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Communicating Effectively in Online Teaching

by Kristin Shoemaker Shoemaker.Kristin@MacPhail.org

Last month, a group of faculty involved in MacPhail’s Online School Programs met to share thoughts on effective online communication.  I walked away with many practical tips for online teaching, and appreciated the leadership and insights of all involved:  MacPhail insiders - Bob Adney, Katie Condon, Melissa Falb, David Birrow; and national communications guru - Gail Calhoon.

These are some of the ideas that resonated most strongly for me from those sessions:

1. Bookends in Teaching

It’s so easy for me just to dig into teaching sessions without stating what my goals for the session are.  Katie suggested using a “stump speech” for all group sessions, so everyone is clear about objectives and purpose right from the beginning.  Gail also talked about how to use the first few minutes of each session effectively, and her ideas made me consider how I am using that time to capture my student(s)?  Do I have a warm lead-in?  A fun story?  A 30-second performance?  Am I reflecting that they were on my mind when I prepared for this session?

 Gail also emphasized the importance of taking a minute or two at the end of each session to summarize.  This is so hard for me, especially when I feel like I want to cram in just a few more teaching morsels!  In my MORI observations, I’ve also seen how tempting this is for other teachers, even after the school bell rings.  But by taking time to recap at the end of the session, I have the opportunity to calmly summarize what we’ve accomplished together, and also to leave the student(s) with a sticky closing thought.  I’m pretty sure that my students will appreciate this far more than a few frenetic last words of advice as they’re running out the door… 

2. Persona vs. Content

Gail Calhoon is a master of communication – confident, passionate, succinct, skilled in drawing out her audience, the list goes on and on.  I love watching skilled communicators, but strangely, I rarely think about how to use those same skills in my teaching.  Katie likened teaching style to our on-stage musical performances; no one wants to listen to an unpredictable, non-expressive performance, and no one wants to spend their time with a boring teacher, especially when there are a million other fun activities in which to participate.  (Philip Johnston has some great thoughts on this in The Dynamic Studio.)

 I spend a lot of my prep on content, but give little time to considering how I can engage my students through communication.  According to statistics that Gail shared with us, the impact that I will have is largely based on persona (55%) and voice (38%), with content being a measly 7%.  So what can I do to create that persona, without sacrificing authenticity?  These are some of the questions that I now ask myself in my online teaching:

-       How am I being perceived by the student(s)?

-       Am I smiling?  Am I enthusiastic? Am I making “eye contact”? 

-       How is my posture?  Am I rigid?  Where are my hands?  Am I moving with purpose?

-       Have I given the student my full attention and energy?  Am I successful in showing the student that I care about him/her as a person?  Am I successful in communicating that I’m really enjoying our teaching session, and that I’m passionate about their progress, not just about the music itself?

3. Evaluation

Throughout the session, there was one other clear message for me – the best teachers are always seeking feedback.  And the beauty of online instruction is that we have new ways of getting that instruction – through screen-captured recordings of our teaching.  This has been all-too revealing for me!  Some of you have expressed interest in viewing video footage together in small groups of 2-4, to increase excellence in your own online communication.  I would love to arrange this for any interested MacPhail faculty – whether that means scheduling a recording of your teaching session (individual or group), or forming a small group of teachers for a one-time joint video-viewing session.  Please feel free to contact me!  It’s invigorating to be in a place where teachers embrace growth for the sake of their students! 


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