5 Tips for Creating Top Virtual Classrooms from K-12 Educator Influencers

by Stephanie Thurrott

If you’re an educator, your virtual classroom is probably the main place where you are instructing and connecting with students this year.

Taking your curriculum and lesson plans from in-person design to the virtual classroom requires planning and intentionality. But you don’t have to tackle the challenges of virtual classrooms alone. Here are five tips shared by top educator influencers in Southern California that you can apply in digital learning environments.

1. Incorporate Project-Based Learning

Peter Paccone is a social studies teacher at San Marino High School who contributes to Edutopia, PBS/KQED, and Medium. In fact, he shared some of his favorite approaches to remote learning in his recent PBS article, “15 Lessons Learned from Online Teaching.”

He recommends project-based learning, where students learn more deeply by exploring real-world problems. Through these exercises, students might figure out ways to reduce their families’ environmental impact, use writing to promote social justice, or create a solid financial plan.

He shares a video of how it works in his AP U.S. History class, where his students devote 24 minutes of the 50-minute class to working on their long-term, project-based learning opportunities.

2. Learn from Your Students

Megan DuVarney Forbes is a 6th- and 8th-grade teacher in Arcadia Unified School District. She is known as @toocoolformiddleschool on Instagram and YouTube. In her virtual classroom, Forbes reaches out to her students and asks them self-evaluative questions like:

  • What was distance learning like last year?
  • What’s something new you’ve found time for?
  • What’s something you wish teachers knew about working from home?

Students’ answers can help her—and other educators—understand the challenges students are facing and improve their distance learning techniques. Taking a similar approach with your students can help you connect with them more deeply and enhance their overall experience.

3. Brainstorm Virtual Alternatives

It’s not just the classroom experience that’s online this year. How will you conduct parent-teacher conferences? Promotion ceremonies? Book fairs? Class parties? Field trips?

Heather Fischer, an elementary school teacher in Orange County and the creator of @atrailblazingteacher on Instagram, has been thinking through her plans for every aspect of online instruction and anticipating transitions from online to in-class learning.

Fischer shares her exhaustive plan for distance learning so you can build upon her ideas to create your own action plan.

4. Find Ways to Build Rapport

Experienced teachers are skilled at building rapport in their classrooms. They greet students, ask questions, and attend school events.

Building rapport is equally important in the virtual setting. However, facial cues and body language are harder to read. Off-screen distractions can be difficult to manage. Students and teachers may get fatigued after long hours of online time.

Paccone shared some of his field-tested ideas as well as expert advice:

  • Make sure you’re smiling in your profile photo.
  • Log in a few minutes early so you can greet students as they join the classroom.
  • Open each class with upbeat, welcoming language.
  • Build community norms with your students.

5. Don’t Go It Alone

There’s a world full of teachers who are sharing what’s working for them in their virtual classrooms. You don’t have to design everything from scratch yourself!

Darin Nakakihara, an Orange-County-based middle school teacher, shares valuable content for educators on Instagram and YouTube. He focuses especially on educational technology tools to use during distance and in-person learning.

If you are using Canvas, Zoom, Google Classroom, or other Google Workspace tools, Nakakihara has numerous ideas that will benefit your classroom planning and design.

Building Your Career as an Educator

Educators are innovative and resourceful, finding new and meaningful ways to reach students at a time when they need learning and connection most. How you adapt now can prepare you to start or advance your teaching career and become a forward-thinking leader in education.

Are you intrigued by the opportunities virtual learning will bring to the education field going forward? Azusa Pacific University’s School of Education offers programs for new and experienced educators, including:

Curious to learn other ways you can harness technology to improve students’ experiences? Check out Azusa Pacific University’s library of articles, like this one on harnessing the power of social media.