Top Tips for Online English Teachers
Have you ever considered teaching English online? If you want to do it successfully, Shannon from TEFL Horizons gives you her top tips for online English teachers in this post. Shannon is an experienced English teacher and teacher trainer, and her tips are really helpful for anyone thinking of becoming an online TEFL teacher.
Disclosure: this post includes affiliate links, so if you click and join through our link, we get some money. We never recommend anything just for money, so don’t worry on that account, but you need to be aware of it.
I’ll admit that up until a couple of years ago, I had never given online English teaching much thought.
That’s not to say I wasn’t into teaching English in general, however. By the end of 2019, I was already very comfortable in the classroom. I had been working as an ESL teacher for ten years and as a CELTA trainer for the last five. I loved my job and I loved the students and teachers I worked with.
But the idea of online teaching was something I always dismissed. Working with students through a computer screen sounded so impersonal; I couldn’t imagine that virtual lessons could ever be as engaging or effective as in-person classes.
And then the pandemic hit. Suddenly, online classes were the only classes. Teachers everywhere were scrambling to adapt. My fellow CELTA trainers and I were only a few steps ahead of our trainees when it came to technology and online-specific teaching strategies. As chaotic as it all seemed at first, I sensed that I had stumbled on an opportunity… and that I needed to act fast.
For more stories of how English teachers coped when faced with Covid, Kris wrote our story.
I threw myself into online teaching and training full-time, teaching up to five online lessons a day in addition to training on virtual CELTA courses. My goal was to take the knowledge, training, and experience I already had and figure out how to translate it all into a formula for online teaching that was engaging, effective, and ultimately… successful.
In the process, I discovered something that surprised me. I actually preferred online teaching to classroom teaching! I realized that when virtual classes are taught well, they can be just as communicative and effective as in-person lessons. Plus, there are so many other benefits. Teachers and students can connect from anywhere in the world – no travel required. Platforms like Zoom make it easy to record lessons so students can watch again for an on-demand review. Now that I’ve mastered the tech aspect of online teaching, I love how easy it is to share audio, video, images, applications, and other virtual learning tools with my students with just a few clicks. And on top of all that, I get to work from home in my slippers.
These days, I work completely remotely as a freelance teacher, trainer, and consultant, and I love the freedom and flexibility that comes with it. I get to choose my own hours, set my own rates, and be my own boss.
So what about you? Whether you’re looking to replace your income by going online full-time or just hoping to pick up a few lessons a week, here’s my best advice for becoming a successful online English teacher.
Read our interviews with other online English teachers to find the pros and cons of different online teaching companies.
Remember: Workshops Not Lectures
Regardless of whether your classroom is physical or virtual, the fundamentals of successful language teaching remain the same. The first and most important rule of effective teaching is that your lessons should be interactive, communicative, and student-centered. In other words, each online class you teach should still be structured as a workshop, not a lecture.
Don’t mistake your Zoom classroom for your personal live YouTube channel, and don’t treat your students like a captive audience. If you think it’s tough to listen to a teacher drone on in a brightly-decorated classroom, imagine how much harder it is to pay attention through a screen, surrounded by all the distractions at home.
Maximize student participation by allowing students plenty of opportunities to work in pairs and small groups in breakout rooms. Elicit information throughout your lessons instead of explaining. Incorporate activities like role plays, information gaps, and other communicative discussions to give students authentic practice with fluency and new language items.
There is a Learning Curve – Practice, Practice, Practice!
No matter how confident you are with technology or in your teaching abilities, combining the two effectively takes some serious trial and error. Before you teach your first online class, get comfortable with all the capabilities of Zoom (or whichever platform you’re using) so you know how to share your screen, set up breakout rooms, distribute materials, assist students with their audio or video glitches, and troubleshoot any other issues that arise.
Consider recruiting friends or colleagues to do some practice meetings, or enroll in a teacher training course that includes live (online!) teaching practice.
Any time you plan to use a new tool or application (for example, trying out Google Forms for a video exercise), test it out in advance and make a backup plan for what you’ll do if it doesn’t work. This way, you’ll avoid the embarrassment of getting totally caught off guard in front of a whole Zoom meeting full of paying students, who are all staring at you expectantly.
Invest in Yourself by Getting Certified: Quality Training Pays Off
If you want to be a successful online teacher, you have to be good at what you do. Period.
