You Don’t Have to Like Your Instructor, Do You?
The start of a new online class can certainly be stressful and you probably look to your instructor for guidance necessary to navigate through the many expectations and requirements. You also start with a set of beliefs about your instructor and what you expect he or she will do to support your progress, including his or her participation in the class and the feedback provided. But what happens if you decide that you do not like your instructor because your expectations have not been met? If you face this issue, it is time to evaluate the situation and manage your perceptions so you can decide on a course of action leading to an improved and productive working relationship.
The Students’ Perspective
Right or wrong, good or bad, students often have a pre-conceived idea about their instructors and how the class should be taught. While there may be specific procedures your instructors are expected to follow for facilitation of the class, there isn’t going to be a how-to manual for you that will explain the instructional methods they will use. Teaching is a very individual process, which means every instructor is likely to have a different style. That may not be easy for you to consider, especially if you believe that one of your instructors is not meeting your expectations and he or she is doing something “wrong” with facilitation of the class.
Your perceptions are influenced by what you experience and how you feel about it. For example, the online classroom may cause you to feel that you are isolated – because you cannot see your instructor or your classmates. You may also expect your instructor to take full responsibility for ensuring that learning occurs and while this is true to an extent, you are also a responsible adult and must take responsibility for your involvement in the process. This is what is meant by being a self-directed student. If you don’t take responsibility or co-ownership of the learning process you may develop a negative view or perception of your instructor, believing that your needs have not been met and everything is beyond your control – but it isn’t.
The School’s Perspective
What does a school expect of an online instructor? When an instructor is assigned to an online class there are contractual requirements that he or she must agree to – and this often includes a list of required deadlines for responding to questions and emails, along with criteria for involvement in class discussions. Instructors are expected to be responsive to your needs and most schools monitor or audit classes on a periodic basis. Online instructors also receive frequent training on teaching methods through professional development opportunities. While there isn’t a set of instructions provided specifically about working relationships with students, instructors are held to an expectation of professionalism. If at any time you have evidence of unprofessionalism, contact your school for specific grievance procedures, which is often handled by the Academic Affairs department.
An Instructor’s Perspective
My approach to relationship-building as an online instructor is to develop a personal connection with students by taking specific actions such as answering questions, offering personalized feedback, recognizing contributions made to the class, challenging students to do more, discussing resources that are available to meet developmental needs, and offering strategies for academic success. I’ve found that building successful working relationships with students is the product of well-developed interactions. In other words, I am trying to work with students.
There is an analogy in the Educator's Guide to Preventing and Solving Discipline Problems about the importance of developing a meaningful relationships that I try to emulate: "Aren't you more apt to go out of your way to please a boss who you feel values you as an individual and treats you with dignity and respect, rather than a boss who communicates a lack of respect for you? When your boss asks about your family, gives you 'slack' when there is a personal emergency, or praises you for work well done, don't you develop feelings of regard for this boss and want to do your best to please him or her? Students have the same feelings.” This is a reminder for me that all students, on-ground and online, want to feel a sense of respect from their instructor. As a prior online student, I know that dignity and respect are key elements of a productive working relationship.
The most common challenges that arise are related to the way that feedback is received. Some students are very sensitive to constructive criticism and only notice the areas of development, without reading the positive aspects included. Other students feel uncomfortable if I utilize Socratic questioning and take them out of their comfort zone. If this happens to you, the best advice I can offer is to ask for clarification. There is no need to feel that your working relationship is a “me versus them” experience. Instructors want you to succeed and most will prompt you to reach for your maximum potential.
From my experience, when students develop a strong working relationship with their instructor they are more likely to be engaged in the class, express their ideas, be open to receiving new information, consider feedback provided, and evaluate their existing knowledge and experiences. Through a positive relationship and interactions with your instructor, you can experience a classroom environment that is conducive to learning.
Strategies for Managing Relationships
The learning process is complex and the development of productive working relationships is made even more complicated through the online format because of the lack of direct contact. You may become frustrated if you believe that your instructor is picking on you, singling you out, being too hard on you, or not performing to your expectations. It isn’t necessary that you like your instructor; however, it is important that you learn how to effectively interact with them since you are also responsible for your involvement in the class. There are two strategies I recommend to overcome potential barriers to the process:
1. Communicate at all times
Here is very good advice from Austin Community College about reaching out to your instructor: “Be willing to 'speak up' if problems arise. Many of the non-verbal communication mechanisms that instructors use in determining whether students are having problems (confusion, frustration, boredom, absence, etc.) are not possible in the online paradigm. If a student is experiencing difficulty on any level (either with the technology or with the course content), he or she must communicate this immediately. Otherwise the instructor will never know what is wrong.”
2. Address disagreements immediately.
Why does a strong working relationship matter, even if you do not personally like your instructor? In Establishing Good Relationships with Instructors we are reminded that “whether students disagree with a designated grade, or disagree with an instructor’s course content or teaching strategies, a strong relationship, established early in the course, can allow a student and instructor to more fruitfully negotiate any potential concerns.”
I encourage students to send me an email any time they have a concern, feel frustrated, or need additional information – even if they just want to ask about their interpretation of a message. If you do not express your feelings (in a professional manner) it is much more difficult for your instructors to know how to assist you. A strong connection is developed through ongoing communication. You will find it beneficial for your success as an online student to work with your instructors because they can help guide your development and progress.
How do you develop a working relationship with your instructor? Share your thoughts via Twitter @DrBruceJ.
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