I submitted this to ProductiveMuslim.com with slight modifications.
In the first part of this article, I shared some tips for being a productive online student. A teacher is still very much a student, so if you haven’t read the previous post, I highly recommend you head over there first! In this part, we will look at some habits that make for a productive online teaching experience.
Tips for Online Teachers
When I get a new student on board, I usually allocate the first lesson as an orientation and trial session. As mentioned previously, many of them have never studied online before, much less used e-mail or Skype. Even if they do have the experience of studying online before, they may not be used to your particular approach. Therefore, it is a mutually worthwhile investment to allocate 20 to 30 minutes to guiding the student on the tools and techniques that you are going to be using.
My orientation session also covers an overview of the syllabus that I intend to teach, how to use their membership account, how to find the resources they need for class, important links to bookmark, etc. Having such a session has considerably reduced time wastage in subsequent lessons owing to reasons like, “I lost the textbook so I couldn’t do my homework”.
Action tip: List out the most common problems you face with students. Then think about how much of it is within your control to eliminate, and thus, plan your preventive measures.
2. Handbook for students
During the orientation session, I also issue a handbook to the student. This sets out particular things such as the objectives of their time spent with me, ground rules, motivational advice for being a dedicated student, and other regulations.
Before I created a handbook, my students and I would encounter many miscommunication problems. Assumptions were made about how lessons would be conducted, in what circumstances extra lessons would be provided and when they would not be provided, when the monthly fee was due, and so on.
Rather than repeating the rules for every new student and enduring growing pains with each one, the handbook became a useful tool to include in the welcome package!
Super efficiency, anyone?
Action tip: Could some of your online teaching hassle be due to not setting clear expectations at the beginning? Rather than blaming the other party, let us think about what we can do to make our communications more clear.
3. Teach adab along with the lesson
It is my personal opinion that one reason to why people find it difficult to do well in religious education is that they want the knowledge delivered in a nice package along with a certificate to show what they know. It’s easier to chart a clear path of progress in other subjects than it is with religious knowledge.
Secular academics does not focus on etiquette and discipline the way our tradition does, yet religious knowledge cannot be accessed without the key of adab.
Although I teach Qur’an at a very basic level, I ensure that the first five minutes of every session is allocated to reflecting on the adab of bearing the Qur’an. Five minutes may not seem like much, but it sets the attitude for the rest of the session, and I honestly do see a difference in my students’ performance after I started doing this.
With the convenience of online learning, students may be tempted to take you for granted, come to class disheveled and unprepared, and have a less than appropriate attitude towards the knowledge that you are trying to transfer. A little dose of adab resolves all that very easily.
Allah subḥānahu wa ta’āla (glorified and exalted be He) says in the Qur’an, “And remind, for indeed, the reminder benefits the believers.” [Qur’an: Chapter 51: Verse 55]
Also, remember your own etiquette as a teacher, and particularly in group classes, ensure that everyone is comfortable with the arrangements. For instance, in a mixed class, you may want to avoid using video and to take each student’s recitation privately. Some boundaries are universal to all Muslims while others are more flexible depending on the nature of the class, the age of the students, the cultural norms, etc. So a little pre-planning and consultation with your students may be needed in the orientation phase!
Action tip: Select a classical text on the etiquette of seeking knowledge and send it out to your students. Inform them that you will be reading a portion from it during every class.
4. Mutually accessible lesson logs
I don’t like working with spreadsheets, but I found Google Sheets to be the perfect tool for logging sessions. Each student gets a sheet that is shared privately and it lists the date, lesson content, and homework. The syllabus is also listed here so we can mark off topics as they are covered.
While there might be more sophisticated logging systems available, the spreadsheet is simple enough to be easily understood by anyone, accessed globally, and kept private.
Having a mutually accessible log in means that there is consensus on what has been covered so far, and students can easily track their progress and find their homework. I have seen it come in useful when working with busy mothers who have too many things to keep track of already! No more, “Oops, you gave me homework? What was it?”
It’s also convenient for me to pick up and teach from any computer no matter where I am; which brings me to my next point…
5. Store work files on the cloud
What cloud? iCloud? Any cloud you like will do. iCloud, Google Drive, OneDrive, Evernote, Dropbox – whatever flies your carpet is good enough.
One of my primary reasons for choosing to work only online is that I travel often. I used to drag books back and forth, which took up a good part of my baggage allowance just for work material. However, I have stopped doing this since I learned to use electronic resources instead of physical books, and I started to save everything in a neatly organized system online so that I can work even on a borrowed computer or mobile device.
A little bit of pre-planning may be required to ensure that you have a good Internet connection, headphones, and the appropriate software when you use someone else’s computer. However, it still beats the hassle of having to carry your whole office with you to the airport or coffee shop.
I admit that it can be frustrating to work in temporary setups while travelling, so these arrangements only suit me for short-term shifts in routine. Nevertheless, it’s better than skipping work altogether and coming back to students who have forgotten everything they have learned and look at you like the cat that swallowed the canary!
That’s for your convenience. For your students’ convenience you can maintain…
6. Resource pages
I have a lot of respect for the ladies I teach, because they are usually stretched to capacity with bringing up amazing children and running a household but still have the determination to improve their relationship with the Qur’an. I can only imagine the chaos in their heads although they manage to make everything look easy.
Therefore, it is understandable that they suffer from “Frequent File-Losing Syndrome” – that strange case where you used a particular textbook yesterday but can’t remember where it is today.
