Should I Teach English Online?

teaching english online

“[Kids] don’t remember what you try to teach them. They remember what you are.” – Jim Henson

The first thing you need to know if you’re thinking about teaching English online or anything online for that matter is that teaching online isn’t as good as teaching in person. I know “good” is a vague word, and I’ve used it on purpose, because teaching online loses out in every aspect to teaching in person except that it’s A) super convenient (you can literally do it without wearing pants, like I didn’t do this morning), B) You can connect to students all over the world (like oil barons in Kuwait!) and Z) You can do it from anywhere in the world with a decent internet connection. However, letter Z is the only one of these three points that shouldn’t be underestimated. The other two — unless you’re teaching something esoteric like Intermediate Voodoo where it’d be hard to find enough learners in your immediate area — are not considerable advantages and ultimately lose out to the satisfying human contact that comes with teaching in person (prison).

The second thing you need to know about teaching online is what the different platforms are like. I use Skype. Skype is probably not as good as virtual meeting software like Cisco WebEx and Zoom or Blackboard, but Skype is free and most people are familiar with it. Also, Skype has improved over the last few years. It’s now very easy to do things like type text in a chat box, share images and files, and share your screen. This “share screen” function has paid sweeping dividends for me over the past few weeks, because if you open a blank document, and the other person can see it, it’s essentially like having your own virtual whiteboard right there. Granted, the other person can’t draw on it like they can in programs like WebEx, but honestly, if I’m a teacher, I’d prefer my students keep their grubby mitts off my whiteboard most of the time anyway.

The one thing you’ll find with teaching online is that it’s much harder to connect with the student. It’s harder to read facial cues. It’s harder to read body language. It’s harder to read lips. This comes from communicating via video, and that doesn’t even take into account the fact that sometimes the connection is not perfect. You can do everything on your end to assure your connection will be good, but you have no control over your students’ connection. This means more asking to repeat, and it means that you as a teacher must speak even more slowly, and more clearly. This, I would say, is the most frustrating aspect of teaching online. But you can learn to manage it by keeping everything as simple as possible.

Simplicity is truly the name of the game when teaching online, and this need for simplicity will cause you to either, A) lose your mind, or B) become a better teacher. Lately, I think I’ve become a better teacher. Since introducing new concepts online is more difficult than in person, it really makes you become better at “scaffolding,” i.e. where you teach one thing, then practice it one way, then practice it in another way that’s a little more complicated, and then finally in a way that’s almost as complicated as real life. By scaffolding and making each activity progressively harder the students have a better idea of what’s expected of them, and it also cuts down on explanation time because often the new activity is similar to the previous one, albeit with one or two added elements.

But the best thing about teaching online is that you can do it from anywhere in the world with a reliable, somewhat fast internet connection. Which means that you could teach a class one day in LA, then the next day be in Mexico, and then a week later be in South America. And then maybe a couple weeks later you’re in Europe. Or Brazil. Or Morocco. Or China. And then maybe a month after that you get done teaching a class and go to a night market in Thailand and eat sticky rice with mango for 30 cents (I think you get the idea). So if you’ve thought about teaching online, or have thought about traveling the world but don’t know what to do about money, I wholeheartedly suggest taking the plunge. The best part about taking the plunge with teaching English online is that it’s not that much of a plunge. It’s like slithering into the pool from sitting position on the edge. And boy, is the water refreshing.

Are you obsessed with this blog to the point that it’s making you nauseous?

Become a Patron!

Sunday Night Thoughts #7

cachemira guadalajara

I’ve given Bill a fighting chance. I found some special potting soil for him, what they call “hummus” here, and when I asked the guy if it’d be good for an aloe plant his eyes darted side to side and he said, “Uh…yeah.”

So I assume it’s perfect.

There’s a Czech couple staying at my house. They’re the first people to stay here who consistently use the kitchen and even sit on the couch where I usually sit. For some reason I find this unacceptable. Last night the boyfriend rolled a cigarette on the coffee table in the living room and left bits of tobacco all over the place. I was seething.

This last week was a good week. I had a new student who pays almost triple what my previous in-person English job paid. The woman I’m working for also does something no one has ever done for me in previous teaching experiences: She helps me find material. I say to her, “We’re going to work on the present simple, adverbs of frequency, and possessive adjectives,” and in my inbox she leaves a veritable mountain of relevant ESL activities. It makes my job a lot easier.

