Have you ever considered teaching English online? Or maybe you have recently started and need some insider tips? In this post I will cover how to get started as an online ESL teacher and share some crucial pointers to help you on your way. At the end you can also find a selection of my favourite resources to help you ace your virtual classes!
Online language learning is increasing rapidly as students are realising that they can find a teacher at any time of the day who is willing to offer them help. Likewise, teachers are growing accustomed to the advantages of having a flexible job which they can do from their warm, comfortable home or from their travellers van as they look out over the Grand Canyon.
If you are reading this post you have most likely also considered the perks of online teaching and my first piece of advice for you is this: do not jump into online teaching without having done some adequate research and planning. Many ‘freelance’ teachers promote an amazing, flexible lifestyle as they teach from anywhere in the world, whenever they want, making an incredible wage– all they have to do is open their laptop and turn on their camera. Most of them make it look so easy that I was somewhat fooled when I jumped in head first, full of confidence and a little naivety, into my first online class.
When the pandemic came crashing down on us I had had just over a year of classroom teaching experience. I always thought classroom teaching was the only way for me. I knew I wanted in-person connection, direct student feedback and the electric feeling you get when you are in control of all the elements in your learning space. When I fell into online teaching out of necessity last year it came as a shock. I went into my first lesson thinking, This cannot be so different, right?
I was wrong. It was different. I had to adapt and learn what felt like a whole new skill set. Teaching is no easy career, but throw in technology, the internet, children who won’t talk to you unless their parent supervises, no-shows, teacher ratings and brutal competition and suddenly this is a whole different ball game. But would I go back and do it all again? Yes. Because now I have so much more to offer as a teacher and I got to meet so many wonderful people along the way. So, in the wise words of Zig Ziglar:
“You don’t have to be great to start, but you have to start to be great.”
With some helpful tips I hope you will find the confidence to head into a versatile new teaching career being just a little bit more prepared than you were yesterday.
1. Consider your work options
If you have searched ‘teach English online’, odds are you have come across a big wide world of opportunities. When I first did this I was so overwhelmed by all the companies hiring, the platforms seeking teachers and the many, many blog posts and YouTube videos telling me about the pros and cons of each company that I finished a day of research with a headache, feeling no clearer on what I should do. So let me break it down for you.
If you want to teach online you have three main options. You can either work for an online teaching company, sign up to a tutoring platform, or go all in and start your own teaching business. I chose to start on a tutoring platform, but if I was to go back and do it all again, I think I would set myself up as an independent teacher.
These are sites like VIPKID, Magic Ears, DaDaABC and Palfish. Here you are hired by the company. After an application and normally an interview, you set up the hours you can work and off you go. Many companies work with children living in Asia so you have to have a minimum availability during their after school hours. Teaching materials are provided and you don’t have to look for students, you just have to show up and teach (usually a small group of kids) and you will get an average hourly pay of $18. Some require you to be TEFL certified, but not all of them do as they provide in-house training. Do watch out for nationality restrictions when applying.
If you decide on this option, be sure to also check out reviews of the company’s teacher support system on websites like Indeed, Glassdoor, YouTube or personal blogs. When students don’t show up, tech issues start happening or parents interfere, you want to make sure you are supported. This support cannot always be guaranteed from companies that deal with a very large number of students and teachers.
One-on-one tutoring platforms
Teaching platforms allow teachers more flexibility and independence as freelancers. Sites like Preply, Cambly or italki offer you a place to set up a profile, find students and get paid at a rate you set. You have all the freedom to choose your students, schedule, lessons and materials. The main drawback here is that you have to wait for students to find you among a massive catalogue of teachers. Some platforms allow you to message students seeking help directly. Having good ratings and banked teaching hours play a large role in the amount of students and hours you get– building this up can take time.
The second biggest con: these sites take a percentage of your earnings, so if you want a decent wage you have to price yourself higher and thus it can be more difficult to start out.
