A teacher once joked to me, “We don’t know what we don’t know.” I took that phrase to heart, because it resonated. It reminded me that as a teacher students often expect us to know and understand everything–even everything that is affecting their learning. This expectation of knowledge is a double edged sword. On one edge is the empowering feeling of being the sage. On the other edge is the struggle between expectation and reality. See, the most difficult and often embarrassing or even dangerous thing you can do is to assume that you do know everything you can about a situation. That presumption of knowledge is what what led to this failure as an instructor.
In the online teaching environment all a student has to go off of are your instructions and your feedback. While I might feel my language is clear, I am approaching it as the writer–someone who knows exactly what idea he is trying to convey. Students are my audience, but they are such a wide and diverse audience that there is no way to be sure that a message well received by one student will be taken by another the same way. That is why when I suggested that a student use smarthinking, I thought I was directing her to our online tutoring app.
To make matters worse, she took my feedback as a direct attack on her ability to write. In other words, she thought her teacher was calling her stupid. In a developmental English class, you are often dealing with students who haven’t been encouraged to feel positive about their writing. Once she thought I called her stupid she quietly shut down. She finished the semester, squeaking out a passing grade, but for a long time she was totally turned off to the idea of writing and even took time off before attempting the next level of English composition.
That is how I know what happened. She wound up in my teaching partner’s class and during a conversation with that instructor she explained the situation from her perspective. She talked about how hurt she was and how she, a budding creative writer, had gone completely back into her shell at the thought that an authority figure would trash her ability so openly. Later, with her instructors encouragement, she had a chance to discuss the matter with me, and we straightened the entire mess out. She even signed up for a learning community with myself and my teaching partner.
The thing is, I didn’t know that what I said was taken that way. She was too hurt and shy in the moment to communicate that. As a result I built in a feedback loop to my communications with online students. When I give feedback I make sure they respond to the feedback, explaining what they think I meant. This way there are fewer miscommunications, and I can catch a problem before it does real damage. I was lucky to catch that student before any lasting damage could occur, but I often wonder if anyone else in my past wasn’t so lucky.