Despite all these positive developments I feel like I’m starting to stagnate a bit, which means I must do something to push the envelope. I must push myself to work harder, or write more, or write better, or participate in more activities in which I can meet people. I still have very few friends in GDL. I have no friends in GDL. So instead of going out on a Saturday night and dropping 300 pesos on wine, I should drop those 300 pesos on dance classes so I can become the next Jennifer Lopez. Or Ricky Martin. Or Enrique Iglesias. Or Shakira.

This idea is something I’ve talked about in previous blog posts, but one which I can’t reiterate enough and that occurred to me at various points today and on my walk back from the grocery store just now. I know I said last paragraph that I must do things to push the envelope so I don’t feel stagnant. But a counter argument is this, and this is something that actually is true: Our time on this spinning rock is damn short. You will not be happy once you make that money. You will not be happy once you get that job. You will not be happy once you meet that special someone. If you can’t be happy right now, at this very moment, then you will never be happy in your entire life. I don’t care if you just broke your arm. I don’t care if your boyfriend/girlfriend just left you. If your happiness is dependent upon external factors, you will never be happy.

Anyway, even if do feel stagnant I can’t go anywhere because now I have Bill (my aloe plant) and Bill hates to travel. I told him I’d take him first class to Colombia and he started to wilt. Bill’s idea of a perfect Sunday is to spend 14 hours sitting still, and then twitch slightly when the sun almost hits him. He’s teaching me how to meditate. And I’m teaching him about classical music. Today I played Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and he remained impassive throughout. Bill’s health is precarious.

I also bought a book today. Los cuadernos de Don Rigoberto by Mario Vargas Llosa. Apparently it’s an erotic novel. Travesuras de la niña mala is one of my favorite books in Spanish, by the same author, and it’s also erotic in parts, but eroticism certainly isn’t what you’re supposed to take from the novel. The takeaway is that we’re all lonely, some of the time. That we’re all alone, some of the time. That we all talk to aloe plants, some of the time.

[Update: The Czech guy just washed his dishes. They also just gave me a plate of cheese and bread and figs. They are currently my favorite people in the world.]

A special thanks to Bill for his spiritual support.

Support this blog:

Become a Patron!

How to Kill an Aloe Plant

aloe savila mexico

Two weeks ago someone gave me an aloe plant. They said, “Water it once a week.” Since then, I’ve been steadily killing it. Today I finally googled “aloe plant care” and read a bit about what you’re supposed to do. You’re not supposed to leave it in direct sunlight. You’re not supposed to water it more than once every three weeks (according to this site), and most importantly, you’re supposed to put it in a planter with good drainage.

I’ve done the opposite of all of these things.

And now the plant is dying. In fact, there may be no saving it. Today I found a planter with holes in the bottom. When I went to transplant the plant, who’s sort of named Bill but will be re-christened if he lives (I’ll let Patreon subscribers name him), I saw his roots. There was mold growing on them. They were black and brittle. I recoiled in nausea and chastised myself for letting things get to this point. I felt like an early settler crossing The Rockies whose foot has been numb for three days — ever since the blizzard — but he’s too scared to look at it. When he finally does he almost vomits. His foot has gangrene. It’s rotting.

There’s a metaphor to be had here, I just don’t know what it is. 

So now Bill is in a bigger pot with adequate drainage. I don’t know if he’ll live. The best thing to do at this point is to let him be. The reason I’ve killed him is a strange combination of paying too much attention to him and completely neglecting him. On the one hand, I paid too much attention to him, watering him every couple of days, putting him in the sun because I thought this was what you’re supposed to do, while a nagging voice said to me, “You really should research this a bit and figure out how to take care of these plants.” But I was too lazy. Too lazy to take 15 seconds to  google something. So in that way, I completely neglected Bill. I failed him.

There’s a metaphor to be had here, and I’m starting to get an idea of what it might be.

In a completely unrelated bit of a news (see: directly related) I have a new English student. He’s moving to the US in a couple months, and thus quite motivated. Yesterday, however, I discovered that his English, while somewhat competent on the surface, is actually in need of a major overall. I had him conjugate the verb “to be” and he could barely do it. I had him conjugate verbs in various forms of the present tense (negative, questions, negative questions), and he could only do it with much help. And so I realized: We need to start from the beginning. We need to go slow so he understands everything, and only then can we continue to more advanced structures like present perfect and simple past and the various forms for talking about the future. I like to think about it like building a house. You can put the prettiest coat of paint on a house, but if the framing is done wrong you better start over. And so that’s what we’re doing with my student’s English.

There’s a metaphor to be had here, and I think I know what it is. 

