Reach Before You Teach: Leadership Strategies for Online Teaching

Key Takeaways:

  • Effective online teaching requires leadership
  • Engage, inspire, reassure, and lead your students

My daughter recently moved her laptop, books and lab manuals from her college dorm to our dining room table. As I meet with students, teach and even conduct master’s defenses from my home desk nearby, I can’t help but overhear her discussing strategies with other students on how to interpret a professor’s slides or how to understand a comment that (in person) may have had clarity, but online became cryptic.

As our entire education system has shifted online due to COVID-19, we might find guidance in classic leadership strategies to help us reach before attempting to teach.

In just a few short weeks, teachers around the globe accomplished the Herculean task of moving classes to synchronous and asynchronous online formats. But most of us are actually providing emergency instruction only and have not yet settled in (or learned how) to effectively engage our students to result in improved learning.

Online instruction requires some reconfiguration of teaching methods to achieve higher reaches, for example, into Bloom’s Taxonomy (enabling students to advance from remembering and understanding, to applying, analyzing and evaluating our lessons in the context of our world). But we must first meet students where they are… and where we are.

This requires acknowledging that the world has changed like nothing any of us has ever seen. This has come at an incredibly rapid pace. And everyone is strained in some way.

So how do we make sense of this for our online teaching? Perhaps bringing a leadership perspective to our classes would help. Kouzes and Posner (2015) offer five practices of leadership that will optimize relationships. Though outlined for business, these may be applied when teaching online, again to reach before we teach.

Model the Way

As former Ohio State running back and two-time Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin says, “Adopt an attitude of gratitude.” Tell your students you’re thankful for their efforts in making this switch. Tell them (out loud during your Zoom or via video) that you recognize it has been difficult for them and that you are learning and growing with them.

Inspire a Shared Vision

Gary Burnison, Korn Ferry CEO, says when things are going well, people look to a leader for validation. But when there’s difficulty, they look to a leader for reassurance. He contends leadership is connecting the dots so people (our students in this case) can see and be reassured about where we’re going. In teaching online, sharing a vision of where you’re going (with every lesson) becomes more important. Tying together disparate elements, concepts, or processes — and reiterating the “big picture” more frequently — is more important with these added degrees of separation. Including exercises and reflections (or projections) can help your students contextualize the ideas and better understand where theory meets practice. That’s the sweet spot.

Challenge the Process

Much of this recent shift to online instruction has been prescribed. And we have subsequently prescribed an online environment for our students. So how might we mix that up, perhaps allowing our students to suggest options or variations? If we give them permission, they may well suggest innovative approaches that will increase engagement and learning. But we must loosen our grip on what we believe to be the right way.

Enable Others to Act

How can you help your students feel strong, capable, informed and connected online? Start by fostering collaboration. Encourage introductions and dialogue. Plan connecting time on your class period’s agenda. Build trust with and among your students by being more open and transparent. Then let go and let them grow.

Encourage the Heart

This is perhaps the most important and critical item on the list. Caring is at the heart of teaching. And during this extraordinary and potentially fearful time, students need reassurance. They need our calm and steady leadership. And they need to know we’re in this together.

Along with Kouzes and Posner’s five practices, we can and should also consider deploying other leadership models as we engage our students online. For example:

  • How might you bolster presentations using charismatic leadership traits?
  • How might you embrace servant leadership to ensure your students are receiving what they need to succeed in the course — those additional instructions, or connecting time, or abbreviated assignments where possible?
  • Can you use the leadership constructs of authenticity and transparency to show students you care and are in this with them?

Being an effective online instructor requires nuanced and perhaps advanced forms of leadership. Are you willing to give some of these a try? This student-centric approach may pay dividends in learning — and may actually save you time over the course of the semester. Reach before you teach.

There’s a second aspect of leadership that can be extraordinarily helpful to your online students. It’s rooted in helping them feel safe in your online class. Watch for tips on that in Part 2.

For additional reference / reading:

Burnison, Gary (March 29, 2020). “Everything will be OK.” Korn Ferry marketing correspondence. “Leaders are drawing on their analytical skills (their “left brain”) to devise strategies—the what and the how of doing business in a new normal. More than ever in these times, though, the social leadership skills of the right-brain (inspiring and motivating) give others hope.”

Kouzes, J.M. & Posner, B.Z. (2012). The Leadership Challenge (5th ed.). John Wiley & Sons.

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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.