Podcast with Dr. Bethanie L. Hansen, Department Chair, School of Arts, Humanities and Education
You never know when an emergency or illness may strike. In this episode, APU’s Dr. Bethanie Hansen provides tips and strategies to help online educators prepare for unexpected absences, illnesses, or other emergencies. Learn why it’s so important to keep your class in order, develop a communication plan, provide emergency contact sheet, and more.
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Dr. Bethanie Hansen: This podcast is for educators, academics and parents who know that online teaching can be challenging but it can also be rewarding, engaging and fun. Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen, and I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics and strategies. Walk with me into the Online Teaching Lounge.
Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge podcast. Today, we’ll talk about sick time when you’re teaching online classes. I hope you never get sick when you’re in the middle of a class, that could be a difficult time for you. But, it does happen and, of course, there are other reasons we might have to leave our class, like illnesses or other emergencies. Perhaps we have a brief technology failure and don’t have new technology right away. For whatever reason, there are so many reasons we should prepare for sick time when we’re teaching online and this episode will help you to do that.
First, we’ll talk about keeping your class in order before an illness ever strikes. Then, policies you may maintain so that when someone else teaches your class, students will know what to expect. We’ll talk about grading your work, the actual emergency or illness time, and some personal experiences I have in this area. So, let’s get started.
Tips for Preparing Your Classroom for Sickness or Time Away
First, before you ever have an illness, you want to keep your class in order. What are some of the things that you might do to keep your class in order?
First, be proactive. Guide your students in what they’re habits should be when they are participating in your class. By being proactive and giving announcements up front, having your class set up for the entire course before it begins and having a regular routine, it will be easy to maintain that class in your absence should you need to be out of class.
You can guide students well in advance of any assignment by giving them some sheets of guidance, maybe examples. You can have a video where you walk through the assignment. And, all of these can be prepared before you ever start teaching your class. After all, you handle these assignments regularly and you know that there are students who tend to struggle with the same things every time. Why not prepare those videos before the class begins so that, should you become ill, your guidance is already there in the classroom?
Keep an Organized Classroom
Then, keep an organized classroom. If you have rubrics in place for your assignments, always have them in a space that students can view them before submitting their work. You might also have them in a place where someone else can see them if they should have to step into your class in your absence and grade that work.
You can have the lessons labeled and everything in order in the learning management system. With the way that learning management systems are designed today, it is very easy to have an organized online classroom, well prepared with all the lesson materials before the course starts, and ready to roll for your students and for the entire session.
Create an Emergency Contact Card
Contact information for your supervisor might be difficult to get if you work at a large online institution that is not very personal with you. However, most places we teach nowadays do contact us and let us know exactly who to speak with should we become ill or have an emergency. Create an emergency contact card and keep it in your wallet, on your board at home where you might keep important things, and share it with any loved ones that are close to you. If you have an accident or an illness and you are not able to communicate with your institution or your students, a person in your life can use that information to reach out on your behalf.
Some important details could include your supervisor’s telephone number, email address and name. If that’s not available, maybe there’s a faculty relations or a hiring department or some other management group at your institution that you can speak with.
If you’re a K – 12 educator, there might be a substitute teacher hotline, a principal, an administrator, a colleague, a friend, someone you can contact or have your family and friends contact in your absence. Keep that information close by, always ready in an emergency.
Provide Students with a Secondary Contact in Case of Emergency
One other tip is to give your students information about who they can contact if you don’t appear in class. Should something happen to you and no one in your life is able to reach out to the institution, students should know how they can reach out when they need help. Perhaps we could give them the information to the department chair, the principal or whoever manages your group. Either way, you always want students to have a secondary contact in case of emergencies, so giving them that information could be useful. You might not give them your supervisor’s phone number, but an email address would suffice.
Maintain Healthy Habits to Keep You Well
And then, of course, maintain healthy habits the best you can to take care of yourself during times where you are well and healthy and all is going as planned. When you maintain healthy habits and take care of the sleep you need, the healthy eating and the rest at times when you’re not working and keep those relationships alive in your life, that will help you to be ready to go when it is time to teach your class so that you’re always at your best. Then, when you should have to reduce that effort, you still have something to give and you have done such a great job up to that point.
Classroom Policies to Develop Ahead of Illness or Unexpected Absences
Now that you’ve kept your class in order, a second area to be thinking about is policies you maintain in the classroom. These policies can be very helpful to you in times of illness or emergencies.
Develop a Communication Plan for Students
First one is a communication plan. A communication plan is when you tell your students how often to expect to hear from you. For example, you might tell them to check the weekly announcements every week and you can prepare standard announcements to have rolling out each week of the class automatically. You can update them with any pertinent information as you go, but having these in place is a wonderful part of your communication plan.
A second part of your communication plan is to let students know how often to expect grading feedback. If they have questions about their grade or would like something explained to them or would like to challenge a grade, giving them a communication plan about how to contact you and who to reach out to is very helpful. This communication plan could also include that information I previously mentioned about contacting a supervisor if you are out of class and non-responsive. It may sound strange to tell students what to do in your absence before you ever have an absence, but in case of an emergency, students do need to know who they could reach out to to get help finishing their course.
