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Tips for Being the Best Online Instructor

An online instructor sitting at a desk and looking at a computer as she video conferences with an online student.

The best online instructor lets go of their ego to allow learning which benefits both them and their students. They engage students by looking at where they are individually in their learning path and providing clear feedback and assessments to help the student grow, learn and succeed.

Instructors who are sensitive to the fact that students may not already know the material provide the best learning environment and the tone of their feedback helps students to break down barriers to learn in a constructive way.

Tips for Online Teaching: Keeping One’s Ego in Check

In “Ego is the Enemy,” Ryan Holiday wrote: “Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, your worst enemy already lives inside you: your ego.”

These words by Holiday hold special meaning when it comes to being a college-level instructor. Having a healthy ego is necessary to help instructors get into and thrive in the highly competitive academic world. A run-away ego can be an impediment to continuing to be successful in academia. Ego becomes the enemy of success for the instructor as well as students.

There is no doubt that an ego can be helpful. Having pride in your work and accomplishments is natural, as is having confidence and passion in what you teach. Your passion will help instill student interest in your course, as well as help fill them with confidence in themselves.

The flip side is an instructor who has an inflated ego and a feeling of self-importance, who gets caught up in being the center of attention and uses their power to control their students in an online course. This is a detriment to their students. It then becomes all about placating and soothing their own ego and not about a true learning experience for the students.

Do Not Be Your Own Worst Enemy

Jeffrey R. Young, a senior editor at EdSurge, states that “unreasonably high esteem holds back efforts to improve college teaching.” An instructor who believes they are above reproach because of their ego, is not willing to look at themselves and recognize they may have areas of weakness that they should continue to work on. Paul C. Price, a professor of psychology at California State University at Fresno, argues that, “Humans tend to think they’re better at lots of things than they really are. And that may be especially true in college teaching.”

It is key to not fall into the trap of believing one is a wonderful and utterly fantastic instructor, and to continue to listen to feedback from colleagues and students. Price states that, “Not getting, or listening to feedback as to how you actually stand relative to other instructors, students and colleagues can have this built-in tendency to think one is a really good instructor.” Best practices for online learning require instructors to be open to constructive feedback on how to improve their craft. There is always room for improvement and growth but that can only occur if an instructor is open to it.

Best Tools for Online Learning

Some of the best tools an online instructor possesses are the ones that make an instructor approachable, well-liked, trusted and respected. These do not require having an advanced degree but are innate qualities and traits.

The hope is all instructors would have empathy, compassion, validation, respect and care for their students however that is not always the case. Empathy and compassion may be the two traits that are most important for college instructors to process today.

Instructor empathy is the degree to which they try their best to understand their students’ personal and social obligations and circumstances. Having empathy for students involves having awareness and concern for what is happening in the students’ lives and responding in a compassionate manner to their positive and negative emotions that might be displayed in emails, discussion boards or assignments. Having compassion enhances the focus on student learning. Teacher empathy is communicated to students through the instructor’s behavior toward students and should be genuine in nature.

Having compassion for student issues differs from having empathy in that compassion is the ability to “feel” for the problem a student may be having. Having empathy for the plight of a student is not only understanding the student’s feelings but also being able to understand the circumstance on a personal level and putting yourself in the shoes of the student and imagining what the student is going through presently. Compassion drives the instructor’s desire to help the student through a tough time; empathy helps the instructor know why help is needed.

Unfortunately, many of the instructors who are least empathetic, compassionate and respectful of student issues are those most in need of constant validation and having their egos soothed. Their egos come first, and they cannot, or will not, give the very validation they constantly seek to students who are taking courses with them.

This is seen today with the COVID-19 pandemic disrupting the lives of college students nationwide. Many of these students have struggled to keep up with their school obligations while having to care for children at home, sick family, job loss, financial difficulties and other stressors. Most instructors are quite empathetic to the plight of their struggling students and will do everything within their power to help them be successful. Empathy and compassion need to be displayed by all instructors for their students to be successful in these stressful times.

Ego Can Make an Instructor Lose Touch of What is Important

There are a few instructors who have egos that do not allow them to see the struggles of their students as being a problem that can be addressed with a little understanding and compassion. These instructors look at the student issue as “how does it impact on me?” instead of “How is the issue impacting the life of the student?”

Ego can get in the way of grading feedback, discussion board participation, email conversations and any other engagement a student may have with an instructor. An instructor with an overly inflated ego may not truly understand what it is to support their students. They can be critical of student work and tell a student what they have done wrong but positive feedback never comes. The student is always left wondering “what do I have to do to please this instructor?” The answer is, there may be no pleasing the egotistical instructor. These instructors may talk excessively about their accomplishments and how they believe their students are not living up to their high standards. Egotistical instructors do not always possess the social ability to have a give and take relationships with their students.

A compassionate, caring and empathetic instructor will go out of their way to help the student improve by giving quality feedback that is supportive and helps the student grow academically. They are clear in their expectations and believe building a relationship with all their students is key to student success. An instructor who wants to build relationships with students is very aware of the tone they use in discussion boards, emails and grading feedback. They are never condescending or brusque. Teaching effectively online requires an instructor to be giving of their time and expertise, as well as showing their students they care about them not only academically but as people.

Egotistical instructors do not ask, “What can I do to help the student?” They are only concerned with how the students are not living up to their expectations. What can be done about an egotistical instructor? The reality is not much. Egotistical instructors will find the idea that they need to change as a repugnant notion, they refuse to change because they truly believe there is no need for them to do so. Coaching usually falls on deaf ears and students will generally start to file disputes and complaints about these types of instructors.

How to Be a Good Online Teacher: Use the Golden Rule

Instructors who want what is best for their students can teach by the golden rule. Jeff Horwitz, author of “The Golden Rule of Teaching,” explains that the golden rule of teaching is “teachers should always treat their students as they would have their own instructors treat them. They learn best when treated with courtesy and respect and when encouraged to learn in the way that suits them best.”

Instructors who believe in their students' abilities to achieve and have a willingness to help students overcome any barriers, whether they be academic, psychological, social or emotional, are following the golden rule. They are giving of themselves to help students achieve success regardless of any potential issues their students might be facing.

Being a good online instructor takes the willingness to give of oneself not only as a professional but as a person who truly cares about the students they are working with. It goes further than grading papers, participating in discussion boards, writing announcements and responding to emails, although these are critically important. It requires an instructor to be authentic and show they care at a personal level for the well-being of the student as a mother, father, daughter, son, soldier, cook or cashier.

Dr. Thomas MacCarty is Associate Dean of Social Sciences. He can be found on LinkedIn.

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