What’s it Like to Teach English Online?

Online EFL can provide a substantial income supplement, and can be a rewarding experience. I’m going to walk you through what it’s like for me to teach online. I’ll discuss the in-class benefits, and let my conclusions build up until the end. 

Let me paint you a picture:   

Wake up, feed the coffee machine, button up your shirt (in this scenario, you’re me, so you wear a button-up shirt and you take your coffee black).

Double-check your wifi. This part is important. I’ve had my pay docked over a poor wifi connection, and have since learned that I need to have my phone on standby, ready-set-go to tether. 

Open up the learning app. 

It’s seven AM in New York, and seven PM in Shanghai, where your students live (come November, you’ll have to wake up at six; they don’t have daylight savings time in China). 

Students start filtering in five or ten minutes before class. They’re ready to chat. When you can ask them what have, they’ll pick up all sorts of nearby odds and ends. This is an opportunity for incidental vocabulary! I get all kinds of objects (I’m tempted to call them realia, although it’s not what we typically think of as such–the teacher bringing “real stuff” to class): teddy bears, iPad plugs, rulers. One student proudly displays a traditional Chinese watercolor painting, a creation by his revered grandfather; another squeezes her Dumbo doll lovingly; a third, giggling, takes aim at his webcam with a brightly colored plastic gun, squeezing one eye shut; a fourth bends a clear plastic ruler across her forehead, waiting patiently to be noticed. 

 

Teacher: The kangaroo is jumping. William: Look, my fish is swimming! *grabs an actual goldfish.

There’s always someone sipping milk through a straw, some brother or sister or mom waving or smiling in the background. In a way, no classroom setting has more potential to be organic and individualized than streaming virtually into someone’s home. 

We each have a box for video (see photos – emojis have been pasted over student faces), and I have access to a variety of interactive tools. I can use (and give students access to) colored markers, a keyboard, a 6-sided die, a multiple choice quiz tool, a “responder” (think Jeopardy buzzer), and more. 

We can play hangman, board games, and draw pictures–either individually, or as a community. Collaborative art is a wonderful experience when it works out. That is, when no one feels an urgent need to doodle all over another’s depiction of a car, restaurant, or apple. Art can be personal. Who invited you to scribble cyan all over my Fuji apple?

The shared illustrations can be a lot of fun. Here’s a screenshot of us collaboratively anchoring words to symbols, something that, as an artist personality type and visual learner, I understand very well. 

Typing: Parallel to Language Learning

What’s perhaps most interesting to me is the natural necessity of keyboard typing. 

Typing is an important skill these days. It’s the sort of thing that I’d always like to include in my other lessons, but isn’t always possible. When I taught in Vietnam, the functional language of our project-based learning often centered on typing skills. However, typing can be a difficult hurdle for Chinese learners of English, who don’t use any of the same written characters. While teaching at the Chinese-American Planning Council (a great place to work in the NYC area, by the way) a couple of years ago, I used to give dictation or other texting homework via WeChat, a Chinese social networking app. 

Language learners need to negotiate technology, and I’ve been slow to appreciate that, perhaps a bit behind the curve. 

I like paper books, felt tip markers, face-to-face conversations. I resist the necessity of technology if for no other reason than by virtue of my personality and preferences. The last blog post I wrote for Uncharted TESOL was called Kill Your Wifi, for crying out loud. While I still believe in what I wrote, now I’m really seeing that there’s more to the story. 

By the same token, some students still do prefer the old pen and pencil.

 

At least there’s a question mark.

 

ESOL Activities Online (With the Right Software)

I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find online teaching is conducive to my teacher toolbox staples.  

I’m sure you’ve seen a million practice activities like this. What’s nice is that there’s no need for handouts. Students can simply draw or type directly on my PowerPoint presentations. That’s if they’re not overcome by a sudden need to yell out the answer! Speaking of which, the app comes with a mute function–a powerful tool for an unruly classroom. Use it wisely!

This slide above represents the kind of familiar territory you’ll get into after your warm-up. To supplement your homemade materials, you’ll probably want to rip a Youtube video and upload it to the app, for when you need a change of pace. 

On a technical note regarding material design, if you run Windows, the built-in snipping tool is a total game changer. I use it to “snip” pieces of our online coursebook and paste them into my PowerPoints. Alas, I made this discovery so late! It’s indispensable for digital material design. You’ll find the snipping tool in your Windows start menu. 

At any rate, you’ll run through the lesson, doling out Pavlovian “rewards,” pixelated ribbons that ding in recognition of a good effort or answer. You’ll break up the lesson, relieving the machinery of learning with pockets of games, creativity, video. You’ll have it timed so that their attention is averted well before their eyes glaze over. They’ll stay engaged, happy, and learning. 

Time winds down. You’ll recap the lesson, give written feedback, and prepare for the next class. 

The feedback is a popup window with stars (always 5/5) and a window for text. If you follow the same guidelines as I do, you’ll give a score out of ten for reading, writing, speaking, and listening; you’ll summarize the learning points for parents and add your “grow” comments (e.g. I’d like Eason to practice saying what he’s eating during dinner time); and mention any behavioral and/or technical issues for the parents, if applicable (e.g. Judy’s microphone wasn’t working properly).  

Later in the week, if you’re with the right company, they’ll have recorded your lesson, and you’ll have access to it. This is where it gets good.

Growing as a Teacher

John Fanselow was a wonderful teacher in the New School MATESOL program. From him, I learned how to learn from myself by learning about myself. His lessons called for recording ourselves in-class. Emerging from these recordings were analysis of teacher talk time, elicitation methods, and tone; transcription of student responses, and one’s own words; and unpacking student responses as to interpret and gauge their uptake. He taught me to observe myself, to keep doing what I’m doing well, and to make small changes every week. In doing so, I continue to grow as a professional. Interested in learning from John? Here is John’s latest book. 

I incorporate John’s method of development into my learning process with my online recordings. I have access to all of my video, audio, and games. At home, I watch recordings of students who complete written activities (something one can’t do with regular video). I also garner insight into the effectiveness of my strategies, and understand how my students learn.

On the surface, technology’s pre-packaged nature seems like a natural deterrent to an innovative, personalized classroom experience. In the past (as I mentioned in my previous post), I felt that technology dissuaded me from veering off-course. I felt it facilitated a stagnant mindset, at the peril of creativity, discovery, incidental vocabulary, and emergent language. Although my opinion has changed since then, I still think that there are plenty of good reasons to unplug in the classroom. However, working online, I can’t help but see that with the right mindset, anything is possible. 

 

Author’s biography: Eli Case is an English Language teacher, SAT/ACT/regents tutor, freelance editor and writer. Lover of loud music. Painter of bad pictures. Proud parent of a fluffy gray bunny.