Empowering Students through Your Personal Narrative

Man is recording himself while teaching lesson

Any teacher wants their students to feel engaged and enthusiastic in the classroom, connected and thriving through daily activities and course content. Of course, establishing that rapport and environment is a bridge that needs to be built every day, through every interaction, in any course. It’s not one action, or intervention, or step. But one intentional step that many teachers take is to create some introduction material for the course. Whether it’s an announcement or a video, a block of text or an audio snippet, instructors often go out of their way to say hello as students walk through the “doors” of the online classroom.

But shouldn’t your introduction material talk about more than the weather outside your window, whatever antics your cat is getting up to, and your list of titles, degrees, and accolades? Couldn’t your introduction material connect powerfully with your intended audience—your students—and find a way to build a bridge between your experiences and theirs? By leveraging your personal narrative—articulating your “why” and demonstrating your dedication—you can take steps to ensure that students feel more engaged and oriented within your new course, and that they feel comfortable and connected with you as their instructor. And while you can definitely spell this all out in words, and embellish with pictures, video has been shown to be a very dynamic way to connect with students.

Creating an introduction video that connects with students through the power of your personal narrative can transform those first few days of class, which can translate into real benefits as the course continues to unfold. By putting a human face on the classroom, the instruction, and the very processes of education, we can help students navigate the materials and deadlines that get thrown at them right out of the gate and help ensure the engaged buy-in that leads to persistence and retention. But doing so doesn’t have to be difficult.

A few words about the technology

Technology can be a big stumbling block for faculty when recording videos for classroom use. Rather than prescribe one specific tool to use, it’s most important that you feel comfortable when getting ready to record. Most smart phones have the ability to capture video, and free online applications like Screen-Cast-O-Matic make the process even easier. Of course, most laptops have built-in photo and video applications, too. Budget some time to mess around with your chosen method before you start recording for real, just to ensure that you’re comfortable with all aspects of the video you’ll produce: How easy is it to start and stop recording? Are the audio and light levels right? What framing feels most comfortable?

I used Screen-Cast-O-Matic to capture my footage and then dropped those video files into iMovie to edit it. Keep in mind that you might not need to edit your video at all. I made a few mistakes along the way so that you won’t have to!

The content

We ask students to be real and vulnerable every day in the online classroom. Creating an introduction video that does the same is an ideal way to model this practice. The main objective for a video like this is to ensure you literally come alive for your students. In an online class, this may be the first time they hear your voice, or see how you deliver a sentence, or how you move when explaining and discussing. In fact, this may be the only time! And those kind of keys and triggers can be important as they make their way through your instructional materials.

As you plan the content for your video, keep in mind a few things:

  • Try to keep your video as short as you can, while still giving a clear and detailed picture of who you are. YouTube analytics show information for any video content and watchers tend to drop off after a couple of minutes. Try to keep your video under five minutes to ensure that students watch and are engaged!
  • Having a few guiding questions can really help give shape to your content. Prompts like “Why did you become a teacher?” or “What does education mean to you?” can help students connect with your passions and feel more engaged in their own educational journey.
  • Lead off with a powerful or inspiring comment, something that will catch a viewer’s interest right out of the gate. In my video, I tried to articulate what education meant to me. But always keep in mind your audience. The student perspective will help shape your content choices and delivery.
  • Don’t forget to identify yourself! Editing software makes it easy to integrate text that does this, but taking a moment to personalize the content and clarify who you are means that students will feel even more welcomed when they watch. In my video, I led with a powerful quote and then paused to identify myself before pushing on to other content.

My video combines a few of these different methods. Check out this as an example. One thing I really tried to emphasize is that my educational journey was not a traditional one—which many of my students can identify with! However, when you think about it, no two paths are really the same. So, try to highlight what is unique about your passions, your driving motivation, and your journey to the front of the classroom.

If you’re watching closely, you’ll see that I didn’t really answer my own prompts, at least not directly. My advice would be to have a two sentence “answer” to each prompt in your head, but then allow yourself to ramble a bit to capture some real, off-the-cuff gold!

I found myself a little uncomfortable with a full-face style video, maybe because the content of the video was about me. I ‘ve recorded dozens of videos, and met with my students live, but something about talking so personally made me feel a little exposed. That’s why I went for more of a profile angle as if I were being interviewed. The truth is that no one else was in the room! Try different angles or framing to see what you feel most comfortable with. And, if you want, pair up with a colleague and interview each other using Zoom or some other video meeting software!

Delivery options

After you have your video recorded, you need to figure out how to deliver it to students. And, since students in the first few days of class may be interacting with the classroom in different ways, my answer is that you should put it everywhere you can! Include it as one of your early announcements and blast the link out in a class email. If you have a “Post Your Introduction” thread going on in class, add your video there as well.

Creating an introduction video for your courses that help demonstrate your connection to student success through leveraging your personal narrative doesn’t have to be difficult. I spend about 60-75 minutes (broken up over the course of four days) making a plan, but only about 15 minutes actually recording. I also spend another 60-75 minutes for editing and production, though that was mostly because I wanted to try out some different sequence options. If you plan well, you can rip through your video in one take!

Of course, there are as many ways to record one of these videos as there are instructors teaching classes, and that’s as it should be. Each one should be as unique as the people teaching the classes, and it should reveal their personalities and quirks. The goal is to find a way to connect with your students, to show them that the life you live, and the model you set, isn’t quite as removed as they might feel. Some students don’t have the support or any real connection to the power of education. Sharing your personal narrative can help make that connection come alive.

Dr. Nathan Pritts is an award-winning educator, course developer, and faculty mentor with a strong focus on innovation with practical applications. He brings expertise in writing, business communication, advertising & marketing, and online user experience to the general education classroom to maximize student learning and heighten engagement, infusing curriculum with foundational outcomes bolstered by clear ties to a student’s academic and career path. A professor in the Academic Engagement Center of the University of Arizona Global Campus, Dr. Pritts is also the author or co-author of twelve books including Decoherence (Indiana University Press), Film: From Watching to Seeing (3e), and Essentials of Academic Writing (4e). He also served as editor, and wrote the introduction for, Living Online: A Digital Fluency Handbook. He’s building a handbook of the strategies and best practices essential for designing and delivering meaningful learning experiences to students online one chapter at a time at www.Radical-Humanity.carrd.co