when they may otherwise lose hope and mentally check out.

For instance, when a student seems frustrated in an email, I’ll reply in a calm tone and offer some clear suggestions for succeeding, and I’ll encourage them to follow up with me and let me know how they’re progressing (and when they don’t follow up, I do).

In all honesty, sometimes I never hear from them again, but just as often (even if it takes a few unanswered emails), they’ll respond with an explanation of what they’ve been going through and it’s very rewarding to see them persevere through the rest of the semester.

For those of you getting back into the swing of things this spring, remember that some of your students may need  little extra empathy and kindness, so be mindful when interacting with them. I guarantee it’ll make for a much better semester for everyone.

Happy teaching!

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