Getting to Know Students in the Online World


Kelli Hicks
Thursday, March 10, 2016 - 12:00pm

When I first started teaching online, I thought I would never get to know my students very well in the new environment. In my previous brick-and-mortar classroom, I was able to see my students every day and was able to talk and interact with them in person. As a result of this daily interaction, I didn’t just know them academically.

I knew about their families, who their friends were, their jobs, and their hopes for after high school. As I started into my first online course with my first student, I thought I would miss out on this aspect of teaching.

Online Learning

I soon learned that I was VERY wrong about this. In the online world, the mode of getting to know my students is different, sure, but it is not harder. While I don’t see my student’s face-to-face, I still learn a lot about them. I have many experiences of getting to know students in my online courses better than I ever knew my students in brick-and-mortar classrooms. Here is one example of a story that really touched my heart.

Getting to Know Bethany

A few years ago, I had a student in my English 2, Semester 1 class named Bethany, who first emailed me with a question about a posted assignment. The assignment was to interview a professional in her desired career, to ask about things like average salary, training she would need, and what that professional liked about his or her job. The instructions written in the course didn’t quite match her personal situation, and she needed to know how best to complete it. Bethany asked, “How do I do this?”

Online schooling allowed her to work even when she couldn't get out of bed.

Due to transportation and health issues, and living quite a distance from a relevant professional, Bethany was unable to get in contact with someone in her desired profession, which revolved around working with horses. I told her that instead of interviewing someone who worked with horses, to instead interview one of her parents. I then invited her to ask me as many questions as she needed to in order to be able to understand the assignment.

These initial emails opened up a dialogue between us. In the first few weeks, she would mainly talk to me about the course but, after a short time, we began to talk about her home life as well. This is when I began to really connect with her and was able to learn about her family and her personal challenges.

Why Brick-and-Mortar Doesn’t Work for All Students

Bethany had quite a few struggles that most typical teenagers don’t have to deal with. She suffered from a chronic medical condition called Fibromyalgia. 

Fibromyalgia is a disease that causes severe pain and mobility issues in the patient. There are a variety of symptoms that vary from person-to-person but, in Bethany, it caused severe joint and muscle pain, migraines, and dizziness. This awful condition was a real connection for the two of us, as my late father had also suffered from this disease, and I understood how this made things challenging for her.

Her medical condition made brick-and-mortar school a complete struggle for Bethany. Her illness often made her feel too sick to work on school assignments, and she was behind in her assignments because of her long stints in the hospital several times throughout the semester.

Bethany had received many incompletes in her courses and earned very few credits toward graduation at her brick-and-mortar school. She had been promoted socially through high school but was in danger of not graduating at all or having to do it as a ‘super senior.’ She needed to recover credits for her junior and senior years of high school as well as a few credits from her sophomore and freshman years.

To try and combat this challenge she faced, she switched to Montgomery Academy, an online charter school in Georgia.

Online schooling allowed her to work even when she couldn’t get out of bed. However, she frequently still had days when she couldn’t even work from bed because the pain would make it too hard to type or her migraines would make it so she couldn’t see well enough to read the computer screen.

I worked with Bethany to get her through the semester in my class. We also communicated frequently through email about more personal things like her health and her home life. Her parents were divorced, which caused many challenges in addition to her health condition. In addition, neither of her parents were doing well financially and, as a result, she had to go without many of the medications that she was supposed to take for her Fibromyalgia and depression.

To further her physical stress, she had to help out a lot around her parents’ two houses, which she traveled back and forth between, and often had to help take care of her toddler-aged brother when she stayed with her father. These household chores caused her to ache, increasing the amount of time she spent in bed while doing schoolwork. Her parents also put a great amount of pressure on her to get a job but, due to transportation and health concerns, a job was nearly impossible for her. 

Online Learning Success

We talked about these things and how she dealt with them. Sometimes she asked me for advice, which I offered with much support. I could tell that sometimes she just needed someone to listen to her, so I let her vent her frustrations to me and helped her work through them the best I could. 

Bethany finished my course, on time, earning a B grade. She had hoped to earn an A, but didn’t quite finish all the work in time due to a stint in the hospital right before the end of the semester. After the semester, we kept in contact sporadically, about once a month. 

When she applied to colleges this past year, I wrote her a letter of recommendation, supported her emotionally, and helped her keep organized and focused on the application requirements—all while balancing her schooling and home life. When I had my baby girl, now four months old, she made some name suggestions and excitedly asked me for pictures.

Bethany is now about to graduate from high school and is starting to hear back from colleges. I hope to continue correspondence with her as she continues her journey through life.

I was afraid that I would only be able to make these types of deep personal connections with my students through a traditional brick-and-mortar setting, but I was proven wrong with Bethany. I continue to be proven wrong every day that I interact with my online students. While the interaction with online students comes in a different format, it is no less close than in a traditional setting. 

About the Author

  Kelli Hicks is a teacher with more than twelve years of experience, including four years teaching online English, sociology, and ESL courses for Fuel Education. Additionally, Kelli serves as the State Lead Teacher for Utah, and is a shift lead for the FuelEd Academic Support Team (TAMS). Kelli has taught both online and within traditional brick-and-mortar schools focusing on at-risk and ESL students. She graduated from Utah State University with a bachelor's degree in English education, minoring in sociology education with an ESL endorsement.



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