7 Things to Know About Being An Online Teacher

A cartoon of a person sitting at a desk facing a computer screen with people communicating via video chat.
(Image credit: Image by Mohamed Hassan from Pixabay)

The emergency experiment with remote and virtual learning during the pandemic left many educators eager to return to the classroom. However, some were intrigued by the one-on-one connection well-designed virtual learning can foster and the work-from-home lifestyle it affords. As a result, interest in full-time remote teaching has increased as has the demand for virtual-only educators. 

Experts in remote learning say those looking to make the switch from brick-and-mortar to full-time virtual learning should be excited and open to learning new tech platforms, dedicated to one-on-one work with students, and willing to answer a lot of emails, no matter how much they don’t want to. 

You'll Need to Embrace Tech as an Online Teacher

It is no surprise that working as a remote teacher requires a willingness to use technology.  “Teachers who are looking to be distance learning teachers do need to develop some tech savvy,” says Jason Neiffer, executive director of Montana Digital Academy. 

However, this relationship with technology is often more about a willingness to learn than having a host of existing tech skills. “We hire teachers who come straight from brick-and-mortar and have not necessarily had any online or LMS experience,” says Robin Winder, senior director of instruction at Florida Virtual School and FlexPoint Education. “We hire really good teachers. We want the teachers who we can tell are getting engaged students, and we can train the rest of it.” 

You'll Get to Prioritize One-on-One Time with Students  

Because many online programs offer asynchronous learning experiences paired with small group or one-on-one synchronous interactions, these can provide educators with more time to provide detailed individualized feedback and to form deeper relationships with students. 

“You're truly getting to know your students,” Winder says. “We're on the phone with them all the time for check-ins and assessments. One of the greatest joys is that you are able to really have that classroom of one and focus on being able to give good authentic feedback, and learn about your students, and meet them where they are.” 

You Should Let Your Personality Shine  

The more of your personality and passion you can infuse into your videos and other online course material, the better. 

“Authenticity matters,” says Amy Tessitore, senior manager of Engagement Services at Open LMS. “Often when we create a video, we're trying to be perfect, and everything is very sterile, we've rehearsed the script 1,000 times.” 

Learners prefer when educators keep it real with them, even if that means dogs barking in the background of your video. “When you're making those videos be expressive, make sure that your passion comes through,” Tessitore says. “If you jumble a word, just keep going, that's more authentic, that's replicating what you would have had in a face-to-face environment.” 

Be Prepared to Answer Emails

If responding to emails and, in some instances, texts in a timely manner and being organized as an educator are difficult for you, the leap to online learning might be a challenge. “You have to ask yourself some tough questions because responding to email is pretty key in an online environment,” Winder says. “Today's kids, they want to know what you have to say pretty quickly.” 

However, there are strategies for getting better at answering emails. Tessitore recommends scheduling a time each day to answer them and funneling general questions that multiple students will have to the chat or forum function on your LMS. She also creates a list of common questions students have through the term and the next time she teaches that lesson or gives that assignment, she tries to provide those answers up front. 

Neiffer uses a text expansion app, which acts as a personalized auto-complete for phrases he commonly uses. For instance, he starts many emails by giving his name and now saves time by not constantly retyping that. 

Be Prepared to Work at Least as Much As If In a Brick-and-Mortar Classroom

Despite common misconceptions, teaching online does not require less time than in person.  “Sometimes when we speak with folks there's this idea that, ‘I'll be at home, therefore I'll be able to have my own children with me all the time,’ or ‘I'll be able to volunteer four times a week at my child's school,’” Winder says. “It is a more flexible environment, for certain, you're not sitting somewhere at 8 a.m. and leaving at 3:30, but the students are there and you need to be there when they need you.” 

“In a lot of ways, it can be much more time-consuming to be an online teacher,” Neiffer says. “There's an appropriate expectation that you're gonna provide more deep and rich feedback for individual assignments.” 

However, on the flip side, you generally have a great deal of flexibility in where you work. “I have been on holiday before while teaching an online class and was able to check-in from Iceland or Italy or Mexico, and continue to productively teach a class and connect with my students,” Neiffer says. “That flexibility is very attractive.” 

Always Consider Equity and Accessibility  

Tessitore recommends approaching online teaching through a lens of equity. “Students take online classes for a variety of reasons, and sometimes those reasons are because they don't have equitable access to education otherwise,” she says. “Perhaps they have mobility issues, or they have a family situation.” 

The Montana Digital Academy is designed to supplement the offerings students receive in traditional brick-and-mortar schools. In Montana, 65% of the population lives in rural areas, so many students don’t have access to diverse course offerings, and the virtual school helps fill those gaps. 

The academy also helps students overcome other barriers and challenges. “I can literally think of a thousand different unique scenarios in my work with Montana Digital Academy over the last 12 years where we were helping students out of a real jam and provided a flexible option that helped them meet their goals,” Neiffer says. 

Seek Out the Virtual Resources in Your State or Region 

If you’re looking for job postings in online education, Winder recommends looking at your state’s department of education website and seeing what online teaching opportunities might already exist. “Ever since COVID, many, many districts are running their own online programs or some version of it,” she says. 

You can explore full and part-time job postings at places such as Florida Virtual School or other online programs that operate in multiple states. If you work in a state or district that doesn’t have online options, Winder advises advocating for them at your current school by reminding your school leaders, “This is a really good thing for kids, maybe we should try it.” 

Erik Ofgang

Erik Ofgang is a Tech & Learning contributor. A journalist, author and educator, his work has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Smithsonian, The Atlantic, and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.