Helpful Tips for Tricky Situations in Online Teaching

Aug 27, 2018

Kristen Elizabeth started teaching on Outschool in the summer of 2017. She teaches dozens of film studies and creative writing classes, many of which examine the Harry Potter films. Visit If you’d like to learn more about teaching online with Outschool.

Teaching online is a fun and rewarding experience, but it’s not at all like teaching in a brick and mortar classroom...or is it? Most concerns I see popping up on the Outschool forums stem from uncertainty about how to handle an online classroom. My advice is to treat the Outschool classroom as you would a regular class, with a few exceptions. Always be in control, but give the students the opportunity to get to know you as a person and not just as their teacher.

Begin every class with conversation. Allow the students a moment to adjust to being in an online class by talking about your day, or week, and by asking them about theirs. Share funny pet stories, embarrassing moments, and if you have a story relative to the subject you are teaching, all the better! Take the first 3-5 minutes of every class to warm-up the room in this manner.

Leave all judgment and assumption behind. These students are not your average school kids. Outschool attracts very different learners from around the world. There are HUGE differences between private school, public school, school-at-home, homeschooled, and unschooled students. Educate yourself on all these variations that you will encounter as an online teacher.

I often see posts where teachers complain that kids are lying down on the floor, in bed, or are too sleepy to comprehend lessons. There’s talk about kids who don’t respond, who aren’t on camera, or who refuse to read aloud when asked. WHY are these students doing these things, and is it preventing learning? Accept individual students’ needs as they are revealed because you may find that this improves your learning outcomes. I had a student who was creative but had never felt that he was capable of creative writing because of his dyslexia/dysgraphia. I allowed him to turn in verbal, instead of written, homework. He was able to create a complete character arc with complex subplots. He learned because I was flexible.

The Sleepy Kid

I’ve had a few students who were sleepy all the time. I never teased them about it, or mentioned it other than to say, “Are you sleepy today? That’s ok, get some rest if you can.”

  1. One boy was a competitive snow skier who was deep in training and had an exhausting schedule, but he absolutely loved skiing and was living his dream at nine years old. He loved my classes and registered for more, even though he yawned all the time.

  2. Another student had contracted Lyme disease and was two years into his recovery after being completely disabled by it. Some days he was physically unable to concentrate because of the disease and its effects on his brain. I learned to recognize the bad days and give the student the time and space to deal with his illness.

The Bed Instead

Many students are homeschooled for reasons like severe social anxiety or other diagnoses that make regular school difficult, if not impossible. Sometimes lying in bed is the safe space they need to feel able to participate.

  1. One of my students had suffered from severe bullying in her local school. Her parents were desperate to find something she could enjoy and feel confident doing, so she would begin learning again. Learning from her bed without judgment from me allowed her to feel comfortable and safe. She slowly came out of her shell and found a love for learning again.

  2. Students who are homeschooled for health reasons, such as cancer, epilepsy, or various health issues, may not be healthy enough to physically sit up. They show up in your classroom from their bed wanting to learn. I teach from a couch or bed because I was in a car accident that broke my back, and sitting in a chair for long periods is excruciating for me. Be sensitive that you may not have all the details on your students or the circumstances that led them to the online classroom. Be adaptive to their unique needs.

Refusing to Read Aloud

Students do not have to read aloud to learn. There are 7-9 different learning styles, and more learning differences than I can count. Special needs students find a safe space online and often they don’t want to come out as “special needs.” You may have functionally illiterate students in your class and not even know it. That’s okay. I have found it most effective to teach these students using a variety of styles like audio/visuals, hands-on crafts, or artistic representation.

  1. I cannot count how many students have said, “no” when asked to read. My response is always the same, “Ok, no problem, would anyone else like to?” Even severely dyslexic students have enjoyed my classes because they felt comfortable. I did not force them to read aloud.

  2. Socially anxious students can be terrified of being asked to read aloud. If I notice being asked to read makes someone uncomfortable, I tend not to ask again. I might make a note in the chat to let them know that they can tell me when, and if, they are ready.

The Over-Sharer or Chatty Cathy

As teachers, we all encounter students who take over the class and talk all the time. It can be frustrating and disruptive. Remember that opening conversation I mentioned earlier? That is the time to allow your Chatty Cathy to shine! Attention seekers are not always “bad” or unruly, they simply have an unfulfilled need, and it will help you if you recognize that and be compassionate.

  1. Give your chatty student the spotlight for two minutes before you begin your lesson. Always find ways to compliment them and boost their confidence – because when the chatty student feels recognized and appreciated, they tend to calm down and listen. Trust me, if they are constantly shushed their need to be heard can grow much worse.

  2. Your chatty student is more likely to want to assist you and do things like read aloud, so let them. Give them tasks that make them feel important. For instance, Chatty Cathy begins playing with the annotation tool and disrupting class. Ask Chatty Cathy to be the “annotation monitor” and erase all scribbles because they are “disruptive during learning time.” By doing this, you have let Chatty Cathy know that you are on to her, and you’ve made her feel important rather than scolded or embarrassed. This will go much further than a reprimand.

How I Fill the Hour When Too Few Students Attend

I planned my hour-long lesson for six to eight students, but only two showed up. Now what?

  1. Always have a video presentation ready. No matter what subject you teach, you can find short videos on YouTube relevant to your topic. Create a collection of links for videos that are no more than 6-7 minutes in length and have them readily accessible. If you come across a class that is silent or too small and you’ve completed your lesson plan – play a video and create a discussion around its content. ALWAYS preview videos BEFORE playing them for students.

  2. Be a storyteller. I cannot stress this enough! The best stories are ones that relate to the subject you are teaching, but if you’ve gone through your lesson plan and played a video and you still have time, tell a story. The number one compliment I’ve received over the years from my thousands of students is that they loved my stories. They especially love when I tell them things like my struggles with anxiety, or how I epically failed when attempting to learn math.

Timing: How I Space the Hour

Timing is subject dependent, but here is a very basic outline to use as a jumping off point:

  1. 5 minutes of conversation
  2. 15-25 minutes of presentation or lecture
  3. 20-25 minutes of hands-on or Q&A discussion
  4. 5-10 minutes of review and a preview of the next class
  5. ALWAYS ask the class if they have any questions or final thoughts before signing off

Please note that 2 & 3 are interchangeable and may be filled with back and forth teaching and questions from students.

I hope these pointers will help you as you create your online classes and grow your student base. Although there is no “right way” or guaranteed outcome, these are techniques that I have developed during my 30 years of teaching. They have allowed me to connect with students, even those many thought unteachable, and to make an impact on my learners’ lives.

To your success!
Kristen Elizabeth

Start teaching online today. Visit to get started.