Online ESL Teaching 00: Brainstorming

I’ve taken on an assignment over at FluentU this week, with the keywords: Online ESL Teaching. The one I really wanted was: first ESL class, but that one got snatched up by someone else while I was meditating on if I wanted to write to: creative ESL teaching. Oh well, creative is just too general for my liking, so I took up online.

My first experience with online ESL classes was through a newly established Japanese platform called CafeTalk. The setup was pretty straightforward, I signed up as a teacher, listed some types of classes I was willing to give, got myself a headset with mic and waited for students to see my profile and ask for a sample class. (Just checked them out, they’re still online, have changed quite a bit, but still looks like a fun, friendly platform, I highly recommend them!)

I set the rates on CafeTalk, with the platform keeping 40% of whatever I earned. I was paid through PayPal in Yen. Most of my classes were with adults who either wanted basic conversational practice, or some type of extra explanation of their oral objectives, either for academics or for work-related needs. I did have a couple of classes with a very young boy, but that was not especially successful (slow internet connection meant no video on Skype, and the kid wasn’t particularly good at paying attention).

Perhaps the oddest student was Komiko, who wanted to chat in Spanish. No problem, I’d been fluent in Spanish for 20 years at the time. She bargained me down in my price in exchange for having several chats a day. She was a regular Japanese housewife with a Japanese businessman husband who was almost never home. The odd thing was that he had no idea that she was practicing her Spanish with an American living in Spain, which explained (and which she later explained in the next class), why she suddenly started speaking to me in Japanese half-way through one class (which I do not speak) and unexpectedly ended the Skype call. Seems her husband had arrived home and had almost caught her spending her household money on the Spanish conversation classes which would most certainly have meant an end to the classes as well as a lowering of her allowance.

I looked around for other types of platforms, once I felt I had gotten the hang of the whole virtual classroom thing. CafeTalk was not paying the bills, that was done in the day job at the academy. Also, the hours were really difficult at times, Japan being several hours ahead of Spain and not practicing Daylight Savings Time. So, I found a German platform that was looking for teachers for online classes.

In this case, the platform included a virtual classroom, kind of Moodle-style (may even have been Moodle, though I doubt the girls I worked with briefly would have been able to manage configuring Moodle well). The rates were not bad at all, the materials were pre-prepared by the academy. Problem was, the place was run by a ruthless German woman and the two or three American girls who were in charge of interviewing teachers and preparing materials and scheduling the classes were obviously very inexperienced in actual teaching. They may have had their TOEFL certificates, but they were disastrous with human relations and pedagogy.

After a couple of interviews on the phone, then a couple of sample classes (a power-point on pollution, with a picture of a turtle trapped in a plastic beverage ring thingy, that I called “turtle girdle” as a tongue twister and which they found in poor taste, sigh), a strange phone call from one of them complaining that this or that she didn’t like about me, so I just hung up on her and never worked with her. Oh yes, I remember what happened.

These “administrators” (read: overworked, inexperienced American ESL teachers in Germany) had sent out an email to all of the potential virtual teachers without realizing that they had not hidden the email addresses of all of the recipients. Because I found their way of managing the classes kind of shaky, I reached out to those other teachers by email, asking about their experience with this virtual academy and if they could give me any tips. This really peeved the German owner, so one of the American girls called me and chewed me out.

Naturally, I apologized, though I did point out that my email was not written in a bitchy fashion and was actually me reaching out to the other teachers to build community in a distance teaching environment, something that is almost always encouraged in this type of work, as distance learning by its nature tends to isolate both teachers and students. Seems the German boss-lady was not having this at all and I got a royal chewing out. As I’m not one to tolerate chewing outs, I simply told the girl that I thanked her for considering me as a teacher but that I was no longer interested.

What was funny was that she told me that I couldn’t quit because she had called me to tell me that I was fired. As I had not yet done anything more that waste my time in endless interviews and sample classes, had not been included in any class scheduling and had not made a penny from them, I didn’t appreciate being told that I was fired, as I had simply never begun working. Plus, if she was going to fire me, why had she spent half-an-hour chewing me out? At this point I abruptly ended the call with another “thank you for your time” and a quick, gentle hanging up.

While CafeTalk actually did get me through one summer (we independent ESL teachers know that from mid-June to mid-September we are probably not going to be working all that many hours), I actually stopped the regular online conversation classes with adults at about the same time I retired from ESL teaching altogether. It was an interesting experience, nothing I would repeat again. Though one is working from home, one does have to be online at the right time, the WiFi has to be working properly, the PayPal account kept up-to-date.

Nothing wrong with teaching online, one simply has to be aware of all that is implied. Despite being virtually separated from bosses, there will be bosses. Despite giving class in your pajamas, at least the top half of your body should be clothed and your hair combed. And, despite most of the classes being conversational, you still have to be a good teacher, prepared and professional.

So, that was my brainstorming to get ready for that more “academic” article about Teaching Conversational ESL Online. We’ll see where it goes from here.


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