It started with a question: Why do some strategies work better for some teachers than others? Or more specifically, why is that three teachers can implement the same strategy, lesson plan, or instructional materials, and get different outcomes with students? As an example, let’s stay that three different teachers all agree that they are going to use a certain graphic organizer. And let’s say that they all understand the tool to be used and provide very similar lessons for students. Why is that some classes learn more than others? Our search for an answer led us away from a focus on the quality of the lesson plan, strategy, or instructional materials to a focus on the credibility each teacher had with his or her students.
Teacher credibility is powerful, with an effect size of 1.09. It’s probably one of the major mediators of whether or not students learn from a specific teacher. When we look into the teacher credibility research, there are four major components, which we will explore in this post. In addition, in this post, we will focus on the ways in which teacher credibility can be maintained when working at a distance from students. The four components of teacher credibility are trust, competence, dynamism or passion, and immediacy or closeness. As you think about each of these factors, remember teacher credibility is in the eyes of the students. The impact comes when students find their teachers credible in those four areas.
1. Trust – Can I (still) rely on you to help me grow?
Students need to trust their teachers. And this goes in all kinds of directions. For example, students want their teachers to be honest. Lying to a student damages trust. Of course, there are topics that are off-limits, but not being truthful reduces credibility. As many educators are working from a distance, we have to continue telling students the truth. They know when their work is not stellar and wonder why we say it is. They see it in our faces when we refuse to answer a question. Teaching at a distance requires that you hold them to the same high expectations you’ve always had for them. Lowering them now threatens their security and trust in you.
But trust is more that truthful responses. It’s also about healthy, growth-producing relationships. Students want you to know their names and how to say them. They want you to know things about them. They want to know that you care about them and support their aspirations. In these scary times, they want to know that you’re still there. And they really want some normalcy in their relationships with you. So, when you teach from a distance, keep in mind that they’re still looking for you to be their teacher. They expect you to care about math, English language arts, art, science, PE, music, social studies, or whatever else you teach. Your consistency stabilizes them.
In addition to truthfulness and relationships, trust is also about being reliable. When we interact with our students, we should all attempt to be that person they remember from the classroom. When we are reliable and predictable, students know what to expect from us. We can maintain that in our digital communications and our virtual interactions with students.
2. Competence – Do I (still) think I can learn from you?
Students regularly make decisions about which adults they can learn from and which adults they cannot learn from. In doing so, they make judgments about our competence. They want to know that you “know your stuff” and that you know how to teach that stuff in ways that make sense. Interestingly, students are not looking for 25 different learning strategies to be tried out on them. They want a few that they know and expect from you. When teachers change their strategies too frequently, students wonder if the teacher really knows how to teach.
This is going to be a challenge for those of us who have not taught online before. We need support to do this well or we are going to look foolish in front of students. But there are things we know how to do. We know how to model our thinking and can record a short video for students that includes teacher modeling about a concept or skill. We know how to provide feedback and we can do so in any number of online platforms. And we know how to find resources online that are useful (and hopefully free) so that students are engaged in meaningful tasks. What we have learned as we transitioned to blended and now fully online learning is to be honest and let students know that you’re also learning. Share with them the actions you are taking to ramp up your online teaching skills. Allow your competence to shine through in other ways, even if the technology is a little clunky. When educators do that, credibility through competence is maintained, even when the platform is less familiar.
3. Dynamism – Do I (still) see you as passionate about my learning and your teaching?
The third area of teacher credibility centers on the passion that teachers bring to the classroom. You don’t have to dress up in a toga, but you do have to convey deep interest in students’ learning and the content you teach. We all have learned things that we didn’t intend to learn because of the passion someone else had. In the classroom, the environment helps convey the passion a teacher has (just look at the walls and materials). Yes, we recognize that there are some people who have to move room to room all day and they have to bring their passion other ways. Passion is also conveyed every time we talk about a task, assignment, or activity. The presentation of that information says to students, this is cool, or one more thing to endure. Nancy’s fitness trainer gets very excited every time Nancy gets to do one-handed swings because she knows Nancy finds them difficult. To maintain credibility at a distance, a few things come to mind:
First, keep that awesome personality flowing through the WiFi connection you have with students.
Second, decorate your pages if you can. If you have a learning management system, why use the default and look like everyone else? Spruce it up a bit and show your students that you care.
Third, pay attention to your appearance when you are on camera. Make sure you look like the professional they have come to expect. Seeing you looking less that your professional best can be unsettling for them and can cause them to question whether you really even want to spend time with them.
And finally, beware of awful presentation slides. This applies to the classroom as well, but moving online with boring, text-heavy slides sends a message to students that you do not really care enough to re-consider the design. We have worked hard to improve our presentation slides to avoid what Garr Reynolds calls ‘slideuments’ – slides and documents smashed together. In fact, if you want to improve the quality of your slides, we recommend his book Presentation Zen.
Immediacy – Do I (still) feel a sense of closeness with you?
The last aspect of teacher credibility is the closeness that students feel from their teachers. Yes, this is also related to the trust, but it differs. At issue here is students’ sense that they are held in high regard and that they are emotionally close to you. Most of this is communicated non-verbally. In the classroom, some students rarely get within three feet of the teacher. Now, with social distancing, some young people will feel less immediacy, which we need to address in other ways. It’s the eye contact that students experience, the nods as they speak, the noticing that we offer. It’s all of the things that communicate to a student that I see you, that you matter, and that we are close. When learning occurs at a distance, we need to be aware of these issues. Are you distracted while you are online live with a student? Do you make eye contact with them as they speak? Do you recognize their responses and value their contributions? Making sure that we don’t compromise our immediacy might just help a few more students learning at a distance.
Teacher credibility is always in play. And our credibility with students can change based on actions we take. Within the same class, we might enjoy high credibility in the eyes of some students and lower credibility in the eyes of others. To our thinking, it’s worth the investment in teacher credibility because the impact is significant. We think it’s just as important to work on your credibility as it is to work on your instructional repertoire, and maybe even more so. Without credibility, lessons don’t stick. And our students need the learning to stick. In these trying times, they need even more support in learning. We hope that this helps you build and maintain your credibility from a distance as you continue to engage every learner.