Female student working diligently on a math assignment on her macbook air due to good online classroom management

Online Classroom Management: Five Tips for Teachers in Transition

Do your students follow directions flawlessly? Are they highly motivated, effective collaborators? If so, you don’t need to worry about the challenges of online classroom management.

But for the rest of us, student behavior can be a significant concern. It may even be even our number one concern. It’s hard enough to manage disruptions when we’re all in the same room. So how do we maintain order and encourage growth when we can’t even see our students?

It’s true that we will need a different approach. But online classroom management isn’t impossible. In fact, there are some benefits to managing our students from a distance.

The key is to be pragmatic. Have the courage to manage what we can. The serenity to accept what we can’t. And the wisdom to know the difference. 

Online Classroom Management vs Online Leadership

Online instruction prevents us from using many of the classroom management strategies we’ve become accustomed to. No stern glances. No detentions. We may not be able to count on our students to come to class.

But think about what is possible. Forget about all the things we can’t do online. And be ready to take advantage of the opportunities that online instruction presents.

We have to see ourselves as leaders rather than managers. Managers have a fixed idea in mind of outcomes. “Students will be able to __________.” And it’s our responsibility to ensure our students meet the outcome.

It doesn’t matter if students buy-in to the goal. Or if we think they’re ready. One way or another, we have to force our students to get there.

Not that it’s our fault as teachers. Our students all take the same standardized test. And if our students don’t master grade level content, we answer to parents, principals, and even other teachers. 

Until now.

States are canceling testing. Some students are showing up for classes, while others are missing in action.

We have a rare opportunity to stop managing, and start leading, our students. That means letting them have a say in what and how they learn. It means letting them take responsibility for their own learning. 

Five Tips for Effective Online Classroom Management

If we take advantage of this new opportunity, we can help our students become more motivated. Instead of fighting with them to do work, we can help them achieve their own goals. Sure, they may miss a standard or two. But they will gain so much more.

Besides, we don’t really have a choice. If we are unable to motivate our students, they may not show up. Or they’ll tune in and fool around during our lessons.

This doesn’t mean that online learning is a free-for-all. Online classroom management is a delicate balance. You need to set a tone for what the new normal will look like. Students will feel safer if they think we have things under control.

But at the same time, we need to be flexible. Understand that students are willing participants. Respond to their needs and interests. Change things up when they get bored or frustrated.

1. Focus on Engagement

In a traditional classroom, engagement is a “nice to have.” We would like to engage our students. But if it’s a choice between engagement and order, or engagement and standards, engagement loses out.

When teaching online, the priorities flip. If we can’t engage our students, they may stop showing up. And if they stop showing up, we may not get them back.

I see that some schools are simply shifting their regular class schedules online. This is a mistake. Can you imagine trying to sit through six hours of video lectures every day! I can’t. And I like to think I have more of an attention span than my students.

Now imagine that the lecturers are new to online teaching, and are scrambling to get their daily lectures prepared. They’re nervous about the whole experience, and everyone can feel it.

Students learn more through activities and problem-solving than they do by absorbing information. This is true whether you’re in a physical or a virtual classroom. 

When working online, students have endless sources of information. They don’t need a teacher to explain something for 45 minutes. Keep whole sessions sessions short, around 10-20 minutes. Let students know that you’re there for them, make a few announcements, and send them off to complete their activities.

2. Real-Time Communication

Don’t spend too much time and energy on recording videos. Too many educators are focusing on making videos instead of connecting with students in real time.

Making good videos is hard. And most of us aren’t going to make a better video than what’s already out there. Frankly, it’s a waste of time for thousands of teachers to all be recording video lessons on the same topics.

What students need from us now is personal connection. Whole class meetings to create a sense of normalcy. Small group sessions to allow for discussion. And one-on-ones to help students set goals and stay motivated.

The concerns about legal and privacy violations are important, but a bit overblown. Just make sure you are using a conferencing platform that is compliant with privacy laws. Zoom and Google Meet are both compliant provided you use the education versions. DO NOT have students create personal Gmail accounts or Zoom accounts using their personal email.