In a final bit of news, I’m trying to learn how to be a competent person, a competent adult. I’m trying to build the best life possible for myself here in Mexico, but I suspect certain habits are holding me back. I try meditating one day, and writing, and going on long walks. I try alcohol. I try food. I try talking to friends and going on Tinder dates and watching chess videos and immersing myself in work. I’m starting to wonder if I have more in common with Bill than I thought. I’m starting to wonder if I’m in the wrong planter, if the instructions I’ve gotten are maybe just a little off, and if I should do a bit of research and figure out how to really take care of this human being that is myself.

Because I feel like I might be doing exactly what I did to Bill: I’m paying attention, just in all the wrong ways. It’s like I’ve gotten an instruction manual for a human that isn’t even me, or some kind of general instruction manual whose tips need to be custom-fit before they can be effective, and the the challenge becomes how to do that. Strangely, I think Bill might be able to help me here. I think he might have some of the secrets. Which is why it’s imperative he doesn’t die. It’s imperative I find some good soil for him. And most importantly, it’s imperative that, at least for the time being, I leave him alone. 

Is there a metaphor here?

Support this blog:

Become a Patron!

The Passion?

bogota colombia efficiency

I’ve been having an internal battle lately about whether I need to be more “positive” in my writing. And so I have been more positive, and I think my writing’s been OK, but I also think it’s been a bit…boring. 

This morning I was looking through my old blog A Finnish Summer! to see if there was something I could recycle, and I came across a post I wrote while in Bogota, Colombia, in 2014. It was a rant about the inefficiency in Bogota, a city of nine million people where (according to me at the time) efficiency doesn’t exist. 

I read the whole article and was mildly entertained. And then I tried to look for a something else because I feared this article was too “negative.” With each subsequent post I stopped reading after the first or second paragraph. And then I thought: Wait a minute, I just read that whole article about Bogota. And I didn’t have to force myself to read it. I wanted to read it. Maybe it was a bit negative, but at least it was engaging. It least it was honest. 

So maybe my writing needs to be more polarizing. A lot of times I filter myself because I don’t want to sound ignorant or offend people. But it’s OK to say how you feel, as long as you’re respectful and articulate.   Am I really only going to ever play it safe? Am I playing it safe? I don’t know the answers to these questions, and would love to know what you, the readers, the think. So if you’ve never left a comment, today might be a day to do so.

For now, here’s that post about Bogota, written February 21, 2014. 

The “B” in Bogota

(Ed’s note: I have no idea why I titled it this)

It’s been a long time since I’ve written for Finnish Summer.  I wish I was in Finland right now.  I wish I was anywhere but in Bogota.  I need a vacation.  I’m sick of the lack of eficiency here.  If you’re going to be on the beach drinking coconut water and surfing, inefficiency is the name of the game (though actually not with surfing, as that would probably involved trying to paddle your board with floaties on your arms or dragging a parachute behind you or something ridiculous like that).  But when you’re in a city of 9 million people, you expect there to be some form of efficiency, somewhere.  And yet there’s not.  Everything is ridiculous in this country.  Today I officially quit my job.  Normally when you end a contract I imagine it might be customary to get a form signed by your boss or some kind of person in charge saying that the contract is over.  And I had to do that.  I also had to get another formed signed by about 10 other people saying that they were “at peace” with me and that I didn’t owe them anything and that as far as they were concerned I could leave.  How ridiculous is this?  Is this not the very reason hierarchy exists, to avoid situations like this, so that a person in charge can make important decisions without having to consult with every person who works at the company?  There was a spot on the form for the cafeteria staff to sign.  The cafeteria staff!  In other words, there was a spot on the form for the lovely lady who gave us tea and coffee and poundcake at 430pm everyday to sign saying that I didn’t owe her any napkins or that I didn’t accidentally take seconds of the coffee.  Riculous.  Insane.  Welcome to Colombia.

This country seems to pride itself on paperwork and appearances.  For anything official there must be myriad documents to sign.  It must be a process.  It must be difficult.  Because “that’s how things are supposed to be”.  Or at least people think that’s how things are supposed to be.  When you go to the park you see people working out with personal trainers doing ridiculously easy and ineffectual exercises with all kinds of equipment like medicine balls and surgical tubing that maybe target one to two muscles to 4% of their capacity, and yet that’s how it’s supposed to be.  You’re not supposed to work out.  You’re supposed to look like you’re working out.  You’re not supposed to be a businessman.  You’re supposed to wear a suit and a tie and shiny black shoes and look like a businessman.  The work is completely independent.  Appearances are everything here.

