I really enjoyed my time as an online ESL teacher. My students were terrific, I liked the company I worked with, and (except for the odd occasion when my internet went down during class time, and pure panic crept in!) it was overall a positive, pleasant, and successful experience. While the global online ESL teaching workforce is HUGE, and I certainly can’t speak to anyone’s individual circumstances or particular experience, the tips I’ve laid out below helped me personally enjoy a largely positive and stress-free online ESL teaching experience, and these are suggestions I’d make to anyone looking to get their start in online ESL teaching.
1) READ YOUR CONTRACT (AND DON’T SIGN IT IF YOU’RE NOT HAPPY WITH IT!)
I could almost do a whole post on this topic alone. The number of people I have seen on social media complaining about the conditions of the contract they signed, or asking questions about important information that is detailed in their already signed contract, is, to me, quite mind-blowing. If you choose to pursue an online ESL teaching role, you may find that the company you sign with has strict attendance requirements, penalties for lateness/absence, and/or various other contractual requirements that you may not have come across in other jobs. Read your contract thoroughly, be sure that you understand ALL of it, weigh up if the conditions are acceptable to you, and don’t sign it if you’re not happy with it.
2) UNDERSTAND WHAT TEACHING AND TUTORING REALLY ARE
I’ve talked a bit in previous posts about how being an online ESL teacher is almost more of a tutoring role, as there is no curriculum development, lesson planning, etcetera, etcetera. But regardless of whether you consider online ESL educating to be tutoring or teaching, the fundamental aspect that this role has in common with bricks and mortar teaching is facilitating students’ understanding of lesson content. That’s basically a wordy way of saying it’s up to you to help them ‘get’ it.
Teaching/tutoring is NOT simply reading information off of the provided slides to your students until they can parrot it back to you. Whatever information is presented in the lesson slides, whatever point your student is at in their English learning progression, whatever their aptitude for learning, whatever their age, it’s up to YOU to help them understand the lesson content in a way that is meaningful and appropriate for them personally. For a skilled and advanced student, this may mean that not only can they read the content on the slide, but they can also have a detailed discussion with you about it, relate it to other experiences/people/places/things in their own life, summarise the content in their own words, tell you other words/expressions that mean the same thing (synonyms) as the target content you’re working on, or tell you the alternate meanings of target words that have more than one meaning (homonyms such as: pupil, mine, bark, bear, season, current, etcetera).
For a student who is at a very early stage in their English learning progression, or is very young and may be finding the lesson content quite challenging and overwhelming, it’s up to you to break down the content into manageable pieces, and this may mean focusing on a single word or concept at a time and building the student’s understanding using props, toys, visuals, songs, puppet modelling, etcetera, etcetera. (It’s important to note here that some online ESL companies are happy for you to work completely at the student’s required pace, while other companies have set lessons you are expected to complete during a specified period of time, so it will be important that you communicate with the company you are working for if you feel the content is too challenging for a particular student to complete within required time frames).
This one is pretty simple. Spend a few minutes (it would usually literally take me two or three minutes per lesson) before your shift starts looking over the slides for each lesson, and make sure you’re confident with all the information you’ll be teaching in that lesson. We can’t all be experts at everything, so don’t be at all ashamed if you need to Google something just to check/refresh your knowledge (I certainly have before!). This will make for much smoother lessons, and a much better experience for both you and your students.
4) HAVE CONTINGENCY PLANS
This really ties in to what I covered in point two. You will come across students of every conceivable skill/ability level, from students who can have staggeringly impressive discussions with you about really complex content, to students who are completely overwhelmed and stare at you/the floor/their mum mutely. You need to have at the ready an array of games and learning activities to extend and challenge even the cleverest cookie you come across, and also games, learning activities, and strategies to put the most nervous beginner learner at ease and get them experiencing success before they even know it. For beginners I loved using my ‘Spot’ lift the flap book, as pretty much everyone loved listening to a very animated reading of it, and even beginner students would often know a few of the animal names and/or sounds. A super enthusiastic rendition of ‘If You’re Happy and You Know It’ would usually bring smiles, laughs, and some actions/imitation from even the most nervous and hesitant learner too. And for those students who have almost achieved English fluency, games like 20 Questions can be terrific opportunities to practice and generalise their skills, as can general conversation about lesson content, and challenging them with complex comprehension questions.
