My Virtual Classroom: The Power of Communication During Times of Uncertainty

Doreen TAN
Centre for English Language Communication (CELC)

Doreen highlights some practical ways in which educators can continue to support and communicate effectively with their students in a virtual learning environment.

Photo courtesy of Nancy DeMoss Wolgemoth

We are currently going through a global pandemic. With safe distancing measures in place worldwide, the virus which draws us physically apart has also brought us closer. We read about school closures and lockdowns happening all around the world, and we begin to share a common language as we live through uncertainty. Indeed, there is a need for a long-term plan to cope with such unpredictable times (DeVaney, Shimshon, Rascoff, & Maggioncalda, 2020).

My reflection touches on the power of words when communicating virtually. The communication skills we ought to have do not change overnight just because we are communicating online. However, because we now rely mainly on virtual means to communicate, our verbal and non-verbal cues become even more important than before.

This semester, I had the opportunity to build rapport with my classes before we shifted our teaching and learning online. This aided the move greatly as we could focus on learning about the online tool together. It was enjoyable making discoveries and testing the tool with my students. We built our confidence as one. Despite that, I still felt that as the class tutor I needed to guide them during the major shift from face-to-face to online learning. It would then not come as a surprise if I needed to guide any of my students who might experience “phone/video anxiety” (Wen, 2020) or needed time to adapt (Funahashi, 2020). 

Image from Stanford University, illustrated by Rich Lee Draws

These are some strategies I have learned and intentionally used during this period:

Be Compassionate

There were reminders from the government and leaders of NUS about showing empathy to employees who may be struggling. I was deeply appreciative of those words. It also brought home to me the importance of my words to students, especially when I no longer get to see them in person. Simple greetings like “How are you coping with the changes?” and asking follow-up questions on previous conversations can go a long way in showing students care and support. Being compassionate towards their circumstances became my immediate goal. 

Be Encouraging

While empathising with the students, I also encouraged them. Many shared about missing face-to-face classes, while a few others liked the novelty of attending virtual classes. Nonetheless, they shared one thing in common: concern about their grades. I may not be able to offer guarantees that they will do well, but I was careful to include encouraging words in my emails and lessons. Instead of saying “Don’t worry”, I said “I see your effort in…” and “It’s normal to be worried. Let me know how I can help.”

Be Transparent

There have been and will be many changes beyond our control. I have learned how important being transparent is, particularly when the situations becomes unsettling. Some of the news and messages we receive can be unpleasant. However, when we receive these from people we trust, we feel assured and empowered. I was candid and shared with my students that we are uncertain about what is to come, but I attempted to be open, honest, and reassuring at the same time. For instance, I said, “Classes would be cancelled the following week, but be assured that we will confirm if the essay deadline can remain the same. I will also stay in touch via email.”

Be Clear

When communicating online, it is important to ensure that we are clear. It is always helpful to ask students for a summary of or to paraphrase our messages to check that they were well-received. It is however even more crucial to keep messages concise. 

This summer and in the coming semester, I would not be able to build rapport with my students before we meet online. Nevertheless, I endeavour to use these strategies and more to build trust and confidence amongst my students.   

 

Doreen Tan is currently teaching Academic English courses and is keen on investigating student engagement and motivation in the classroom. She is passionate about developing critical thinkers and moulding the next generation of learners inside out.

Doreen can be reached at doreen.tan@nus.edu.sg

References

DeVaney, J., Shimshon, G., Rascoff, M., & Maggioncalda, J. (2020, May 5). Higher Ed Needs a Long-Term Plan for Virtual Learning. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2020/05/higher-ed-needs-a-long-term-plan-for-virtual-learning.

Funahashi, N. (2020, April 9). Bridging “Social Distancing” Across the Pacific: 6 Tips for Facilitating Cross-Cultural Online Learning. Retrieved from https://fsi.stanford.edu/news/bridging-%E2%80%9Csocial-distancing%E2%80%9D-across-pacific-6-tips-facilitating-cross-cultural-online-learning.

Wen, T. (2020, April 9). How coronavirus has transformed the way we communicate. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20200408-coronavirus-how-lockdown-helps-those-who-fear-the-phone.