Connecting with people these days may seem easy because after all almost everyone uses social media and has a cell phone, right? Making new friends, then, and interacting with people should be a breeze, since we have different ways to meet lots of people at the same time, and from all parts of the world, you’d think?
Now let’s go one step further. Consider connecting over the internet with a total stranger who is hiring you to teach them a language for a period of time that may take months or years. How do we do it? How do we truly connect? Is that an easy thing to do?
In this post, I want to share with you a bit about my talk “Overcoming the Distance and Delivering a Successful Online Lesson”, which I had the chance to present at BRAZTESOL International Conference, and later this year, at another event dearest to my heart: BrELT on the Road.
I’ve been teaching online since 2014, but before that, I had taken online courses and MOOCs , so I am quite familiar with both synchronous and asynchronous learning environments. One thing that has always been clear to me, is that the learning experience is not about the apps, platforms, or whichever technology we use. It’s about the teacher, the learner(s) and how we connect. Technology is, ultimately, a means to an end.
Below is a visual representation I made that shows the authors’ thoughts behind the concept of ‘presence in online learning’.
In this graphic, you can see that Technology is all around, permeating the spaces, but not interfering. It’s simply there — connecting Teacher and Learner(s). That “magic space” where you want to be with your learners is called ‘Presence’.
The longer I spend teaching online, the more I realize the importance of building this special space to connect with my learners, what Lehman and Conceição refer to as ‘presence’.
Establishing rapport is vital to build a good relationship, promote trust and lower your students’ affective filters. Unlike in a face-to-face setting, where you can directly interact with your learners, in any online environment you need to find ways to break this barrier and involve your students in the process.
How do I create ‘Presence’ in my (synchronous) classes?
I’ve been using Google Classroom to centralize my students’ materials. I personalize each space. Then, I add texts, links, videos, assign homework, tests, and send notifications. They can add materials and post too. It’s a simple and organized way for them to participate and collaborate towards their learning. (I use it with my face-to-face students as well)
Establish Aims (face-to-face students as well)
I add a Google Doc page with ‘monthly aims’ to give my adult learners more controlover their learning. There they can see what we will cover in that month, and we both assess if such goals have been met or not. It’s really simple. You can design your own progress checker doc. Think in simple terms like language, (grammar & vocabulary), skills, pronunciation, and special requests if necessary (i.e. preparing for a job interview may involve specific tasks and goals). It’s a month-long list so it’ll be easy to create and to follow. I also like to add any emerging language that comes up, or pronunciation problem/feature we need to work on. It’s about creating an opportunity for them to exercise agency.
When learners keep track of their own progress and give the teacher their feedback, a partnership is established. Presence is reinforced and the learners feel more motivated to go on.
Active Listen & Watch
This should be in any teacher’s routine, but essential in online classrooms. We must listen to our learner’s actively to understand their real needs. Many times teachers assume they know what students need. It’s a humbling exercise if you came from a teaching background where you used to be in control of everything, but in the end, “it’s not about you. It’s about your learner”, as author and teacher educator Luiz Otávio Barros reminded us in his plenary at BRAZTESOL 2018.
Another aspect of online teaching that may go unnoticed, is monitoring. It’s as important to monitor your students carefully in an online environment as in a face-to-face setting. You should pay close attention to their facial and physical expressions. Does it look like they comprehend you and know what they’re supposed to do? The same way that a student can shy away from asking a question in person, it won’t be different in an online lesson.
Only when really listen to our learners can we truly connect and help them achieve their goals.
When teaching online, I recommend during the need analysis process, to go beyond their learning needs. Talk to your students about how comfortable they are with technology. This way you can predict problems they may have and be prepared to provide solutions and make them more comfortable in this environment.
Reassure your learners that the technical challenges they experience are NOT a reflection of their linguistic skills.
Your Body talks too
You’re not tied to your chair. Move your chair away from the desk from time to time.
I like to do that sometimes as if I were giving them some physical space to think and work. It breaks that same old static image of me staring at them throughout the lesson. Just think of moments when you would take a step back in a face-to-face lesson and move your chair away a bit.
Don’t sit in the same position the entire lesson.
If you have the space, stand up and make use of the room. I like to use what’s around me and ask the student to do the same. For instance, when teaching an A1 lesson about there is/are, or this/that I asked the students to tell me where things were in my room and then theirs. Another time a student had his lesson at a cafe in a shopping mall and we talked about what was around him as a warm-up. He moved the camera so I could see it. Those are simple and effective things that we can easily do which will narrow the distance between your learners and you. You become part of their environment and vice-versa.
That’s the gist of my talk. I hope my tips will help you. Please share your thoughts if you try any of them.
And how do you connect with your learners in an online setting?
One of the things that kept me from blogging for years was fear of exposure. Once your words are out anyone can hear them. Some ears will be kind but others won’t, and that’s OK.
I also used to ask myself these questions: What am I going to write about? There are so many blogs about teaching, ELT and freelancing, already.
