10 Virtual Classroom Management Strategies

Classroom management can be one of the hardest parts of teaching. It is one of teachers’ top professional development needs, as all the education classes in the world don’t prepare you to wrangle dozens of kiddos who all have their own ideas of what it means to be quiet. Any veteran teacher can attest to the importance of establishing routines early and following through all year long. But teaching virtually throws all of that for a loop. It’s tough enough getting a whole class to cooperate in person. How are you supposed to do it online?

Online Classroom Management

Fortunately, all of the best practices you’ve learned about or experienced don’t suddenly disappear. Norms and routines should still be established early and used consistently throughout the year. Instruction should still be differentiated. In fact, there are some benefits that come with online classroom management strategies. For example, holding discussions over a computer makes it more difficult for a few students to dominate the debate and potentially helps all students have a voice. In addition, findings from our 6th Annual Educator Confidence Report indicate that teachers have found opportunities to try new technologies and more regularly connect with families.

Whether it’s your first or thirtieth year teaching, here are some ideas to manage your virtual classroom.

Tip 1: Put Distractions Away

It is important to make the virtual classroom look, sound, and feel as much like an in-person classroom as possible. One key tactic to make this happen is to have students put away phones, toys, and other distractions. This may also include staying away from siblings and pets, at least as much as possible during class time! This is of course not always doable, especially when tech access or physical space is limited. And it doesn't have to be all of the time! Remind students that there are instances where it is appropriate to show off their pets, for example, but you will let them know. If needed, have conversations with family members to make sure they understand your desires. And practice grace when dogs, cats, and children make webcam cameos. Your student might not be able to control it!

Tip 2: Treat the Webcam Like a Person

It is so easy to turn off the webcam, mute yourself, and completely disengage. This is a dangerous recipe that can result in students ignoring or even dreading school. Remind students that everyone else is in the same position: sitting in front of a computer trying to be a part of the class. You’re doing it too, as the teacher! Show them what proper eye contact looks like through a webcam, and practice it when you talk to them. Encourage them to smile, respect each other, and talk politely. There is a lesson in digital citizenship here. Even when your only window into a person is through the internet, that person is still very much a person with feelings and goals, just like you!

Tip 3: Have a Dress Code

The dress code does not need to be fancy! It can be as simple as “always wear a shirt and pants, and no pajamas.” One key to helping a virtual classroom feel a little more like an in-person classroom is to have students get dressed for it the same way they would get dressed to go to school. What you don’t want is students propping a laptop on their bed, staying in their pajamas with the covers up, and making the virtual classroom feel like another YouTube video. Ask students to get up a little bit earlier, get dressed for school, and prepare for the day ahead.

Tip 4: Address Discipline Issues Fast

Discipline issues take on a new urgency when the class is remote. Your verbal and physical cues are limited. One disruptive student can make teaching the rest of the class impossible, and it is harder to enlist help from other teachers. Deal with discipline issues as soon as they come up without any exceptions. However, the extra urgency does not mean you have to be extra harsh. No matter the disruption, model a positive attitude and respect for the rest of the class. When a behind-the-scenes intervention is needed — for example, an email to a student or family member — discipline sparingly to maximize impact.

Tip 5: Teach Lessons That Privilege Text

In many virtual classrooms, one or more students have limited internet access and cannot reliably participate in synchronous discussions. And in all virtual classrooms, the parts of communication that involve facial expression, body language, and tone of voice are reduced, if not squashed. Discourse is still critical to learning, but detailed written comments can carry authority and foster close relationships among students and between teacher and student. Students who are eager to have a real dialogue can end up sharpening their writing skills as they argue their points. Practice writing in every subject (including math!) to not only hone students’ ability to write using clear, simple, and effective language, but also build empathy between readers and writers.

Tip 6: Add Visual Cues to Your Lessons

In a virtual classroom, you control what students are looking at in a more direct way than an in-person class, and you can use that to your advantage! As you’re sharing your screen, making slides, or even picking your webcam background, decide on visual cues that can indicate particular actions. For example, a notebook icon can mean “it’s time to write” or a playground slide can mean “you can get up and move around.” As students get increasingly used to these icons, you can proactively manage your classroom as you design your lessons.

Tip 7: Flip the Classroom

It’s hard enough trying to control a classroom while you’re giving whole class instruction! If you’ve thought about or even experimented with flipping the classroom before, now is the time to dive in. Use your time together to go through practice problems. You’re more likely to engage students, elicit questions, and encourage debate. Save the dry lectures and rote instruction for when the students are off camera and working on their own time. Those parts of the class can even be recorded and sent to students to watch later—when it doesn’t matter what pets or siblings are walking in the room!

Tip 8: Decide on Signals

When it comes to virtual classroom management, it’s not as easy for students to raise their hands or teachers to use physical routines such as singing a song or clapping a rhythm. Work with the class to agree on signals that can work even when a student is muted. For example, a thumbs up in the webcam could indicate “I have a question” or students touching their nose with a finger could mean “I need to leave” (for example to go to the bathroom). You can have signals too! For instance, when you need everybody to pay attention, you could stop talking and raise both hands as a signal for the rest of the class to stop talking and raise their hands, too.

Tip 9: Hold Class Wherever You Can Hold Students’ Attention

This tip only works once you’re comfortable with the setting and students have the appropriate tech needs. But there is one possible opportunity with a virtual classroom: it can be anywhere! At its most basic level, it can be as simple as having everyone set their webcam backgrounds to places in a different country and pretending to have class there. Your creativity need not have boundaries though. You could hold class in Minecraft and have students collaborate on projects in anything from coding to geography. Or you could hold class in Second Life and have students learn in an immersive, 3-D virtual world.

Tip 10: Create a Question Parking Lot

One of the biggest challenges with a full online classroom is that only one person can effectively speak at a time. Side conversations, whether productive questions or unproductive gossip, don’t work as well. Human conversation naturally includes interruptions—and it’s not always rude! It is a part of how we share ideas, and every person and culture is distinct in how these interruptions look. But interruptions can flop online, where audio quality is lower, there is internet lag, and platforms do not always even permit more than one person talking at once. Account for this by creating a “parking lot” for questions. It can be any kind of document or spreadsheet that all students can access. When they have a question or thought, they add it to the parking lot until there’s a break for you to go through the list.

The next time you run an online class, try these virtual classroom management strategies out and let us know what works! You can contact us at shaped@hmhco.com.

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