Effective Teaching and Ethical Leadership

"Presence" makes the heart grow fonder — even on Zoom.

Posted Oct 30, 2020

After almost a whole career in the classroom, I’m making the transition to teaching remotely. I’ve been biased against online teaching since before it was invented, so the transition has been a challenge for me. My class this fall, a first-year seminar, is what we call a “remote” class—it has a lot of online components but meets at scheduled times, via Zoom. We never meet in person. The big question for me has been how to translate what I know about teaching and learning to a new format. Let me share one piece of that today.

One of the difficulties in remote and online teaching is to develop a “sense of presence,” or projecting myself as a real person into the digital classroom. This week I ran across a very interesting article by Yonason Goldson, who does some very interesting speaking and writing about leadership in business. The article is called “6 Questions to Ask to Find Out If You’re an Ethical Leader.

I liked the article for three reasons. First, it's short. Second, Goldson named his qualities starting with letters that spell out “E.T.H.I.C.S.” I’m a sucker for a good mnemonic! Third, and most importantly, his qualities are similar to elements of my own teaching philosophy and are wonderful guideposts for thinking about being an ethical and effective teacher—a teacher with presence.

One key feature, Golson says, that distinguishes ethical leaders is that they earn loyalty rather than demand it. Let me present his six characteristics of ethical leaders and muse a bit on how they may translate into being “present” as an ethical teacher.

Empathy: What impact will my words and actions have on those around me?” This translates directly into designing my course so students (who are also not used to the online environment) find it intuitive, user-friendly, and relevant. For example, the tasks students do before each class meeting have the same components, so students know they’re going to reflect, read or view material, reflect again, and complete a short assignment. The feedback I’ve gotten from students is that they appreciate the consistency and organization. One challenge I face is that I’m way older than my students and do not share many of their experiences of life, high school, online learning, etc., so I never feel like I have a good sense of how my course fits for them.

“Trustworthiness: Do I trust others, and have I earned their trust?” I try to earn trust in various ways, such as: (a) having a clear set of objectives, expectations, assessments, assignments, and learning strategies, (b) communicating these clearly (transparency, which could have been another “t”!), (c) keeping my promises, (d) being accessible, and (e), being inclusive and fair.

“Humility: Am I interested in what benefits my community or in what benefits my prestige and my ego?” How about some of both, but in the right proportions? The task of transitioning to remote teaching has been enormous. My first thought was that I would need to learn how to teach from scratch. This was not entirely true but did make me humble enough to seek advice from colleagues and take courses on online teaching that my University offered. (My University has been amazingly supportive.) But here’s another true thing that may indicate some imbalance in humility: In addition to wanting to help my students learn and grow as people and as participants in a democracy, part of my motivation for being an excellent online instructor is to maintain my reputation (such as it is) as a teacher.

“Inquisitiveness: Do I want to know as much as I can, or do I want to look like I know it all?” Given the situations in which I find myself, like fumbling to create breakout rooms in Zoom and sharing a Google doc, in real-time, for the first time in my life, it is impossible for me to look like I know it all! The best I can do is look like I’m learning as much as I can. Indeed, the major skill I’m teaching in my first-year seminar is critical thinking, which involves asking questions. Thus, I find myself modeling, of necessity, an inquisitive attitude for my students.

“Courage: Am I more afraid of looking wrong or of being wrong?” I’ve not been real courageous in my teaching career. However, now I cannot afford the luxury of looking perfect. Everyone knows that we’re all struggling—students, faculty, administration—to understand our situation, why we’re here, and what we can accomplish. I try to communicate to students the goals I have for myself and for them, and I’ve committed to these goals before I know, at all, the extent to which I can fulfill them.

“Self-discipline: What do I need to improve today so I can do my job better tomorrow?” Since the move to remote teaching and learning, my students and I have talked in more detail than ever about what I, they, and we need to do to succeed in the present, let alone in the future. I have high expectations for my students, and I try to be transparent with them about my expectations for myself as well. 

To close, here’s one example of my attempts to put these qualities into practice: At about midterm time, I asked my students to evaluate the course. We came to a consensus about a couple of improvements, one of which we implanted immediately: We now start each week with the opportunity for students to take a few minutes to share their “roses” (high points), “thorns” (low points), and “buds” (hopes). Even on Zoom, students feel like this exercise helps them know others and be known. As it turns out, increasing my students’ sense of presence has helped me project my own.