And, in your communication plan, I would also suggest posting this in the course where it can be prominently displayed so any visitors to your classroom can also see it. Perhaps in a course announcement or the syllabus or both.
You can follow your communication plan regularly and make sure students are updated about what’s going on in the class, and also use the course messaging system. Many schools nowadays use email as well, which is fine, but in your absence, someone will not have the access to your email. If there is a messaging system in the classroom or a question and answer board, I would suggest using that regularly so students’ exchanges can be viewed by others who might need to step into your classroom.
Follow your communication plan. Once you’ve told your students how you plan to communicate throughout the course, stick to it. If something should happen and you can’t be in the classroom, they will be the first to realize something has gone on and be able to reach out if needed.
And, of course, be clear and present in your course activities. A highly engaged instructor creates a wonderful atmosphere and relationships with their students. If you’re clear and present in the announcements and your grading substantive feedback area and also posting in discussions, it’s going to be obvious that you’re there creating a wonderful learning experience together with your students. If something should happen, another person could look into this and see how you have taught them, what your approach has been, and do their best to continue giving those students a positive experience in your absence.
Maintain a Clear and Quality Grading Strategy
Clear and present grading of students’ work is also essential so that your course is always well-maintained but also anyone who must step in in your absence can see what you’ve done with students to this point. And, I would suggest if you have essays to grade that you provide comments directly on the essays that are written. Also, provide students with the rubric ahead of time. Post it in the assignment area and use it in your grading. This makes your grading very clear and others can understand on which you have based the scoring and the feedback.
Now, when you grade your students’ work, it’s important to use rubrics. Rubrics show various ranges of skill levels achieved, categories that you focused on, and so forth. One of those categories should be the content itself.
For example, if you’re teaching a music appreciation class, as I do, there’s a section where we mark about using music terms appropriately. I, of course, have ranges for that but I also mark it and explain to students when they have used the terms well and when they have a misunderstanding. And, I have some different corrective elements that I can put in there to explain what the term means if a student has misunderstood.
The content you are teaching matters the most. Writing style is also important. We want to help students as much as we can learn how to write properly and be able to produce academic essays. But, more than that, we need to know that they understood the subject matter. Unless you’re grading English essays, in any other subject area, grade the content first and be sure to give lots of comments about that content and then provide correction on the formatting, the citation style, and the grammar and other things you might care about.
Never let a student move on out of your class who has very poor writing without correcting that. It would be a shame for a student to go through an entire online degree and not learn how to write properly. English class is really not the only place where we can do that.
If you provide quality grading in your classroom every time, then should something happen to you and you’re not able to finish teaching the course, someone else will be able to look over your grading, see what your approach has been and give those students a quality experience to the end of the class.
You can also ensure that when you have given your students quality grading feedback, they are learning from you. There are things that you can teach them that no one else can, and giving them your best every time when you are at your best is a really great policy to ensure that they learn what they can learn from you.
And, lastly, decide up front what you care about most in grading your students’ work. What ideas and concepts matter to you? Be sure to remark about those ideas when you’re giving the feedback and let students know as much as possible.
Tips on How to Handle Emergencies or Illnesses
Now, let’s talk about how to handle those emergencies or illnesses that occur. Anything could happen, ranging as small as simply having an allergy situation, like I’m having this week, or you might have something like a hospitalization, a surgery, a major illness that keeps you away from your work. You might have an accident. Perhaps there’s a natural disaster or a car accident. I have worked with faculty who have had all of these things happen. I’ve also worked with faculty who had terminal illnesses or major degrading illnesses that took away their ability to teach online at all.
Issue an Instructor Availability Announcement to Students
There are so many things that can happen during our lifetime, independent of our work. Whatever is happening to you, whether large or small, the first step is to let your students know what to expect. I like to call this an instructor availability announcement. Your students need to know that you’re not going to be on your normal schedule, that your regular communication plan has been disrupted, and that they will need a little more patience than usual.
When you give them this plan, it is not important to give them your personal details about the crisis you’re experiencing or the illness. If you are comfortable doing that and you would like to share it in a brief way, it’s of course acceptable to do so. But, I always suggest that faculty keep their private details to themselves when they feel they want to do that.
So, telling your students that you’re going to be out of class for a few days, or unable to interact with them for a few days is totally fine. That instructor availability announcement could say something like, “I will be offline Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday this week. I will check-in Friday and at that time, I will answer any questions.”
And, you could also give a contact information for your supervisor if they have an emergency or a question that’s urgent in your absence. If someone else is going to step into your class while you’re away, it’s helpful to let students know that as well. Introduce the person, give them their email contact information and, of course, help that person know what to expect when teaching your class.