There is another version of that. When there was an ELT event approaching, and colleagues asked me if I would submit a proposal, that same inner voice would strike again: What am I going to talk about? Who will want to listen to me? Or, what could I possibly say that hasn’t been said before? Etc.
Have you had these thoughts? Have you heard other teachers say that?
This way of thinking can be more harmful than it might seem. When we ask these questions, we are usually comparing ourselves with other people. What we fail to realize is that we each have a voice and our own experience to share. When we teach a lesson, it’s never the same no matter how many times we do it over. So, why would that be different than when we write from our perspective or give a talk?
When someone writes about a topic, or gives a lecture, they’ll bring into light not only the theoretical aspects about it but also their unique view on that subject. We each experience teaching differently. Some made that a career choice before College, while others embraced it later in life after graduating in a different field, such as myself. For this and many other intrinsic reasons, we will have different stories to tell.
Your story, impressions and views on a subject will be yoursonly.
Don’t wait any longer. Get ready!
Here’s a list of pros to give you that push so you can start writing and submittingproposals to that conference, or event you may be shying away from:
The world can benefit from your knowledge. You may say: Oh, but that has been said many times! Maybe, but has it been said by you? Your way, from your perspective? What if you see it through an angle that no one has seen before? How can you know it if you don’t try? It’s like the saying goes, you’re failing before even trying!
Promote your business or services to a broader audience. If you hide, who will know about you besides those close to you, your friends and family? You can potentially reach anyone on the planet who sees your website, blog or hear you at a conference, webinar, etc.
Advance in your career. By writing or participating in events as a speaker, you will be taking your teaching career to another level. The good news is that you can find support from experienced teachers to assist you with all the steps from writing your proposal to preparing your first presentation. Check with the event’s organizers.
Let me share something with you. I gave my first talk in 2017. Yes, last year! Here’s the opening slide that started it all.
I had total support from experienced colleagues from BrELT who organized this wonderful event called BrELT on the Road bringing together teachers who only met online on Facebook to a live event held in Rio de Janeiro.
I was a first time speaker, so I was helped during the entire process. From writing the proposal, to rehearsing my presentation and getting a personal call from Bruno Andrade, the Group’s founder himself who watched my talk and offered me his feedback! How wonderful was that!? In the end I felt energized, happy and accomplished. Some of the teachers who attended my session were beginners, but some were experienced as well. They came to me after the presentation and asked me questions. It felt great! And to think that I almost didn’t do it because, oh well, what could I possibly say that someone hadn’t said before?
My advice? Choose a topic with which you’re familiar. Something you know very well, and have tested again and again. It’ll give you the confidence you need.
By sharing what we know, we can help other people avoid making the same mistakes we made. We can also shed new light onto an old issue.
OK, we all know that sunny days won’t last forever. Some clouds will move in eventually. There will be rainy days. It’s just part of life. In order to succeed as a writer and speaker, you will need to hone your skills like any other professional, but you’ll also need to work on your emotional intelligence. With exposure, comes constructive as well as destructive criticism. There are all kinds of people out there reading what we write and watching us. That shouldn’t stop us. If you receive destructive criticism, it should serve as fuel to make you write even more! If that happens to you, don’t get bothered with that. Carry on!
Constructive feedback on the other hand is great and should be welcome! It’ll make you a better teacher, writer, lecturer and so on.
We should think the same way when we get to a position when we can offer feedback. First of all, we must ask ourselves, was it solicited? We shouldn’t assume the other person wants our feedback! Instead, we can reach them via inbox if we really mean to help. Remember the feedback I received after my first talk? My colleague contacted me in private and asked me if I wanted his feedback. That’s the way to do it.
I’ll leave you with a picture from my first talk, and it would make me really happy to hear that you have taken the first step to write, or to submit a proposal. I will be giving my 2nd talk this July at BRAZ-TESOL International Conference in Caxias do Sul, Brazil. I couldn’t be happier. I’ve had the support of friends and colleagues to have my proposal accepted yet again. I took the first step, but I also asked for help. Don’t be shy. This is my advice. Teachers are generous. Ask and you shall receive!
Do you lack the energy to be consistently productive?
Have you become irritable or impatient with co-workers or students*?
These are some of the questions you should ask yourself according to the article “Job burnout: How to spot it and take action” (Sept. 17, 2015), by the Staff at the highly-regarded Mayo Clinic, to discover if you’re at risk of burning out or not. (*I purposefully changed the words ‘customers or clients’ to ‘students.’) If you said yes to any of those questions, then this post should help you.
(For the complete article and more information on the subject, check the links at the end of the post.)
Accumulating responsibilities is easy. For freelance teachers, it gets more complicated because we also handle all the administrative and pedagogical aspects of our business. Besides, there’s our professional development, our families and so on. How do we find time for everything? We want to believe we can do it all, but we can’t. So we start neglecting something here, something there. Instead of slowing down, we keep pushing to the breaking point. The good news is that you can prevent it from happening with a few changes in your routine.
