Achieving Teacher Witness in a Virtual World

In one of her last letters, written to a former student, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton did what all teachers are called to do: she pointed to the Truth in love.

“God bless you, my loved child,” she wrote. “Remember Mother’s first and last lesson to you: seek God in all things… If you do this, you will live in his presence and will preserve the graces of your first communion.”

As a teacher, Mother Seton kept a large correspondence that demonstrated a wide capacity for friendship with others and friendship with the Truth, an affectionate relationality that extended to students, parents, and former students. Letter by letter, she continued to encourage, exhort, form, and instruct them far and wide, even though they were no longer together. Mother Seton understood that it is by way of the heart that a teacher reaches a student’s mind, and that all good teaching, whether in person, by letter, or online, is always first personal and relational.

Thus, it is the personal influence of the teacher, rooted in their intellectual, moral, and spiritual excellence, that can move students to desire to know, love, and serve Truth, Who is a Person. Saintly teachers, from  Augustine to John Henry Newman to Elizabeth Ann Seton, have provided the teaching, example, and inspiration as to how teachers today can draw students into deeper friendship with the Truth.

Each educational mode or setting, whether a traditional school setting or a nontraditional one such as a home school, a continuing education program, a night school, or an online program, faces challenges in witnessing to the transformative power of Truth. Some of these challenges are shared by all teachers regardless of setting, but some are specific to the nature of the particular mode or setting. St. Augustine noted the challenge of teaching night classes on doctrine to tired adults at the end of a long working day; Newman noted the opportunities and challenges in offering continuing education classes at his proposed university.


Nonetheless, the substance of good teaching remains the same, even as the accidents of mode or setting change. What is true about good teaching in a traditional setting is also true about good teaching in a nontraditional setting. Non-exhaustively:

  • A good teacher witnesses to the Truth through relationship, or what Newman called “catching force” of personal influence.
  • A good teacher doesn’t simply communicate information, they are engaged in the formation of students’ vision of reality by revealing an aspect of the Truth through a particular discipline or text.
  • A good teacher fosters growth in wisdom, or the ability to see the relations between things in order to grasp the whole of reality, and a desire to conform oneself to that reality.
  • A good teacher inspires students to love and delight in the Truth through their own obvious affection for it.


In order to do all these things, a teacher must first be all these things.


For those teaching in an online or nontraditional setting, the challenge is to first be all of these things that Seton, Augustine, and Newman exhort, and then to communicate it in a virtual mode. This means that teachers must be highly intentional about things that might naturally occur in a traditional classroom. I suggest seven basic habits of intentional (online) teaching:

  1. Smile. In videos or synchronous meetings, the teacher should convey visually their gaudium in veritate (joy in the Truth), the truth about the goodness of existence, and the goodness of knowledge pursued together. St. Augustine called this disposition hilaritas, or cheerfulness.  What we do as teachers comes from the heart of the Church, and there is deep joy in that!
  2. Growth in Intellectual Friendship. A classroom, whether physical or online, is a place where intellectual friendship in pursuit of the true, good, and beautiful ought to be fostered. For appropriate friendships to flourish, teachers need to provide a space for students to share who they are—their interests and questions—and to be received by the teacher and their classmates. At the beginning of the semester, ask students to record a video introducing themselves. Touch back on those interests frequently throughout the semester. Just as in a seminar, encourage students to ask questions of one another and to respond directly rather than to or through the teacher.
  3. Growth in Friendship with the Truth. Teachers should share and model evident love for the Truth as it is expressed in each discipline. Demonstrate to students how a particular course helps them understand the whole of reality by making connections with other disciplines and courses. This places a special responsibility on the teacher to know what is being taught in other courses. Get to know the other faculty and their interests and refer to them in class. Students want to be welcomed into a community of scholars who are friends in the Truth, and to do that, teachers must be friends with their colleagues.
  4. Be present, be responsive. Whenever possible, encourage synchronous meetings. Make time for office hours, open discussion in class, and calling out the good seen in a student intervention or in a discussion board. This communicates to students that their teacher is taking them and their work seriously and that they aren’t communicating into a void. Don’t be afraid to redirect a discussion, but do so cheerfully and with generosity of spirit.
  5. Encourage students to grow in wisdom. Ask them to make connections to other disciplines in order to help them “see the whole.” In discussion or assignments, ask students to make connections and/or integrate what they’ve learned in one course with what they’ve learned in other courses and with their experience in real life. Help them see that what they are learning matters for how they see themselves, the world, God, and others, and that it matters for how they live and for their sense of purpose.
  6. Encouraging students in virtue. Help them understand why timeliness, courtesy, and treating others with respect, honesty, and integrity matter not only in class but for relationships outside of class. Help them understand that education isn’t just about information but is ultimately a formation in becoming more human.
  7. Prayer for and with students. Open and close synchronous meetings with a short prayer like St. Thomas Aquinas’s Prayer Before Study or Prayer for Wisdom. Place this prayer in a prominent place in the online “classroom” and on the course syllabus. Let students know that their teacher is praying for them and for their needs. Pray that the human and intellectual formation provided by Catholic education leads to an inner transformation of vision so that students can understand Who and what they are made for.


Mother Seton, St. John Henry Newman, and St. Augustine are three shining examples among a vast number of spiritual and educational witnesses who have repeatedly taught through the ages that it is through the cheerful, generous, and friendly heart of the teacher that students are drawn into friendship with Christ, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Faithful witness can be accomplished in a nontraditional and virtual setting through thoughtful and intentional teaching practices that reinforce the personal and relational dimensions of education. In this way, teachers in any setting can witness to the catching force of the Truth.

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