Five lessons from the nation’s best online teacher

Teresa Dove was the winner for this year's award.
Teresa Dove of the Florida Virtual School was chosen as the first-ever National Online Teacher of the Year.

Educators who teach in an online setting should foster strong relationships with their students’ parents and should offer plenty of positive feedback, says the nation’s first-ever K-12 Online Teacher of the Year.

Teacher Teresa Dove of the Florida Virtual School (FLVS) last week was chosen as the first winner of this new award, which not only recognizes excellent teaching but also the prevalence, and importance, of online learning across the country.

The award, which recognizes an “outstanding online teacher for exceptional contributions to online K-12 education,” was created by the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) and the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL).

According to Myk Garn, director of SREB’s Educational Technology Cooperative, the award program evolved from a regional program run by the Educational Technology Cooperative in 2009.

The cooperative wanted to recognize the increasing competence of online instructors at the virtual schools in the Southeast, and it asked each state virtual school to nominate one of their teachers who personified excellence in online teaching. Eleven teachers were honored by the cooperative and their respective organizations last year.

Recognizing that the number of online teachers was growing nationwide, and that the degree of skill, performance, and success of their teaching was evolving as well, the cooperative—which has worked closely with iNACOL on a number of online-learning quality initiatives before, including guidelines for high-quality online teaching—crafted a plan for a national award for 2010.

The Higher Education Opportunity Act “defined distance learning (for the postsecondary world) as where the teacher and the student are ‘separated’ from each other. I’d argue they—as bureaucrats are wont to do—got it exactly wrong,” said Garn. “It is where the teacher and the learner are connected by technology.”

Ultimately, “teachers are the common denominator in instructional quality, whether in the classroom or online, and that is what we wanted to recognize,” he added.

The judging committee selected Dove, a Virginia resident who teaches math online for FLVS, and two other finalists from more than 50 nominations of online educators in public schools and state virtual schools in 24 states.

Dove, who made distance education her focus and life’s ambition long before she began teaching online, attained both her master’s and doctoral degrees online, studying Instructional Technology and Distance Education.

“For years, I had a dream of being able to teach students using web-based technologies, and FLVS allowed me the opportunity to fulfill this dream. That was 4.5 years ago, and I have never looked back,” she said.

For the past four years, Dove has been an online mathematics/Algebra II teacher for grades 6-12 and a schoolhouse Literacy Coordinator at FLVS, which serves more than 125,000 students and employs more than 1,100 educators. A resident of North Tazewell, Va., she is a mentor, a member of the Reading Leadership Team, and was the first Algebra II teacher at FLVS to create a Model Literacy Classroom.

Dove said that teaching online allows her to spend much more time working individually with students than she did previously in a traditional classroom. Spending only a moment with students in a traditional classroom is “not enough, and our kids deserve better,” she said. It also has allowed her to care for two young children at home and to teach while caring for her mother in the hospital.

She explained that the big key to success for being an online teacher is to get to know your students.

“You might be separated geographically, but spending that one-on-one time with the kids is the biggest asset for an online instructor,” she said. “Not only does it personalize their educational experience, it lets them know that someone is there who cares for them. Education should be centered around the student, and when they feel that, you would be amazed at how motivated they will become and how much you will learn about them.”

For Dove, their are five practices that she says make her effective:

1. Keep the student at the center of every decision that needs to be made.

2. Foster relationships with students and parents, because parents can be a teacher’s biggest help.

3. Talk with your students every day by phone. Dove said that the majority of her day is spent talking directly with students to build a one-on-one relationship with each of them.

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