Published 7th May 2020
Teaching English online can sound like a dream come true. Working whenever you want, wherever you want, getting paid to have a fat chat with some cool people, maybe sing a few songs and play a few games. And while we’re not saying it isn’t any of those things, we thought we should give you a dose of reality so that you’re not crying into your keyboard after your first week of teaching when things don’t go exactly according to plan. Let’s get real. As with every job, there are inevitably things that can go wrong and problems you might have. Let’s look at a few of these so that you can be prepared for them and not let them put you off teaching forever. But don’t worry, we won’t leave you in the mud like that – here are 5 potential problems in online classroom and their solutions.
The problem: Time zones
Teaching English online means you could be teaching anyone, anywhere. Your students could be children in China, teens in Italy, adults in Japan, or university students from a bunch of different countries all in the same classroom. You, on the other hand, could be living it up on a Thai island, making snow angels in Sweden, or all comfy at home in the UK. This situation is great because you are able to work flexible hours, but it also means that you might have classes scheduled at hours you’re not usually awake!
For example, teaching students in China means teaching during peak hours in Beijing time, which is 6pm to 10pm on weekdays. If you’re in the US or Canada, this is anywhere between 2am to 8am, depending where you are, and if you’re in Australia this is between 7pm and 11pm.
Change your sleeping habits! If you’re teaching late nights, train yourself to sleep late or have a nap in the afternoon so that you’re still awake and fresh until way past your bedtime. If you have to wake up at some ridiculous hour, make sure you go to bed early enough to get the sleep you need, and take comfort in the fact that you’ll probably be going back to bed when everyone else around you is waking up!
The problem: Technological issues
This is a tough one, because it’s often out of your control. The basic requirements of teaching English online are having a stable internet connection and good equipment. Sadly, technology is not always our friend. You never know when you might have a power outage or your laptop or microphone decides to go on the blink. And no matter where you are, there are days when the internet is slower than you would like it to be. In the online classroom this can translate to time delays and awkward moments.
First of all, make sure you have a backup plan for power outages. A battery pack or USP, even knowing how to turn your phone into a wifi hotspot can help you out in a pickle. Also, don’t go for cheap and cheerful when it comes to equipment. You wouldn’t buy a second-hand car if you were a F1 driver, or rotten ingredients if you were a professional chef, so there’s no reason you should skimp on the tools of your trade. Plus, they’re tax-deductible!
The problem: Classroom management
Even in a virtual classroom, classroom management is important. In fact, it’s possibly even harder in an online setting than it is in a face-to-face classroom, which means that it is even more important to consider. In a virtual classroom it is easy for naturally louder and more chatty students to dominate class discussions while, quieter, shyer students resort to listening rather than contributing. This is detrimental not only to the individual students but also to the general class atmosphere.
Similarly to a physical classroom, online teachers must have signals they can use to direct the flow of the classroom. For example, holding up a hand if you want the students to be quiet while you speak, asking students to put up their hands when they want to say something, or nominating students to speak. Online you can even go so far as to mute the students until you want them to speak, if you find that necessary.
The problem: Quiet students
It’s often the case that quiet students are more of a challenge than loud students. Loud students are very visible and command your attention, while quiet students can quite easily fade into the background and before you know it the lesson is over and the student hasn’t said more than two words. This is a problem because even though the student is still getting input, they are not being allowed the opportunity to practise their speaking. While this is problematic in a group class situation, it’s even worse in a 1-to-1 situation.
In a group class, make use of break out rooms or whatever similar tool your teaching platform has. Break out rooms are a way for the teacher to break the class into pairs or groups. These groups can then talk to each other privately. In other words, they are not being disturbed by the other groups, because they cannot hear them. In a 1-to-1 situation, the key is to embrace the silence. Don’t feel the need to fill the silence. Give your student time to think and formulate what they need to say before they speak. Also make sure you provide them with enough scaffolding so that they are capable of producing the language you want.
The problem: Group dynamics
Put a bunch of people in the same room and it’s possible that there will be personality clashes, both in a physical classroom and online. Your students may not know each other, they may come from totally different backgrounds, or they might just not get along. This can be uncomfortable in the classroom because it can cause tension or start disagreements or even arguments between students.
When you start teaching a class, make sure you lay down the ground rules. This may seem a bit silly when you are dealing with adults, but it is still necessary. Especially in an online classroom, students need to know what is expected of them and how the lessons are going to be run. This includes reminding students to be respectful of each other’s opinions and cultures, and taking turns for speaking. This will ensure there are no misunderstandings and everyone knows how to behave courteously.
As you can see, teaching English online might not be the idyllic job you imagined it to be. Then again, not many jobs are. There are always going to be challenges and difficulties, but there will always be a way to deal with them, so that you can do the best you can at your job. Even with all these potential problems, what other job lets you go to work in your slippers?