You can use these tools to have whole group sessions, and small group sessions. Consider providing office hours for students and/or parents.You can event put students in teams and have them set up their own sessions. 

Just don’t turn the online experience into a correspondence course. Students need human connection now more than ever. And connecting with their teachers and peers will help them feel that some things are still normal.

3. Cultivate Student Ownership

Student ownership is a critical feature of online classroom management. As teachers, we can present students with options and opportunities to learn. But we are not the ones responsible for their learning.

Students feel more ownership of their learning when they set their own goals and when they have choices about what they learn and how they learn.

Talk to your students about ownership. Ask them about their goals. Have them write down their goals for online learning, and have them reflect on their progress throughout the process.

When shifting ownership to students, they also need room to fail. If a student misses a deadline, we may want to step in and take back control. Instead, try to avoid judgment.

Ask them guiding questions to help them reflect on the experience. Help them decide whether to revise their goals or to simply extend the deadline.

4. Establish Norms

Many teachers worry that students will show up for class in their pajamas. We certainly want students to wear school-appropriate clothes for online learning. But don’t let the fear of pajamas derail your online learning initiative.

Establish norms early on. Consider involving your students in the process. If they have a say in the rules, they will be more likely to follow them. I often find that my students come up with similar rules, anyway.

First, come up with some questions to guide the conversation. What is appropriate dress for online meetings? When and how should they ask questions? Will you use hand signals?

In addition to meeting norms, establish norms for collaborative documents. I’ve found that most Google Drive arguments start when one student erases something another has written. So we established the rule that you can only comment on someone else’s writing, unless they’ve given you permission to edit/erase.

Be aware that norms will evolve. Having a “norms” check-in every Monday can provide structure to each week of online learning.

5. Start Slowly

The shift to online learning has been extremely sudden. But we can’t expect to continue instruction at our usual pace. We’ll all need some time to adjust.

Realize that the first week or two are going to be focused on the process of online learning. Students will need to adjust to the new normal and learn all the new programs we’re introducing.

I’m hearing from teachers who started teaching online 4-8 weeks ago. Many say the biggest mistake they made was not reducing the amount of work they assigned. If you start at full speed, it will get messy. Students will get overwhelmed. Some will check out. And by the time you figure things out, they’ll be less receptive.

Focus first on keeping it fun, easy, and supportive. You can always pick up the pace once you and your students are comfortable learning online. 

Eventually, we may find that students can get as much, or more, work done remotely. Parents who homeschool can usually cover content in much less instructional time than it takes in the classroom.

Getting Started with Online Classroom Management

You may think this list doesn’t have a lot to do with “classroom management.” And that’s no accident.

The way to get the most out of our students when teaching remotely is to take a step back. Let them have fun. Let them make mistakes. Help them feel that they are doing ok, no matter how much work they are getting done.

It will take some students longer than others to adjust. But we will get better results with a supportive and understanding approach than we will by trying to force things. Because ultimately, we have very little power in an online classroom.

So rather than worry about the students we can’t control, take the opportunity to shift control. It may seem counterintuitive, but if we take a step back, we give our students a chance to take a step forward.

Be open to the possibility that our students will learn more responsibility, develop social-emotional skills, and master more content than they would in a live classroom.

For more ideas and resources for adjusting to online instruction, visit our online learning resource page.

And to stay up-to-date with the latest resources and articles on student-centered learning, sign up for our free newsletter.


About the Author

Jeff Lisciandrello is the founder of Room to Discover and an educational consultant specializing in student-centered learning practicesJeff Lisciandrello is the founder of Room to Discover and an education consultant specializing in student-centered learning. His 3-Bridges Design for Learning helps schools explore innovative practices within traditional settings. He enjoys helping educators embrace inquiry-based and personalized approaches to instruction. You can connect with him via Twitter @EdTechJeff



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