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Catholic Virtual Teachers: Breaking Ground

By: Thomas W. Burnford, D.Min

I had the privilege of leading a professional development session for teachers Catholic Virtual.  Catholic Virtual is a company that provides quality virtual education to students in Catholic schools.  The teachers working for Catholic Virtual are professional virtual educators who come from a traditional teaching background, many Catholic school experience. The session was a chance for these teachers to share with each other what they have been doing in their virtual classes with students to reflect the Catholic nature of their work. What I heard was remarkable.

“I find I’m listening more to my students because what they are saying is right here, in my headphones, and there are no distractions as can be the case in a classroom.”

I’ve really been able to connect with the students who are generally too shy in brick and mortar to speak up.

“Students will be more spontaneous in talking about what is going on in their lives, and I have more time to give them.  Some will tell me outright that they are having a lousy day.”

“I have the flexibility to pray with students if and when they are struggling.”

“I feel like I can get to know the students better one on one.”

I was surprised to hear so much from the teachers about their relationship with individual students. While virtual courses naturally include virtual video contact between teacher and student, along with written communication, clearly there was a connection with students and some form of trust and relationship. There was, indeed, more relationship than I expected.  This is particularly important for Catholic schools using virtual programs, because Catholic education is about formation and education, faith knowledge, and this only happens when the teacher is both witness and educator.  In addition, deep care and love for each and every student, whatever their circumstances (and particularly if they are in need), is at the heart of Catholic schools.  This requires attention to relationships.

Did what I heard from the virtual teachers come about because of the medium in which they were teaching?  I don’t think so. Indeed, I, like many, had to some degree assumed that virtual education would sacrifice relationships – clearly, it doesn’t! What I think was happening was that the teachers had been intentional about translating core elements of Catholic pedagogy to a virtual setting. Early in the fall the challenge to do this was given to new Catholic Virtual teachers, and so during the PD session, I asked them about what they were doing in their classes specifically to bring faith into their virtual courses.  Again, here is what I heard:

“In my weekly e-mail check-ins with students I always add a little kindness activity that the students can do, and then give them a shout out if they find the activity and do it.”

“I spend more time letting the students speak about their lives.”

“We do a virtual tip jar, and students send in tips for other students about how to manage virtual learning and I read them out to the class.”

“We made rosaries and sent them to the elderly.”

“We start every class with a little music, a recorded song that maybe the kids can sing along to.”

“I teach first graders, virtually; often there is a parent or grandparent present with their child, and on occasion, I will ask the parent or grandparent to share something from their own knowledge or experience relevant to the topic; for example, when we were talking in social studies about the different types of schools, one student’s grandparent shared how when she was a child she went to her schoolhouse on a horse!”

“Starting off in prayer allows me to “model” how to pray, especially recently when we have been focusing on praying for those we find difficult to deal with at home.

These actions reflect a few best practices from the Catholic school traditional classroom, now put into practice in a virtual setting.  The result, as shown in the first set of comments above, was increased relationship and connection between teacher and student, in ways that reflect the Catholic difference. For me, it was so exciting to hear and learn about how these teachers at Catholic Virtual had taken on the challenge of themselves learning how to build relationships with their students in virtual classes and to bring the best of Catholic pedagogy to this new medium. Truly this is an example of breaking ground in the new land of Catholic virtual education.

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