Online teaching comes with a unique set of stumbling blocks which can easily trip up new recruits. Whether you come to the industry from a traditional bricks-and-mortar school or from another industry entirely, it’s a great idea to be aware of what these hurdles are so you can avoid them from the outset. Below I list the three biggest mistakes made by those fresh on the scene so you can get your online teaching career off to an error-free start:
Mistake 1: Failing to Build Relationships (with Students, Support Staff, and Other Teachers)
When you sit at home, on your own, conducting class after class from the comfort of your home office, it can be very easy to become a little lone wolf-esque. There’s no one there at the reception desk to welcome you into the office, no colleagues to gossip with over lunch, and the person managing you is not only thousands of air-miles away, but they do not speak your language to a native level, which can make communication very tricky.
Having spent a fair amount of time researching and taking part in this rapidly growing industry, one thing I’ve noticed is this; it’s those teachers who come across as friendly, polite and sincere, who do well for themselves - they get the most bookings, they report happiness in their job, and they don’t seem to feel completely isolated working from home.
These more successful teachers often realize that how they treat their support staff especially, will directly impact how they are perceived by the company, and therefore how their employment plays out in the long term. Those with a confrontational attitude (and there are a few, like in any industry) seem to disappear off the radar within months of onboarding, complaining loudly as they leave over rudeness and unfair treatment. It’s always wise to consider the cultural divide at play in these situations and to tread carefully when dealing with any issues that arise.
Making use of your company’s social media pages and groups is a good way to meet colleagues and develop relationships with those in the same boat as you. It’s probably advisable to keep your more extreme venting to private messages rather than these more public forums, but having some friendly discussions about the best ways and means to do your job (because there are always tricks of the trade) is absolutely essential in terms of keeping sane when working remotely. When things get tricky (like they can with any job) it’s always nice to have a few close colleagues who have been there, done that (and bought the teacher’s t-shirt) to discuss it with, and work out the best plan of action. TwoSigmas have their own Facebook group to offer support and guidance. You can request to join here.
The last - but probably most important - relationship that some teachers fail to focus on is the one they have with their students. This can be much, much more difficult online than it is in person; you can really feel those thousands of miles (and cultural divides) at times when the conversation is not forthcoming, and there doesn’t seem to be much in terms of commonality between you. Knowing a little about the culture of the person you’re talking with - or even popular topics for the age-group of the student - can help to bridge that gap a little, and create that all-important connection that elevates your lesson from good to great (and memorable). Really making an effort to find some common ground can encourage engagement and - with time - that teacher Holy Grail: re-bookings!
It’s worth noting that a lot of the Chinese companies work on a parent-hiring system; a teacher is selected from a list of profiles that are presented to a student’s mother (or father), and it can take time to build the kind of reputation (and relationships) that ensure these bookings (although company-selected hiring does exist, this isn’t the norm). Once you do a fantastic job for one family, your name will get passed around the inner-circles of the parents’ social networks, after which the bookings will (hopefully) come flooding in. Of course, taking the time and energy to build your profile (and the relationships with your initial students and their parents) at the start of your employment will increase your chances of being hired from the outset, so ensuring these are top-notch will set you off to a great start.
Mistake 2: Not Investing in the Right Equipment and Set-Up
First impressions count; this is especially the case when a small box containing a person and background is all a student has to go by when making an initial judgment. It can be easy to assume that because you’re a fantastic teacher with all the right credentials and experience that you will instantly be recognized as such, securing the best booking rates and evaluations from the get-go. This might be the case without much effort on your part, but usually, a little tweaking is required to develop a tip-top set-up and environment to showcase your skills and talents.
Investing in a high-quality camera and some decent lighting can work wonders, especially if you’re someone who has to teach during light-limited hours. After a few months of teaching, I treated myself to the Logitech CP20 which, while on the pricier side, is an amazing bit of kit to have in your teaching toolbag. It is fantastic in picking up close-up detail and switching quickly from long to close range, which can be very useful if you need to show a written word or something small to the student to illustrate a point. The level of clarity, even in low-light, really helps to make classes look more professional which can help your student to feel more at ease in your ability to give them a top-quality service.
Lighting, too, can play a big in how your classes look. A direct stream of light coming towards your face (but with other, dimmer lighting from a bulb above) will not only help to erase the fine-lines and eye-bags that come of getting up at the crack-of-dawn for your lessons, but it will also help to ensure that you are the focus of the teaching show. To supplement the natural light that comes from a window I have placed my desk against, I bought myself a clip-on ring light to help illuminate my face and ensure that I am less gremlin-like even in the hours that no sane person should be teaching. It’s a fact of this job that the peak hours are not always favorable for the teacher, so having a back-up plan like this is a great way to show you’re a professional who takes this seriously.
Finally, your backdrop is your friend if you want to come across well to your students. A messy bedroom does not make for a teacherly environment and could hinder your chances of getting the kinds of bookings and students you so desire. A lot of the more seasoned teachers have their camera facing a wall so that they can stick their name, the company’s logo and other little additions to it to make their background more interesting. I created a young learners background on Canva and printed it out A0 size using an online printing company. In time, I will start using ManyCam which allows you to create a virtual backdrop, reward systems and other amazing features which can make the lessons more fun and interesting, especially for younger students.
Mistake 3: Not Having Patience
Inside and outside of the virtual classroom, online teachers need to have a lot of patience if they want to see their teaching business grow. Those who teach the lower levels and younger students especially (and this will be the majority) will need to employ the patience of a particularly calm and courteous saint to see that their classes are successful in terms of imparting knowledge and the right kind of environment for their students to thrive. Patience in this setting can be in the form of pulling all the tools out of the toolkit (props, games, gestures, activities) to keep a struggling student engaged and interested in the lesson. Teaching in less than favorable circumstances (when it’s way past a student’s bed-time, or they’re in the car on the way somewhere else!) is par for the course with online teaching, and the best online teacher will take this in their stride.
Teaching adults, too, has its own set of demands when it comes to patience. Allowing a student to vent or complain about their day during lesson time, and becoming a sort-of pseudo-counselor or agony-aunt, is something that I hear a lot of teachers lose patience with. Having someone completely objective to talk to is invaluable for a lot of students, and giving them this privilege (while also turning it into an English-learning opportunity) can help you become the kind of teacher they value above all others. Employing patience here can pay dividends for both you and your student if you feel it stays within certain professional boundaries.
Building a set of regulars and the trust of the company you work for can take some time unless you have some strong personal contacts and recommendations at the outset. The staff and students will need to get to know how you work and how reliable you are before they can put their faith in you and fill your schedule with classes, so having some understanding and patience as this develops will work in your favor for the long term.
Once your reputation as an effective, reliable teacher is established then you're well on your way to the kind of fulfilling, bill-paying teaching career that you had always hoped for. Having faith that this will happen - and implementing a plan and work ethic that will get you there - will keep frustration at bay as you build and refine your online teaching business. also takes time and a decent dose of patience. A lot of the Chinese companies work on a parent-hiring system; a teacher is selected from a list of profiles that are presented to a student’s mother (or father), and it can take time to build the kind of reputation that ensures these bookings (although company-selected hiring does exist, this isn’t the norm).