5) CONSIDER COMMUNICATION ETIQUETTE WHEN WORKING FOR A FOREIGN COMPANY
If you choose to apply to work for an overseas company from a non-English speaking country, it’s generally not (in my opinion!) reasonable to vent on social media about your frustrations with communication challenges with said company. I was EXTREMELY grateful for my online ESL job, and at the time I started working in the role it was the only way I could find to earn above Australian minimum hourly wage from work that was 100% home-based. I understood that in taking this opportunity with a company from a country where English is not an official language, that I may at times experience communication difficulties, but as the one who sought out and accepted this opportunity with a foreign company, I felt the onus was on me to go the extra mile to be clear in communication, if needed. It’s great for us as online ESL teachers that the companies we work with generally have staff with quite good English skills, meaning that in order to have positive and productive communication with the company it’s generally as simple as putting a little extra thought and effort into your communication, to ensure you’re being clear and understandable.
6) BE NICE TO CUSTOMER SERVICE/SUPPORT (CS)
This is simple and really just ties in with point five. Customer Service/Support (or whatever the support branch of the company you work with is called), are usually busy, and doing their best to support you. Be nice to them, even if you’re stressed-out about IT issues/emergency sick leave/a random truck driver severing the power-lines to your house with his ridiculously over-sized load (Yep. Happened to me. CS was awesome about it though!).
7) DOCUMENT ANY ISSUES
Even though technology is pretty damn amazing these days, things can and do still occasionally go wrong. The company might be having some server issues, the student might be having internet issues, or a student might not show up to class at all. If I ever found myself in a situation where I was sitting in an empty classroom waiting for a student, or unable to enter a classroom due to tech issues that weren’t coming from my end, or something such, I’d take a screen shot of the empty classroom/frozen screen, make a note of the issue/date/time in my work notebook, and of course get in touch with the company’s support team when appropriate so I could to seek guidance/follow up about the issue. Even though I NEVER ONCE actually needed the screenshot ‘evidence’ or dated notes I kept, knowing that I’d snapped a record of the issue and followed up with contacting CS about the issue let me be comfortable in knowing that I’d done everything I could to be accountable from my end, and that if the system malfunctioned somehow and I had to ‘prove’ I’d been present trying to work during server issues or anything such, I had all the necessary evidence ready to go.
8) DON’T PUT PICTURES/VIDEOS OF STUDENTS ON SOCIAL MEDIA
Please DON’T take screenshots of your students and then put them on social media (or anywhere else online either, of course). Children are not capable of giving informed consent for their picture to be taken or shared, and it’s SO important that people who are trusted to work with children protect their privacy and safety. I do know of at least one reputable online ESL teacher who sometimes posts informational videos and tutorials including footage from classes they have taught, however the students’ faces are always fully covered by a huge emoji, and I’m assuming that the teacher has still sought the permission of firstly the company they work for, and also, of course, the students’ parents.
So, those are some of my main pointers for a stress-free, positive online ESL career, and I hope they’re of use to you. I personally believe that my adherence to these points contributed to some degree to me constantly being heavily booked for lessons, and overall having a great experience as an online ESL teacher.
Keep an eye out for next week’s post, where I’ll be bringing you some interviews I’ve conducted with a range of currently working Australian virtual assistants (VAs). I’m super excited to share this post with you, and I think the VAs I’ve interviewed have provided some really wonderful insights for you about building your own home-based VA business.
Happy job hunting,