A Fool of Myself

America's best buy is a telephone call to the right man.

For a very long time, I felt that I was the only person who hated talking on the phone, but whenever the subject comes up, most people I talk with also hate talking on the phone. Chalk that up to 21st century communication, bad social skills, or something else, but I’m seeing implications of this in my online teaching. Easily, 99% of my communication with students is written in email, announcements, or discussion boards. And I like it that way. But I’m learning that sometimes a phone call with a student — or even merely the suggestion of a phone call with a student — can make all the difference in the world in both my attitude toward my students and their success in my classes.

A colleague asked me yesterday what to do when a student insisted they talk over the phone; she is not a phone talker. I advised her to ask the student to schedule an appointment to talk on the phone and have the student call her.

I haven’t been teaching very long — this is my sixth semester — but I’ve been teaching long enough to recognize the signs of a necessary phone call. If I have exchanged 3-4 emails, especially emails about a grade, with a student and they still have questions that I can’t seem to answer, it’s time for a phone call. If a student is having trouble with something that is dead simple — like posting a response to a thread in a discussion board — it’s time for a phone call. And if at any time I’m frustrated with the student or my blood pressure starts rising at the sight of their name in my email inbox, it’s time for a phone call.

My emails are worded like this, “It’ll be easier for me to answer your question over the phone. Let’s set up a time to talk. I’m available tomorrow between 10 AM and 6 PM. Let me know when will work for you.”

And one of three things happens:

  1. The student calls me. We set up an appointment, they call, we chat for 5-10 minutes, and I address the problem we couldn’t solve over email. And I answer any other concerns the student has about the class.
  2. The student finds the answer to their question themselves. The student probably hates talking on the phone as much as I do, and at the threat of having to do so, they choose to dig deeper into the course and find the answer to their question on their own. Usually, this student emails me back and says, “I looked some more and figured it out. Thanks!”
  3. The student does nothing. They don’t set up an appointment to call. And they don’t email me back. And they don’t try to figure out the problem on their own. They continue in the class, struggling along, until they miss enough assignments that I withdraw them, they drop on their own, or they receive a failing grade. I’m convinced that these are the students who give me bad instructor reviews. These students are arguably the most mind boggling because they tend to not take me up on offers of extra credit or turning in work late but then peg me as the bad guy.
We are six weeks into the semester, and I have suggested phone calls to probably 10 students. Two have called me. One, bless his heart, forgot we had two textbooks, so it’s no wonder that he couldn’t find half of the readings on our materials list. And figuring that out over email would have proved impossible. The second actually found the answer to his question on his own but kept his appointment with me to reassure me — and himself — that he was getting back on track in the class and that he would start turning in better work.
I’m slowly figuring out that it pays to be the Good Cop in online teaching. That really doesn’t go with my nature, but the more I can offer students — even if they never take me up on those offers — the less frustrated we are with each other. And the less frustrated we are with each other, the more I hope they learn.
“America’s best buy is a telephone call to the right man.” — Ilka Chase
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One thought on “America's best buy is a telephone call to the right man.

  1. “I’m slowly figuring out that it pays to be the Good Cop in online teaching. That really doesn’t go with my nature, but the more I can offer students — even if they never take me up on those offers — the less frustrated we are with each other.”

    I’m going to have to think about this a lot. I’ve been looking for ways to improve my management, and there’s a balance that has to be struck between fear and friendliness. I think the key isn’t just in sympathizing, but in offering solutions like you have done. It’s too bad when people don’t follow up on those solutions.

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