Teaching as an independent
For all the courageous entrepreneurs out there, starting your own online teaching biz is also a very viable option. Building websites has never been easier and in a few weeks you can set up a teaching platform where you are the only teacher. You can offer your own rates, hand pick your students, offer prerecorded courses and live group lessons… the possibilities are endless! You could even set up as an online school and hire more teachers, vetted by you, to teach specific students. Of course you will have to market yourself and come up with a strategic plan for students to find you, but if you are up for the challenge, this is another great option for aspiring teachers.
2. Deal calmly with communication issues
Now let’s get into actually teaching. Communication can be a big problem for teachers starting out. It can be overwhelming when you cannot communicate with your student and the lesson comes to a standstill. In the classroom when I have previously taught adults and children at beginners level, without knowing a word of their native language, I was able to use props, hand gestures and facial expressions and could sometimes rely on the higher-level students in class for general comprehension. Body language is a key factor in effective communication.
When I moved to online teaching, I struggled with communication barriers. I will admit that in my first lesson I had to bring out Google Translate, which I was ashamed of because, for me, a good teacher can teach languages without such aids.
My first tip for improving communication in online classes would be planning. Plan where your students might struggle. How can you make comprehension easier? Find some useful online vocabulary games and pictures that will help keep the lesson moving smoothly.
It is also very important to stay calm and patient and continue talking slowly. Try not to get flustered or use lots of new words in an attempt to break the silence, this will only confuse the student even more. Keep all your language graded and relevant. If you make a mistake or come across a problem, have a laugh, make the student feel at ease and try to get back on track as soon as possible.
3. Prepare, prepare, prepare
I cannot stress this enough. Teaching is only effective if you plan a lesson that makes sense and keeps the student engaged. If you are working with prepared material it is just as important for you to be an expert in what you are about to teach. The best teachers go beyond the material and find props, videos and games to improve the lesson.
During my teacher training I used to get fed up spending hours every evening before my next lesson planning out the purpose and potential problems of every tiny step, analysing every detail of the grammar and making sure everything I did stuck to the lesson’s aim. It was so overwhelming. All the hard work, however, paid off big time. I had such great lessons as a result (with amazing student feedback) because the purpose of the lesson made sense!
Online teaching is not a turn up, open the laptop, get paid kind of job. If you want good reviews, students who engage and, most importantly, to enjoy your job– plan. Also, planning gets easier over time.
4. Make your learning environment positive, personal and supportive
I found it so easy to connect with my students in a classroom. There is banter, an easy conversation flow and a group dynamic with everyone in the same room. Online, lessons can at first seem cold and foreign and you may feel detached from your students. I would advise all teachers to begin each lesson with asking personal questions (pay special attention to new students). Ask them how they are or what they got up to that day, do not just jump straight into the past perfect. Let your personality flow out of you and use it to connect with your students.
It is equally crucial to foster a supportive learning environment. The student chose to come to you to improve their language so make sure they are allowed to make mistakes and avoid saying “that is wrong” or “do it again” too often. Keep in mind that if you teach younger children, they may not have had a choice about whether to take the lessons and you may have to try even harder to motivate them. And do not forget about cultural awareness. Find out where your student is from and stay clear of judgment.
5. Learn a language online and gain a student’s perspective
This last tip is a little different, but one I find incredibly helpful. If you have the time I would highly recommend taking language lessons yourself, even if it is just for one hour a week. I feel like I finally cracked my online teaching when I got to see it from the student perspective. I chose a language I wanted to learn, found a teacher and, as a total beginner, went through a very difficult learning journey. I switched teachers twice because I actually felt that with the first two I was not progressing like I wanted to. I started to understand what exercises and activities to avoid in my own lesson plans and how I could improve as a teacher.
Speaking English does not automatically make you a good English teacher. If you want to make a living out of teaching online I urge you all to put the time into becoming amazing! I know you all have it in you.
Ready for some extra resources to help you one your journey?
Resources for Online Teachers
Easy, no-nonsense games and activities
I use this a lot. It’s perfect for consolidation of topics.
Vocabulary and grammar PDF worksheets
Each topic has around 6 different worksheets you can choose from depending on what you want to do with your students. https://www.englishwsheets.com
Conversation and debates with adults
Learn English Today has a huge bank of resources, but I especially like it for helping with conversation topics when working with more advanced students.