After four years of a university education, one year abroad, years of volunteer and work experiences with people with disabilities, I was at a loss. What comes next? Graduation was coming up quickly, my friends had applied to graduate programs or jobs and I was sitting on my hands. My father suggested that I make an appointment with a counselor in the career and advancement office to see if they might provide some guidance. I was given a lengthy assessment that asked about my interests, strengths, background and wishes for the future and was told to return a few days later to go over the findings. Those couple of days were exciting; my future was about to unfold with these results. I was sure of it! I returned to the office for my follow up appointment and found out that my future was as a…short order cook. Really.
Clearly, this assessment did not provide the guidance I was searching for. However, as I became a teacher of children with special needs and eventually a university lecturer, I still think back to that assessment and how it has shaped my views on teaching and the role of the university educator.
Need for Professor Guidance
It seemed to me that if I had some guidance from my professors during college, perhaps I wouldn’t have felt so lost upon graduation. Maybe a private conversation about my goals or an invitation to work on a project would have sparked an interest and pushed me to achieve or think about my future. Perhaps a connection to various community organizations linked to the school or courses would have provided experiences that could translate to a career. Creating these experiences for students became my mission in the hopes of helping at least one floundering or indecisive student.
When I was offered the opportunity to become an online instructor at CI, I was in a predicament. I realized I would never meet most of my students in person and those I did meet often came to me only in times of trouble. I wanted to flip that model somehow and reach every student individually, but how?
Adding the Human Touch to Online Learning :
After completing T&LI’s Online Teaching Preparation Program, I felt armed with numerous tools to engage my students and humanize their learning. VoiceThread became the first avenue by which I hoped to reach students individually.
Today, my online course is designed using two week learning modules and each module contains a VoiceThread prompt. Students are expected to respond to the prompt in video or voice and then respond to at least two of their classmates. To be honest, the first semester I used this tool I could see that many students were logging in, making their comments, responding to two people without regard for the rest of the posts and never returning to the conversation. I wanted to improve this.
So, the next semester, I decided to respond to each person’s introduction comment , welcoming them to the class. I noticed that this added personal touch increased student participation, but I think it was because they felt my eyes on them and they wanted to earn points for the activity.
The third semester, VoiceThread presented a gift; a new feature that enabled me to reply privately to students. I replied privately to individual students and commented on their comments thanking them for their contributions. While many never replied to my private comments, a great number did and we had wonderful private and class-wide conversations about the topics at hand.
As a result of this increased human touch, a number of students showed up to office hours just to say “hello” and talk more about teaching or working with people with disabilities. Despite this gain, I wondered about the students who didn’t reply on VoiceThread. Every semester at least one person would comment about how uncomfortable they felt leaving voice or video comments. Some didn’t like the way their voice sounded, some didn’t have a quiet place to make the recordings. I know that for some VoiceThread was used in the most minimal way possible, but in all other aspects of the course, they were exceptional. How was I going to reach those students as an online instructor?
One day I decided to email each of the 90+ students in my classes. I informed students that their work was appreciated, their contribution to that module’s discussion was particularly valuable, or that their dedication to the field was evident in their work. Each email came with an invitation to meet with me during office hours or via Zoom during a mutually beneficial time. I was not prepared for the response.
Over the following weeks, over 60% of my students emailed a response and conversation ensued. I met with about a third of my students. We talked about the class, working as a teacher, their own experiences working with children, perceptions of disability and the elusive “What comes next?”
These interactions provided me with the opportunity to share my own sideways route to becoming a teacher, which co-teaching models we used, what it was like working for a large school district, and how to access avenues to become a teacher.
My dad and I chuckle when we talk about my college career assessment findings. As I reflect on the disappointment I felt at the time, I am thankful “short order cook” was the result. Those three words continue to motivate me to provide students a human and personalized online experience.