In an ideal situation, when you’re ill, you’ll have a substitute teacher come in and work with you. In colleges and universities, that is rarely the case. Sometimes you might have a colleague that’s able to teach for you, but that is extremely rare. If you’re going to be out only a couple of days, simply putting an instructor availability announcement and returning and catching up when you’re well again is adequate.
If you’re going to be out a longer duration and someone’s going to teach the rest of your class or a period of time for you, you might want to orient that person, if possible, on what you’ve done with your students and what you would appreciate them doing in your absence.
Communicate with Supervisors, Colleagues and Family
Communicate with your supervisor and your institution about your absence. And, of course, if you are not able to do so, be sure to have your family or friends who are contacting your manager for you do this on your behalf.
If you have a colleague that can teach for you in your absence, communicate well with them what you’re going to be doing and when you can be back and how they can reach you if they have any questions. Then, of course, when you’re teaching and you are just gone for a short time, you’ll have to catch up and let students know about your grading timeline when you’re back.
When others are teaching, you will need to know what they are going to do in your absence. For example, in my institution, if another faculty member steps in and teaches for you, they will manage the questions students have and they might engage in the discussions and keep the class basically moving forward. But, the grading will be the instructor’s responsibility when they return from the illness.
In special situations where an instructor is gone for longer than just a few days, that grading might be done by a colleague. But, it depends on the situation and it’s not exactly clear for every single case. It can be helpful to discuss this with others who might be teaching for you, just to find out what to expect and also to help them know how they can help manage your class.
In the worst-case scenario where you cannot finish the class or even tell your students that you are gone, the best thing to have done up to that point and in any case when you’re teaching is just your best work, to be on top of your game when you are healthy and well and when everything is going the best that can be expected.
If you cannot finish the class or even tell your students that you are leaving, be sure to give your colleague or your supervisor the best guidance you can about what you’ve done with your students to that point and then step out of the classroom and allow them to teach it out.
Tips for Supervisors to Manage Faculty Emergencies
Now, I’ve had some personal experiences with each of these scenarios where I have managed online faculty in the School of Education at my university and in the School of Arts and Humanities. There have been so many situations and they’re all different. They range from just a brief illness where a faculty member just let me know and needed me to watch their class, and sometimes I’ve had a situation where a person had a major illness, they were hospitalized and in surgery and unable to communicate with me. And, the way I discovered it was they were simply absent for class more than a day or two.
And, as the supervisor of online faculty, I’m very proactive and I look at their classrooms and I stay on top of that. So, a faculty member’s not going to be away from class for more than a day or two without me noticing and then I’m going to reach out if it takes three, maybe four days and they’re not back in class and I’m going to see what I can do to help them.
If you don’t have someone like that in your situation, it’s especially helpful to reach out and be proactive whenever you can. I’ve had faculty also have car accidents where some major things were happening and they were not going to recover right away and they really could not teach again for weeks. I’ve also had faculty where their technology had failed, their computer crashed, they were not able to get another computer anytime soon. And, in those kinds of emergencies, it can be especially debilitating to you if you do all your work online.
One recommendation for that is to find a place where you can either get a loaner computer, short-term or maybe there’s a computer work station where you can log in, either on a local college campus in a library or in a public library. And then, of course, log off again and clear the cache and the cookies after you’re done using it for your teaching. If you have a family member or friend with a computer that you can use, you can also do that short term in a technology accident.
If you have a health decline that’s actually going to take away your ability to teach online, and I’ve worked with many faculty in those situations as well who either could no longer type, could no longer speak, could no longer maintain the rigor of grading essays for very long, different things, you might be able to work with your academic institution to teach smaller course loads.
You might be able to reduce your typing by using something like Dragon Dictate, naturally speaking. There are a lot of different ways to accommodate health declines or other kinds of setbacks where you’d like to keep teaching but cannot teach to the full load that you might have in the past. And, I would highly recommend considering those and then, of course, deciding if you are able to teach in the future. And, only you have the answer to that. You can think about your own personal situation and decide.
Whatever happens to you, know that your work is valued to your students and to those that you work with at your school or your institution. As an educator, you make a difference and you matter immensely. I want to encourage you not to be embarrassed if you have a sickness or an illness or an emergency, but to reach out to people around you and communicate what your needs might be. You will be surprised how others can step in and help you and manage your students on the short term at least in your absence and help you make arrangements for whatever needs you might have.
Of course, wrapping all of this up, it’s never fun to be sick when you’re teaching online, but there are so many things you can do to plan ahead before sickness ever strikes or emergencies come, and there are things that you can do to manage those things if you should experience them.
Above all, I suggest that you keep a contact card for your colleagues, your manager, your supervisor, and your institution available where loved ones in your life can reach out and let others know if something’s happened to you, should that be the case. This, at the bare minimum, is really important so that you have an emergency plan as an online educator.
Well, to your health and to your wellbeing, I wish you all the best this coming week and I also wish you a successful experience managing any illness or emergency you might face while teaching online.
This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for the Online Teaching Lounge podcast. To share comments and requests for future episodes, please visit BethanieHansen.com/requests. Best wishes this coming week in your online teaching journey.