This gave me the idea to maintain a resource page on the members’ section of my website (or even something as simple as a shared folder on the cloud). This page lists all the textbooks, video playlists, audio files and other important information that my students need on a regular basis.
E-mails get lost, bookmarks and downloads get deleted, but the resource page is always available on the website. This simple step has saved me from having to repeat directions, and I can spend my time with students on more fruitful activities.
Action tip: Explore online collaboration tools, and pick one that works for you and your students. Choose something that is easy to maintain and is fun to use.
7. Get to know the student
In the field of Qur’an studies, your student is like your son or daughter, and your influence is supposed to go beyond the lesson and impact them in many areas of their life. While traditional modes of learning allow the teacher to influence the student a great deal, online teaching requires a little more effort.
A student who has a good relationship with their teacher performs better than a student whose teacher merely shows up, delivers the lesson, and then leaves. There is plenty to be said about relationship-building, especially when working with teenagers or young children, but I’ll leave it unsaid as this article is strictly about online teaching.
If you are teaching the opposite sex, perhaps use the orientation session to get some background knowledge on your student so that you will have some idea of their past, their plans for the future, as well as their circumstances so that you can mentor them accordingly.
It gets easier when you are teaching the same gender, as you can even set up alternative modes of contact (such as social media channels, or inviting them to your home if they live nearby).
Yet again, be sure not to cross boundaries so that you’re not perceived as a nosy old lady/man!
8. Dress professionally
It goes without saying that if you want your work to be taken seriously, then you yourself have to attend to it with seriousness. You might primarily be a housewife, but that’s no excuse to be sweaty from mopping the house when it’s time for class! On top of every lesson being an occasion where the Qur’an is being taught, treat it as a proper profession at least as far as your appearance goes.
I find it helpful to get into “professional mode” by wearing a special jacket that I’ve reserved for my teaching sessions. I dress like this regardless of whether the session is video-based or not because the point is to change my mood, not the student’s, although it does affect the student as well. Sometimes I even throw in a watch and a ring – just like I would if I were going out to work.
Any freelancer will tell you how difficult it is to get people to treat your work with respect and to set boundaries with family members and friends especially when you are just starting out. A guest who walks into my house on a work day would think I am a crazy housewife to be dressed in a work jacket at home, particularly on a humid day – but it also sends a clear message that I am not just teaching to pass time and hence my boundaries are better respected.
The best part is that I have noticed my new students (and their parents) improving their appearance in my presence after just one session with me (without any poking from me), and it has definitely improved the performance of the student. I don’t know how to explain it, but even my little students do much better in class when they are well dressed rather than when they come running in their play time clothes! When a student shows up in a tank top, not only is it a major face-palm moment for me, but she’ll likely be in too casual a mood to concentrate.
It also helps to have a dedicated work space with your reference material close at hand, stationery to make notes, and peace and quiet. Let this be your work zone and resist using this area for personal Internet browsing or casual chit-chat.
9. Continue to increase your knowledge in online teaching platforms and technology
Strive to give your students the best possible experience. By all means, get started even if you’re not very good with information technology. As mentioned many times before, there are pre-developed systems or independent Qur’an academies that train you on their particular software system. These can make your work as a Qur’an teacher easier all the way from finding suitable students to conducting lessons.
If you like playing around with software as I do, then continue to experiment with various options to make your lessons a better experience for you as well as your students. If you are dealing with young students, you do not want to be using archaic systems nor do you want complicated plug-in downloads and installations getting in the way of a smooth experience.
A productive Muslim is always striving towards itqan – and that counts even in your choice of technology!
“Verily, Allah loves that when anyone of you does a job he should perfect it.” [Bayhaqi]
10. Register yourself with the Government
There are various opinions about whether or not you can mandate payment from your students for teaching Qur’an. If you choose to accept payment for your time and effort, then make sure you are obeying the laws of the country with regard to your income generating activities.
If your work requires registration by law, then register yourself. If it requires a license to practice, then apply for one. Declare this stream of income to the Government no matter how far below the tax threshold it may be and even if you yourself don’t consider your activity to be a real business. Keep your activities halal and in accordance with the law of your country and you will see immense barakah in them.
Oh and one more thing – online teaching doesn’t come with payslips and automatic tax deductions. Therefore, make sure you maintain proper accounts of how much you’re earning and spending so that you don’t have to pull your hair out during tax season.
Get Started Now!
You know that old story you keep telling yourself about how you’re not good with technology, or how you don’t have time to invest in your education, or how you are too forgetful to learn anything new, or how the kids are always getting in the way?
Yeah, that’s what it is – a story!
Nothing saddens me like seeing the blessing of the internet, smartphones, and other portable technology being under-utilized or frivolously wasted.
Whatever your personal obstacle is, it is very likely that there is a simple way to overcome it. Speak to someone with experience and you might be surprised at what’s possible.
May Allah subḥānahu wa ta’āla (glorified and exalted be He) bless your effort to learn and teach the Qur’an. Perhaps make it one of your Ramadan goals to start your online learning/teaching effort.
My sincere best wishes towards your success.
Further Reading: Al-Tibyan fi Adab Hamalat al-Qur’an, by Imam An-Nawawi (Etiquette with the Qur’an, translated by Musa Furber)
Now please share with us your most productive online Qur’an learning/teaching techniques here in the comments section to inspire and encourage others.