Without quality training, you may be able to book students for initial lessons, but you’ll have a hard time getting them to sign on for more classes once they realize you don’t really know what you’re doing. Positive word-of-mouth recommendations are the number one way to market your skills, book up your schedule, and make good money as an online teacher.
With the right certification, you’ll master essential online teaching methodology and get hands-on practice with actual English learners. You’ll understand what makes a lesson effective or not, how to set and achieve lesson aims, and how to ensure your students are actually improving while having a great time in every class you teach. Plus, a quality certification shows students and potential employers that you are serious about what you do and that they can trust you to deliver. In short, good training is what makes you a professional. I can tell you with 100% certainty that I would not be anywhere near where I am today if I hadn’t invested in significant practical training throughout my career.
When choosing a training and certification program, look for one that focuses on online teaching specifically. Invest in a program like Online English Teacher that is designed specifically to train and certify online teachers – not just ESL teachers in general.
Plenty of other courses out there are offered online, but they don’t actually focus on online teaching. For example, CELTA has been the gold standard face-to-face certification for a long time, and there is now a fully online option. But even in the totally online version of CELTA, the methodology is still geared towards people who are planning to teach in person.
For more on CELTA and other TEFL courses, see our post on what English teaching qualification you should take.
Regardless of what certification you choose, make sure there is still an option to get live online teaching practice as well – this should be with actual ESL students (not peers) and include observation and feedback from the course trainer(s). A huge plus of Online English Teacher is that you can add on a live teaching practicum to get 8 hours of hands-on, assessed teaching practice over Zoom.
Finally, when it comes to choosing a certification, remember that you get what you pay for. You can certainly save money by buying a budget course on Groupon, but you won’t come away with the training, practice, or reputation you need to be successful.
Beware of Bells & Whistles – Don’t Overdo It
A strategically used website or application can really upgrade a virtual learning experience, but there is such a thing as too much tech. I’ve observed plenty of unfortunate lessons in which the teacher is completely caught up in jumping from one tool or game to the next (Kahoot! Wordwall! Quizlet! Jamboard!) and fails to notice that no actual learning is taking place.
An additional benefit of getting quality training is that you’ll learn how to leverage technology to enhance students’ learning, not distract from it. You’ll get hands-on practice with exactly how and when to use different games, websites, and other online tools to take your lessons to the next level without overdoing it.
Generally, a good rule of thumb is to stick to no more than one or two extra tech tools per class. And don’t use a game or application at all if you can’t clearly justify how it helps you achieve the main aim of the lesson. Just because it’s fun doesn’t mean it’s useful – a worthwhile activity should be both!
Demonstrate your Skills
For more in getting starting in English teaching, we have lots of posts aimed at people becoming English teachers both online and face to face.
Once you’re a skilled and certified online teacher, you just need one more thing: students!
Great recommendations will get you far, but how do you find those first few students to start spreading the word?
Here’s the thing. It’s tempting to believe that once you’ve decided to become an online teacher – you’ve gotten some good training, you’ve decided what kind of lessons you’d like to teach, perhaps you’ve even set up a website – then students will just start coming to you. Right?
Unfortunately, that’s not how it works. You can be the best teacher in the world, but students aren’t going to randomly find you if they don’t know you exist. You need to figure out where your ideal students “hang out,” virtually, and go find them!
Consider how you can demonstrate your skills to gain prospective students’ trust and show them how your lessons will help them. Try posting helpful tips in English learning groups on social media or two-minute teaching videos on YouTube. Email all of your contacts to let them know you’ve recently gotten your online teaching certification and outline the types of classes you offer. Ask them to pass along the information to anyone who might be interested. You’d be surprised what kind of connections come out of the woodwork if you’re willing to put yourself out there and demonstrate what you can do.
Finally, make sure you have a clear offer once you’ve put the word out. Be clear on what kind of lessons you offer, how much you charge, what students can expect, how they can pay you, and all of the other necessary logistics. This way, you’ll come across as calm and professional when students start to contact you, and you’ll be ready to book your first lessons confidently.
You’ll just keep going from there.
If you’d like to learn more about teaching English online, join me for a free upcoming webinar! It’s a great way to get practical advice on your ELT career, learn valuable teaching tips, and connect with me and other teachers around the globe. I’d love to see you there!