I have a friend who is a phenomenal teacher. She has been making a positive impact on middle schoolers’ lives for 20 years. I used to go into her classroom during my prep period and take detailed notes so I could refine my class. She had the ability to reach the hardest, most closed off student while still managing to make sure the “kids in the middle” didn’t slip through the cracks.
Yesterday, she mentioned that she had no students show up to her optional class meeting. It was a district requirement that teachers hold open office hours but they had to remain optional. When nobody showed up, she was crushed. She found herself questioning whether students cared and she actually messaged a group of us privately asking, “Was I wrong to think that I knew how to build a classroom community? Have I lost the ability to be relevant?”
It was painful to see her reaction because I guarantee her students love her. She’s one of the best teachers I know. And yet . . . nobody showed up.
One thing I’ve learned from teaching distance learning classes at the university level is that it’s common to have nobody show up to an optional meeting. We’re talking about students who are paying money to get a degree. They are earning a graduate degree to become teachers. They are highly motivated. We’re in a cohort model where I teach multiple classes. Even then, the default is to not show up.
It hurts. It feels personal. But that’s rarely the case. Failure to show up doesn’t mean students don’t care. Many of them don’t want to feel like an imposition. Many feel they are doing okay and don’t need “help” during optional office hours. Many of them are living busy lives or they’re simply distracted.
However, I’d like to share a few strategies that worked for me as a way to boost attendance in optional meetings.
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Five Ways to Increase Attendance in Optional Online Meetups
A few things that have worked for me at the university level that I’ve seen work at the secondary level as well:
1. Invite specific students with a personal email.
Say something like, “I could really use your participation tomorrow.” Or you might provide specific feedback on an assignment and say, “It’s not required but I would love for you to show up to our meeting tomorrow. I’ll be reteaching it.” Students want to feel wanted. At times, I send the email to a small group of students and we basically do a small group intervention. My son’s math teacher does this. She asks specific students to meet after school. It’s optional but it’s highly recommended. It’s not an accident that she’s getting students to show up to her online meet-ups. In her case, she has very specific topics and, while she’s allowing any student to show up, she’s specifically asking those who need it to show up. I know of a teacher who makes phone calls to invite a few of the most at-risk students to show up to the meeting. For what it’s worth, that would be my nightmare. I hate making phone calls. And I want to be clear that this teacher is going above and beyond. I would never expect that from all teachers. But it is an idea.
2. Re-frame the meeting from “help” to “peer feedback.”
This reduces the stigma of needing help. Think of it as the teacher version of people wanting “life coaches” but not admitting they need counseling. I had open office hours to help students with a big portfolio project (the edTPA) and nobody showed up. I did this for two weeks in a row and wondered if my students were just really, really advanced. Then I changed it to an optional peer feedback workshop and about two-thirds of the class showed up. I broke them into small groups on Zoom and then checked in with each of them. We also had a Q&A where they began to ask for help. However, they needed to know they weren’t alone in needing help. By giving peer feedback, there was a strong message that all students were still in progress. Nobody had nailed it yet.
3. Ask students to show up to give me feedback on how I’m doing as a teacher.
Students want to have a voice in how things are going and it’s the kind of feedback I need to improve my instruction. In UX Design, there is a core idea of asking for user feedback. Think of this as UX design for your distance learning instruction.
As a teacher, I can ask about what’s working and what’s not working. I can also ask students for specific ideas. Afterward, we can transition into a question like, “What is still unclear for you?” or “What did I not explain well enough?” These questions lead to a place where I can re-teach core concepts or skills. At this point, the meeting begins to feel more like a true open office time.
4. Make it a social hour with trivia.
I’m totally serious here. Sometimes you need to play together for half an hour and then move into something more academic. I had a distance learning course with members of multiple cohorts. There were several people who knew each other well and it created unintentional cliques. While we met on video conferencing for our official class, the small groups were distant and the conversation was stilted. At that point, I did optional hours for the next night and made it a 90’s trivia night. I asked them to dress up in a 90’s outfit. That last part tanked. I get it. It was a big ask. But the small group trivia competition was the type of team-builder we needed. I was back to being my typical goofy self.
5. Do something hands-on.
The biggest benefit from a video conference is that it’s synchronous. I’ve found that it’s better to direct instruction as a video that they can watch and re-watch (flipped instruction style) and use this time to do something more hands-on. You could do a scavenger hunt. My daughter’s fourth grade teacher did a really cool math scavenger hunt last week. You might do a show-and-tell activity. We did the following show-and-tell activity in our last video conference class meeting. You can also find this on my Instagram, where I post visuals that you can use for free in your distance learning classes.
You could do a divergent thinking challenge:
But that being said . . . some groups have better luck with an asynchronous option. And that’s okay. The biggest takeaway is that a lack of attendance has nothing to do with your value as a teacher or your relationship with students.
Teaching is deeply relational and the physical distance makes this distance learning thing really hard at a time like this. But I think it helps to recognize that even for those of us who have been doing distance learning for years, it always takes extra effort to build and maintain community. And when the results aren’t there in the way you expect them, it’s not a reflection on who you are as a teacher. It’s a reflection on the sheer challenge presented by distance learning itself.