Should I come here just to bash the culture?  Probably not.  However, I think it’s natural to compare your culture to that of the culture you’re living in.  Obviously you’re not going to be OK with everything.  And you might even be a little unreasonably judgmental at times.  I do not dislike Colombia.  I really like Colombia.  And for the most part, I really like Colombians.  This is a beautiful country with beautiful people, it just has a ton of problems.  What country doesn’t?  There are some things I will get used to,but there are some things to which I probably won’t.  I don’t need to go to Finland, but I do need to go on vacation, which is why my friend Steve and I are going to Villavicencio next weekend, a place where (apparently) the air is warm and the rumba and steak flows like wine.  I don’t want to become jaded, because no one likes a jaded person.  And no one likes a person who criticizes things only to be guilty of the same things themselves.  And I realize that many times when we hate something we are really hating something that exists inside of us.  I realize this.  I am fully aware.

But the cafeteria lady?  Give me a break….

Support this blog:

Become a Patron!

El Rincón del Mate

el rincon del mate guadalajara

The temperature is a brisk 85 degrees in Guadalajara, and I’m sitting inside El Rincon del Mate drinking a mate mocha, which is essentially a mocha but made with mate instead of espresso. I thought the chocolate was going to be ultra-sweet, processed Hershey’s garbage, but it tastes like real Mexican chocolate. My taste buds are rejoicing. Well, maybe not rejoicing. But at the very least my tastebuds are awake.

Even though this is the cafe in Guadalajara I come to most, it remains the only cafe I haven’t written about. I don’t know whether or not this will change today. When I sat down I was resolved to “not have an agenda” when I wrote. To let my mind wander. And so maybe I’ll talk about my immediate surroundings, since the temptation for every amateur writer is to write about his immediate surroundings. Or maybe I’ll talk about how this day has gone, how I woke up and went to Pan Regio, thinking I’d write about another pastry and thus complete the pastries in Guadalajara mini-series that’s arisen spontaneously over the past couple days. But the biscuit was unremarkable. This isn’t to say it was bad. It was definitely the healthiest item I’ve gotten from Pan Regio so far. It was made with whole grains, pumpkin seeds, and raisins. It wasn’t nearly as sweet as most of the things they make. My roommate said the other day he thought Pan Regio was expensive. The biscuit cost 7 pesos. I don’t really know how it could be cheaper.

Tomorrow is Friday, which means today’s my Friday. Friday is one of the few days where I have very little scheduled. This is because my online students are mostly in Spain and don’t want to have English class on Friday evenings. And also because I’ve stopped taking more work at Vancouver Language Centre, since the classes I have in the consulate are enough. I’ve never particularly enjoyed teaching English, but I think I’m coming around. I’m starting to understand the English language better. There are some subtleties that are nearly impossible for ESL learners to understand, let alone native speakers. For example, how would you explain the difference between the following two sentences:

1) “What are you going to do after work?”

2) “What are you doing after work?”

The answer (apparently) is that first question is more speculative, while the second question elicits concrete plans. When you say, “I’m meeting up with some friends after work,” it’s more concrete than, “I’m going to meet up with some friends after work.” The latter would sound better preceded by, “I think,” i.e., “I think I’m gonna meet up with some friends,” reinforcing the fact that this is, indeed, speculation.

Or something.

Honestly, I have no idea.

And I really wish I had another drink, but don’t want to spend another 30 pesos to get one.

But maybe I should?

I mean, I’ve worked hard today.

Come on, Mark, live a little.

But that’s exactly the mentality that got me into the financial trouble from a few days ago.

But, like, you only live once, right?

The music playing in El Rincon del Mate right now is from the Into the Wild soundtrack. This movie was popular in the summer of 2009, when I was working at a lodge in Alaska as a housekeeper. I’m not one to single out “favorite summers,” but that was definitely one of my favorite summers. When I’m wrinkled and grey I’ll talk fondly about the summer of ’09, about the time when we tried to live off the land but ended up living off whiskey, about the time Phil and I saw a bear and almost shit our pants.

And maybe when I’m old and grey I’ll talk about the winter of ’18, when I lived in Guadalajara and had few friends and spent most of my days in a small cafe known for serving mate. I’ll talk about how I didn’t realize it at the time, but that was a happy time for me. Though I guess if I’m writing about it now maybe I do realize it. Maybe I am happy.

A special thanks to Barry Sevig for supporting this blog both in spirit and for donating the laptop on which I write everyday. Without him my first website, Where’s Wetzler, would’ve never existed. And probably not this one, either.

Support this blog:

Become a Patron!

or