Leading with humanity in your online classroom: Tips beyond tech

How to ensure the human side of teaching is not lost and that pedagogical practices promoting care drive decisions when instructing online, from research by Mary Candace Raygoza, Aaminah Norris and Raina León



Saint Mary’s College of California
19 Mar 2021
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Advice on ensuring the human side of teaching is not lost in the move to online education

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With a shift to online instruction, how do we ensure it is not the technology that drives what we do but rather pedagogical practices that promote care for the whole student and class collective?  

How do we not lose the human side of teaching when we teach online? Based on our collective online teaching experiences as teacher-education professors and rooted in our commitment to humanising all classrooms, we offer the following tips for online synchronous teaching: 

Tip 1: Build and maintain classroom community 

Take time to establish norms – even co-creating them with students – for being present, mindful, safe and brave. Some examples are: be present. Be prepared to be engaged throughout class. This said, we are whole human beings who may also need to, understandably, attend to family needs when tuning into class from home. Take space, make space. Listen deeply to whoever is speaking in the virtual room. Mute when you are not talking. Be open to learning and trying new practices for connection and collaboration in the online classroom. Use personal pronouns and gender-conscious language; one way to support this is “renaming” such that both name and pronouns are included. 

It can be more challenging to read students’ body language when you are in a virtual space, therefore “temperature checks” at the beginning of class help to get a read of the virtual room. It can also help students feel more comfortable, warming up to speak online. You may get creative and come up with a prompt that is related to your class content. Some examples are: share a rose, thorn and bud from your day; represent your week in an emoji or hashtag; or describe one joyful practice that is energising you.  

Similarly, ice-breakers can support students to get to know one another and feel more comfortable working together. Sometimes these practices are perceived to be taking time away from learning; however, when students are connected, classroom collaboration and idea generation thrive.  

You can also invite student announcements or celebrations at the beginning of class, and allow time for appreciations at the end of class, to foster a sense of community care.  

As you engage in these practices, encourage students to use the chat function and emojis, if available in your platform, because when you are not face to face, you lose some of the “mmhmms”, the cheers and brief remarks that students make as others are speaking. 

Tip 2: Be prepared 

At the start of the course, a technology tutorial is essential for showing students how you intend to use the platform to foster connection and community. We should not make assumptions about the intuitive abilities of students, and we may need to support them in unlearning the idea that online education means watching recorded lectures and taking tests. 

Prepare and share an agenda with learning objectives and activities for each session. Be sure to include an array of instructional activities, for example: quick writes, pair shares, polls, small-group work, digital gallery walks and jigsaws. At the beginning of each class, implement a routine or warm-up as students trickle into the online space; as students complete it, you can play music from a class-generated playlist. 

Plan to engage students in reflective, meta-cognitive activities such as exit tickets or a “know-want to know-learned” chart. This will assist you in being prepared for future sessions.  

Tip 3: Foster equitable participation 

Be sure to check in on access. Consider a confidential survey to learn if any students are having difficulty accessing a stable internet connection, quiet space, device, mic or camera. Are there ways you can support their troubleshooting or connect them to campus resources? Consult the disability services office at your institution to learn about implementing accommodations in your online platform. 

During class, keep an eye out for “tech hands” such as through a “raise hands” function and “real hands”. You might have a protocol for acknowledging hands as they come up: “Next I have [name] and after that [name]” as well as a protocol for students to send a group chat or individual chat to you if they have a contribution. As students are sharing out, pause to invite anyone to speak who has not spoken yet and wants to. 

When you want each student to share out on a topic, ask for a volunteer to begin and when they finish, they “tag” the next student in. Before doing this, provide time for a quick write, pair share or at least thinking time so students are prepared to share and are not put on the spot when it is their turn. 

Tip 4: Foster collaboration 

In preparation for collaborative work, provide students with clear guidelines about what you want them to do and when you want them to return from pair, trio or small-group breakout rooms. To increase accountability to one another, we suggest students have group roles, such as timekeeper, facilitator, reporter, note-taker or harmoniser.  

In person, as educators we can “read” the room to have an idea of which groups might need support. Online, check in on each group as they work, as you would circulate around the classroom. 

When you come back together, have a specific prompt students will report on. You may ask those who report to share what they learned or appreciated from a classmate, so that they are not just repeating what they themselves said in the group. 

Tip 5: Be flexible, be patient and be you! 

Technical glitches will happen; authenticity through them creates bridges of connection. Remember, students and faculty alike are adapting to new challenges. Your classes are happening to the backdrop of an inequitable and uncertain world. Everyone is holding a lot. Remind yourself and students of this. We must cultivate compassion for one another and ourselves. Regardless of the content area you teach, learn about trauma-informed and healing-centred practices; be prepared to hold space, offer validation and affirmation, and provide guidance and connection to support services that students may need. 

Take breaks, incorporating movement or stretching. Mindfulness practices integrated in class can support you and students to tune into the natural world, taking pause from technology.  

As your time allows, you can linger before or after class for the human connection with students we miss from in-person classes. You can also encourage students to use video conferencing to connect with one another outside of class time, for group work, a study session or socialising. 

And, finally, while you may have to summon a higher amount of energy to demonstrate your excitement and engagement in the class as a model for lively student participation, whatever you do, be yourself. Humanise yourself. You can create a fruitful online classroom. And you can invite students to be meaningful co-creators of that humanising community. 

Mary Candace Raygoza is an assistant professor of education, Raina León is a professor in the Kalmanovitz School of Education, both at Saint Mary’s College of California

Aaminah Norris is an associate professor in the College of Education at Sacramento State University

This advice is based upon the research paper by the same authors, “Humanizing online teaching”. 

HumanizED Course on StoryJoy 

Read more about Mary Raygoza’s work 

Read more about Raina León’s work 

Find out about Aaminah Norris’ (Un)Hidden Voices  


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