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The 5 W's of Teaching English Online
Written by: Kathleen Graham
Last Updated: April 22, 2021
While living and teaching English in China in 2016, I met all kinds of Chinese people obsessed with learning English. I was surprised to find so many people learning English just for their own enjoyment (my wonderful, hilarious, crazy, scatter-brained landlord included), but of course there were those that were competing for spots at universities or in the workplace and dreaming of their bright futures. The people I noticed the most were parents pushing their kids to learn English from a very young age, similar to parents in a few other countries in Asia. However, it was clear from my everyday experience at a Chinese school near Guangzhou that students didn’t and probably never would get enough speaking time in their over-crowded classrooms.
So when I first discovered VIPKID (pronounced V-I-P-kid) from their bright orange advertisement with the yellow dinosaur, I thought to myself, “Why didn’t I think of that?” The market for young students learning English online, especially with one-on-one classes, is booming in China, and there are already quite a few companies that are popular with TEFL professionals living all over the world. Even though I live in the United States, I still get to “teach in China every day” and make a difference in children’s lives from halfway around the world!
WHY Are You So Happy?
I decided to become an online teacher for many reasons, but the timing is what still amazes me. Back in 2013, I took the online TEFL course with International TEFL Academy (clearly, I’ve always been a fan of online learning), and then taught in Asia for three straight years after that. But at the beginning of this year, my husband and I suddenly completed the immigration process and abruptly moved to the United States (right at the end of my contract in China, too!). I knew it would be easier for my husband and me to move to a city that benefited us both if we had some sort of steady income with the flexibility needed for job searching and house hunting. The other two benefits that stood out to me were the pay rate and provided curriculum.
First, teaching online allows you to earn a competitive wage, and at VIPKID specifically, the rate is $19-22 per hour. Also, many online teaching companies give bonuses for signing up trial students and referring other teachers, not to mention seasonal and monthly incentives or competitions. Most of the online teaching companies consider teaching online to be part-time work, but there are plenty of teachers that make it their full-time job just teaching a few hours a day and adding up bonuses and incentives. A few teachers have also won trips to Beijing to meet their students in person with VIPKID.
Another reason teachers are signing up to teach online is that many companies offer a fully prepared curriculum that includes interactive slides, quizzes, stories, games, and reward systems. If you had to prepare lessons on your own for a range of students in different levels each day, you’d be doing a ton of prep work and it would be even more difficult to document the progress students have made. Companies like VIPKID have a really great platform with easy-to-use tools so teachers can prepare beforehand, teach effectively, and then document quickly without wasting time. Companies usually pay you back for your props, too!
WHO Is BaoBao?
My students come from all over China and are usually between 4 and 14 years old. Since there are so many provinces in China, the students can be so different from each other. Most of my students love to share about the different places they are from or even where their families live around China, and I have noticed some similarities among certain students from the same cities or provinces, which mostly deal with their pronunciation habits but can include behaviors or expressions. This makes sense when you learn about the cultures within China, especially the differences in their own languages (Mandarin versus Cantonese, for example).
Sometimes, the names that some non-native English speakers come up with are just laugh-until-you-have-stomach-pains funny, and that is no different when teaching Chinese students online. I’ve had all kinds of names from “Cinderella” to “Trump”. I’ve even had students with names of things they like or direct translations of their Chinese names, such as Apple, Tiger, and Rainbow. The names differ among ages, and the younger the student is, the more likely they won’t have an English name yet. Because of this, some parents put their child’s name as “BaoBao” which is like a Chinese pet name for a child, such as ‘baby’ or ‘sweetie’. If there is a Chinese name that I can’t pronounce, I just try my best anyway. The students really love it if you try to say their names, and when you get it right, they get a total kick out of it!
WHEN and WHERE Do You Teach?
With VIPKID, each class is 25 minutes long. If I have back-to-back classes, then I can have a five-minute break between the classes, but I usually take those five minutes to leave feedback to the parents since it doesn’t take that long to give them a short description of what went well and what the student should practice a little more. Because the classes are really not that long, there are different tools in the classroom that teachers can use to assist with unstable audio/visual quality or to get in contact with people from the company that put out the IT fires, appropriately named “firemen”.
A virtual classroom can be held from anywhere in the world, which is another thing that convinced me of how great it would be for my particular situation. Obviously, where you live will affect when you teach, so teaching times can be figured out based on the peak times in China. These peak classes are from 6 PM to 10 PM in Beijing, so for me, that is 5 AM to 9 AM in Central Time. These are just the peak times when students are most likely to book classes, but there are so many more hours available to teach each day, especially on the weekends since the students don’t have school then. I keep a regular schedule so I can have the same sleep pattern every night and also to get students that will book my classes regularly each week. I personally like to build a relationship with my students and that also makes it easier to keep up with what they need to work on each time.
Because I finish my work hours before some people even get to work in the morning, I have my whole day free to do what I like. This was necessary when I first moved to the States, but this is also ideal for all kinds of circumstances such as stay-at-home moms, students that need some extra income before going abroad, or teachers already living abroad that want to make money on the side for more traveling! Some people think it can be lonely to work from home, and while that can happen, I have found that the community for teachers online (through the company’s platform or through social media) is really fun and supportive. They have meet-ups in different cities around the world just like International TEFL Academy!
HOW Is Teaching Online Different?
The techniques used while teaching ESL in-person also apply to teaching virtually, but there are some distinct differences. The use of TPR (Total Physical Response) is used way more than some think is even possible. Although I sit in front of my computer, I get a little upper body workout because I’m constantly moving. Occasionally, I feel like a mime! However, this helps each student absorb what’s going on in the classroom, and many students use the similar movements and expressions when they’re trying to share something with you that they don’t know how to say.
Another huge difference is the delay of sound. Sometimes the connection between two computers halfway around the world is not so stable, or maybe it’s stable but just has a lag. This isn’t a problem, but online teachers are always aware of this and simply give a little more time for students to respond.
I have taught children in South Korea and in China when I lived in Asia for three years, and now I have taught over 1000 classes with VIPKID to students living in China. I still cannot choose which I like better. But one thing is for sure: teaching students English as a second language is one of the most rewarding things I could ever do with my time. I absolutely love the students I teach, and I truly believe I learn just as much from my students as they learn from me!
Kathleen Graham is 26 and from a small town in South Mississippi. Over the past decade, she has volunteered in Mexico and Honduras, studied in Costa Rica, worked in South Korea and China, and traveled in Southeast Asia and West Africa. She and her husband moved to the States this year and are now living in Chicago.
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