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An identity crisis for teachers: What does it mean to be a teacher in the era of remote learning?

When done well, online learning should go beyond merely replicating the structure of the face-to-face classroom in a Zoom room. Research shows that there are key differences between effective online teaching and face-to-face teaching. 
| Photo via PeopleImages

The abrupt shift to remote learning this past spring left many teachers with a crisis of professional identity, with questions like:

  • What does it mean to be a teacher when I’m interacting with my students behind a screen?
  • If I use online content created by someone else, how do I show my expertise?
  • What is my day-to-day life as a teacher supposed to look like now?

To better understand the challenges associated with “emergency remote learning,” Michigan Virtual and Sundberg-Ferar conducted in-depth interviews with educators, students, and parents about their experiences and published the findings in a qualitative research report.

“I’m not interested in teaching this way,” remarked one teacher during these interviews. “I got into education for human interaction. That’s been ripped away.”

Another teacher lamented that the 100% remote experience felt like switching from “teaching in 3D” to “teaching in 2D” and had “lost the spirit of the classroom.”

These statements reflect the collective grief teachers felt during this time. They are valid responses to a near-overnight change in daily life with little time to prepare and little choice in the matter.

But remote learning doesn’t have to feel this way.

When done well, online learning should go beyond merely replicating the structure of the face-to-face classroom in a Zoom room. Research shows that there are key differences between effective online teaching and face-to-face teaching.

Ideally, during asynchronous remote learning with content, lessons, and assessments already created, teachers are freed up to focus their efforts on providing students individualized feedback and helping them form personal connections to the subject matter. This is where learning takes place. Teachers act as learning coaches, teaching students how to learn while guiding them through the content.

With time and training, many online teachers are surprised by the depth and quality of relationships they are able to develop in the virtual classroom. It may seem strange at first, but this format can actually allow them to give students more 1:1 attention. For quieter students, participating in class discussions and expressing their struggles may be easier in a digital environment than in a large group setting.

In the video below, Michigan Virtual’s lead science instructor, Jaci Hartman, discusses what this individualized instruction looks like in her online classroom:

As many schools begin the school year 100% remote, teachers deserve the support they need to do their jobs well in this new environment.

Rather than trying to fit a square peg into a round hole by expecting the remote learning to be a digital analog of the brick-and-mortar classroom, schools ought to play to the strengths of this platform and give our teachers the freedom and training to leverage their talents to reach students in the most effective way possible.

To learn more about best practices for remote teaching, read the Teacher Guide to Online Learning or explore this interactive Teacher Self-Assessment Tool & Personalized PD Playlist Generator.


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