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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