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.

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The Compact Object of the Pastry World

pan regio guadalajara

One of my English students via Skype is an astrophysicist. She’s taught me a lot about “compact objects,” which are things like black holes, dwarf stars, and neutron stars. Today I decided I would give her a presentation on astrophysics, because she was feeling a bit tired and might’ve had a headache and didn’t feel like talking that much. This worked out perfectly, because I love talking, and love making stuff up. I gave her a short presentation on High Mass X-Ray Binary Systems, and explained about things like accretion, compact objects, coherent pulsation, supergiants, quiescence, flares, etc. And the interesting part was that, on  some of the stuff, I wasn’t that far off. In fact, at one point she asked, “How did you know what that was?” and explained that I didn’t, that I was guessing.

Of course, for most of the stuff I was completely wrong and had no idea what I was talking about. One of the graphs had a jagged blue line with a spike in it, for example, and a bunch of red dots, and I said that the red dots were plankton and that the blue line represented whales’ hunger before and after eating the plankton. The best part was she wanted to participate, and she forgot she was speaking English. Whenever I asked if she had questions she played the part of the skeptical student perfectly, unmasking my spurious knowledge. It made me realize I need to strive for this more as a teacher. Forget about grammar, or correcting, or anything like that for at least 15 minutes a class, and just focus on getting the student as engrossed in a topic as possible. So much so that which language they’re speaking becomes secondary, and the focus is on communication.

After giving the class I headed out into the fresh Guadalajara morning. It’s getting hotter here. Yesterday the high was in the mid 80’s. I come home from teaching, strip down, put on my board shorts, and hang out barefoot in the cool inner sanctum that is the living room and kitchen of my house. It’s only bad for a few hours. And even during those few hours it’s not that bad. When evening comes the temperature is perfect again. Twilight is my favorite time of day Guadalajara.

As I did yesterday, today I got a bread pudding from Pan Regio for six pesos ($0.32). It was the last one left. On the way back I took a picture of it, because I knew I would want one for this blog. Also on the way back I remarked on the density of the bread pudding. It’s only about the size of a large brownie, but weighs about 30 times as much. How do they make bread pudding so dense? Is it filled with lead? But then I realized it must just have properties similar to those of a compact object. When the bread pudding (called “budin” in Spanish) sits on the shelf in the bakery, it attracts other objects towards it, slowly at first, but then they gain speed rapidly until they slam into the bread pudding, resulting in accretion. Some of the matter from the original object becomes assimilated into the bread pudding, and some of it is spewed into the atmosphere, in this case in the form of particles called “crumbs.” This process continues, croissants and buns and rolls and danishes slowly sliding toward the bread pudding when the shop employee isn’t looking, slamming into it, leaving their mark (and their mass).

And now this compact object is in my stomach. I have a neutron star in my stomach, a dwarf star, a black hole. Which finally explains my eating habits.

A very special thanks to Stefan Peter-Contesse for his (second!) contribution to this “bweeg.” 

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