Helping Students Feel Safe in Your Online Class: Leadership strategies for Online Teaching

Key Takeaways:

  • Helping students feel safe in your online class
  • Deploying leadership strategies in online teaching

In his 2014 TED talk, “Why good leaders make you feel safe,” Simon Sinek cites numerous anecdotal stories of how leaders build trust and accomplish missions by making their people feel safe. I re-watched Sinek’s talk while thinking about how it parallels teaching, particularly as we have shifted to online instruction during this COVID-19 crisis.

I stopped and considered my students. Do they feel safe (not just in my online classes, but right now in their living situation)?

Think back to Maslow’s pyramid of needs. From the bottom and moving upward, the needs are: physiological, safety, love and belonging, esteem and self-actualization. Do all of our students have their physiological needs met? How has their home situation changed? Did they (or a parent or partner) lose a job? Are they worried about paying their internet service bill? How about their cell phone bill?

If (and that’s a big if) their physiological needs are mostly met, Maslow posits safety as the second-most foundational factor. Hence my question: Do our students feel safe in our online class? Will they attempt typing a response into the chat box, knowing that if it’s incorrect, everyone will see and know? Have you, as the class leader, demonstrated your own mistakes and reassured students that this is how we learn and grow?

For several years, I have opened my graduate level courses by asking students, “Why are you in here? Have you not heard about my horrible reputation for marking up papers?” I then share examples of my feedback on the screen: “This paper needs help from someone who knows how to write.” And, “I see this paper as less significant given the paucity of data to inform the conclusions.”

But then, I deliver the punch line. I share that this is not feedback that I have given students, but it’s feedback that I have received in the past. Then, I very clearly state:

“I’m going to be tough on your papers because I want you to learn in the safety of this class… and I do not want you to EVER experience this. It’s a punch in the gut. It hurts. And I want you to avoid that.”

Yes, it’s dramatic. But my students have thanked me. Safety, trust, authenticity matter. As I stated in my Part 1 of this series, “reach before you teach.”

Continuing with Maslow, once physiological and safety needs are generally met, they no longer dominate and no longer drive behavior. Other higher-order needs grow. For example, upper-level needs, love and belonging (social aspects of life) and esteem, may become even more important in triggering classroom participation.

As noted, stresses from physical social isolation can be debilitating. Could adding a five- to 10-minute social activity at the beginning of each class enhance learning? (Hint: It’s very likely! My graduate students talked about this during a recent informal Zoom drop-in. They need to connect.)

Above all, please encourage your students to keep a check on their mental health, and seek help when needed. Then, borrowing from Sinek, consider how you as the classroom leader can help your students feel safe. Here are a few additional ideas:

  • Build trust by increasing transparency. Share your own struggles with technology. Let you students know that you miss being in the classroom and office too.
  • Shorten your lecture (yes, I said that), and add five or 10 minutes of open sharing (or use breakout rooms for large sections). Use a question prompt such as, “What’s one good thing that happened in one of your online classes this week?” Or, “Share a struggle and ask classmates for positive ideas to help.” 
  • Consider creating 15- or 20-minute videos of your content. Then use class time for discussion and questions. (This lets students with slow internet connections buffer and get content without interruption. Then, they join the discussion as they’re able.)
  • If you need to capture attendance (e.g., in large section classes) assign a brief reflection (minute paper). Or assign a quick quiz (not summative) in your learning management system.

In summary, take just a moment and think about why you became a teacher. Was it because you were inspired by a teacher from your youth?  Did someone tell you that you’d make a good teacher? For most of us, we teach because we care deeply about our students. We’re energized by them. And we find hope for the future in them.

This week, try to use one of these ideas to help your students feel safe during this difficult period in history. Give them some grace. Give yourself grace too. Some of these ideas can truly help your online teaching result in greater online learning.

For additional reference / reading:

Sinek, Simon (2014). Why good leaders make you feel safe. TED2014. Available at: https://www.ted.com/talks/simon_sinek_why_good_leaders_make_you_feel_safe?utm_campaign=tedspread&utm_medium=referral&utm_source=tedcomshare

Various Sources (April 2020). Thread Reader -

threadreaderapp.com/thread/1240284544667996163.html. OSU ACEL Faculty Meeting – Friday March 20, 2020. Excerpts from email updates: Dean Cathann A. Kress, Ph.D, College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences, The Ohio State University (March 2020).

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Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.