teach english online

5 Key Tips to Help You Succeed at Teaching English Online

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When I applied to teach English online, I was pretty full of myself. Armed with a TEFL certificate from ITA and three years in the classroom, I thought online teaching would be a piece of cake. Look at me, I’ve got teaching experience, this will be a cake walk! What? What’s that you say? Only one student at a time? I could do this in my sleep! And did someone mention cake? 

Teaching English online, it turns out, is actually quite different than teaching in a classroom. And you will, at times, feel like you’re doing it in your sleep. Because the hours are like, really early.

All those educational activity stations you lovingly crafted that address four learning styles and six student ability levels while actually being fun? Yeah, you probably won’t need them.

Those classroom routines you’ve been practicing since August that have thirty-two kindergarteners moving around the room with the harmony of an olympic synchronized swim team? You won’t use them here. (But please tell me how the heck you pulled that off because even after three years, my classroom always vaguely resembled a rodeo). 

That delicate art of confiscating two phones, while gracefully breaking up an argument between Jill and Sarah who like the same boy, while telling Derek with only your eyes that no, he absolutely cannot go to the bathroom again because he just went five minutes ago, all while keeping your lesson on track? Thankfully, you no longer need that teacher sorcery.

Success in this arena looks a bit different.

The biggest difference between regular classrooms and online classrooms is that online, in the marvelous land of pre-written lesson plans and one-on-one instruction, teachers must provide constant, focused, student-specific engagement. The students only see you for a short time, anywhere from 25 minutes to 60 minutes depending on your company, so your job is to have them speaking, reading, listening, or writing in English that entire time, down to the minute, even if you’ve already taught six classes, even if you’re hungover, even if it’s 5:30am. 

So what can we do to be successful online English teachers? Here are my tips on how to teach ESL online:

Tip #1. Invest in the right technology

Like it or not, you are judged based on how professional your class appears. If you have a blurry camera or bad headset, the video and audio quality won’t be nice for the student. They probably won’t rebook you.

Even though working from home has much more casual elements than a brick-and-mortar job (looking at you, pajama pants), you always want your set up to look professional.

Tip #2. Create an environment for learning

I just now, after literally teaching one thousand classes online, learned how important it is to have a comfortable chair. Because I teach English online while traveling full-time, I’ve taught from some very strange and uncomfortable locations - kitchen stools, sleek European couches with no back support, straight up sitting on the floor in a spare bedroom while an all-out house party rages downstairs - and I always just assumed that’s part of the deal. You want to see the world and teach online? Fine, but you won’t be comfortable doing it. But then I house sat in a home with a proper office and super comfortable office chair and oh my goodness (clutches hand to heart) it has been a revelation.

Before, my legs would go numb around class number three. My back would start to go around class number six and by class number nine, my perpetual teacher smile would start to twitch as my body slowly collapsed in on itself. But in this chair, I could go for hours. Days even. Ten classes back to back is no problem - give me twenty. In this blessed chair I’m so comfortable I don’t notice the passing of time, the changing of seasons. If you do nothing else, please do yourself a favor and invest in a comfortable chair if you want to be a successful online English teacher.

5 Key Tips to Help You Succeed at Teaching English Online

Tip #3. Take time to get to know each student

You will see a lot of students, no matter how much you decide to teach. I see ten kids per day, four to five days a week. Over time, the students and content all start to run together. But try to keep a few notes about each of your students in a notebook or spreadsheet.

If you know they love dogs or dinosaurs or they told you their birthday is next week, make a little note for yourself. If they are really struggling with something, mark that down too. If they haven’t chosen an “American” name, write down how to pronounce their Chinese name. It might be something small, but the student will notice that you remembered. And when a parent sees that you remembered details about their child, a special connection is made. You will get more re-bookings and your parents will probably mention it in their feedback for you.

Tip #4. Be punctual and consistently available

Since you make your own schedule, most online English companies don’t have much tolerance for missed classes. Of course, emergencies happen - i.e. last week when the internet went down in my entire apartment building and I missed not one but two classes, triggering a mini-meltdown that resulted in me softly weeping in the back of a Starbucks - and thankfully you do get some leeway for things out of your control like outages.

But if you have too many no-shows/cancellations your contract could be terminated automatically. Even if you are sick, do your best to always be there. Do not. Do not. Sleep through a class. Set nine alarms on every device you own and hide them around your room if you must.

5 Tips to Help You Succeed at Teaching English Online

Tip #5. Approach each class with an open mind

The reason I like online teaching so much is because it’s purely about the teaching. It is about finding happiness in learning a new skill, personalized student growth, and lightbulb moments. The students are so excited to learn and it is contagious. Plan to approach every class with a fun and happy mindset. While there are sentimental, good mojo reasons to do this, there are also practical ones.

When you teach online, you are recorded. With VIPKID, you and the student get a copy of the recording to review later. And you can see everything on that camera. Frustrated? Checking your phone on the side (yes, it’s obvious)? Yawning? It’s there. If you aren’t on your best teacher A-Game, you get a nice little reminder of it that lives on forever. So get a good night’s sleep. Drink a nice cup of coffee. Find a comfortable chair. And of course, have a blast.

Here you have it - Tips & advice on how to teach ESL online with confidence! Happy teaching!

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