This past week, a freelance teacher asked in a FB group how many hours we worked in a week. The answers varied. Some worked between 5-6 hours a day. Most teachers said that this number was ideal, but since they also worked part-time at schools, they pulled between 8-10h total. There were those who worked 10-12 hours a day, including the person who asked the question. All of those who worked 8+ hours complained about exhaustion. The chance these individuals burn out is real unless they rethink their busy schedule.
Work overload is one of the causes of burnout syndrome. In our profession, much like in healthcare, it’s important to remember that we must help ourselves before we can help other people. We, educators, tend to say yes and help everyone, worry about our learners as we should, but to what extent? There is a balance that we must keep. We can’t go so far as to make ourselves sick! How can we help anyone or make a difference in anyone’s life if we’re bedridden?
What can you do not to fall into this trap?
1. Set Achievable Goals
Watch the number of hours you commit to work per week. Don’t push yourself too hard! Maybe you can do it for a few months to save some money for a trip, to buy something, but don’t do it for a long time. You’ll regret it, and you’ll get sick!
2. Learn to Say No
Sometimes you think you know it all, but when you least expect it, you’ll be reminded about the core values in your life. Turning down that job offer that will cost you two hours of sleep, or saying no to another private student so that you can have time to exercise, may be good ideas for your mental and physical health in the long run.
3. Take Care of Yourself
We neglect ourselves when we are stressed. We’re the last ones on our to-do list. So, make sure you add a “Me time” to your schedule every week. Go out, do something you like. If you work from home, go out! Take a walk and see people, get a massage, go to the movies, get a drink with a friend or a loved one, do something nice for yourself! If you go to your students and prefer to stay in and rest, take a nap, order some food, watch TV, just don’t check emails or deal with work-related issues!
4. Reduce the Stressors in Your Life
Here are some examples:
Giving yourself unrealistic deadlines will only cause stress.
Telling yourself that you’ll have time to prepare lesson plans, write articles, and teach full-time before taking a trip.
You should have an idea how long it takes you to prepare a lesson, or to write an article. Give yourself enough time to do what needs to be done. Plan accordingly. If you don’t know how long it’ll take you, double or triple the time to be safe.
Not setting boundaries with your students (not having a contract of any kind)
Example: Allowing a student who didn’t pay in advance to attend a class, and then not getting paid immediately after, and then having to ask for payment again.
Charge in advance! No payment = no class = no stress.
Be firm. Have a contract, have rules, enforce them. Students will respect you. You will look professional. Isn’t that your goal? Being firm doesn’t mean being rude. It says I value my work; I value my time and these rules will make sure I can offer you the best service to you.
Accepting a job that you’re not prepared or qualified for
If you’re not sure if you can deliver what is expected of you, it will not only be bad for your nerves but also your reputation.
You should politely decline the offer and if that is the case, recommend a colleague who’s qualified for the job.
Accepting a student who doesn’t fit your profile.
Teaching 1:1 requires establishing rapport and trust. If you can’t build rapport from the beginning, it won’t work. Not every student will be a match. If there’s no mutual respect and trust from the start, forget it. Come up with an excuse and move on.
5. Body & Mind
Go to the gym, lift weights, do yoga, martial arts, bike, run, just get moving! It’s important to do some kind of physical activity. Any doctor will tell you that. You need to find something you like. I see it now as a necessity, much like wearing sunscreen when I go out, or a hat. It’s about staying healthy and the relaxation that comes with the release of endorphins – our body’s natural pain and stress fighters. So if you’re stressed because of work, go for a run, ride a bicycle, do some exercise, and you should feel better.
Meditation is another way to relieve stress and to improve your concentration. I haven’t tried it myself though, but I know teachers who practice it and love it. They say it helps them focus and relax. Why not give it a try? Here’s a link to free apps that you can try. I have used Calmto relax and fall sleep.
My final piece of advice is to listen to yourself, to your body, and if you’re not feeling well, physically or emotionally, don’t wait! Seek medical help.
For more information on the Burnout Syndrome, and the link to the article I cited:
If you follow me on FB, you know that I moderate Cecilia Nobre’s Facebook group Private English Teacher’s Reloaded. Last month we created a pool and asked: “What’s your biggest challenge as a 1:1 teacher?” Finding new students was voted number 1. It was no surprise to me, actually, since this is a recurring theme among freelance teachers.
I did a talk last September at the ELT event BrELT on the Road-Rio edition, entitled “Transitioning to Freelance Teaching: the Do’s and Don’ts.” In this talk, one of the topics I addressed was how to find new students. To illustrate it, I decided to check exactly how I’d done it.
This was my background at the time: I had been away from Brazil for 12 years, and I was starting over from zero. I had few connections left in my hometown, and I had to try something. I had placed online ads in the US, and it worked well for me there, so I thought, why not try it here? What do I have to lose? This chart was shown in my presentation.
Placing ads is pretty much like fishing. You need to find a good spot, the right gear, the proper bait, then you throw your line and wait. How long you’ll wait will depend on a few factors: the most important how well you write your copy; followed by where you place it and third when. (Near the holidays it may take longer to get a reply, or during summer break, but don’t get discouraged! In my experience, there’s always someone willing to study in all 12 months of the year.)
Continuing with the fishing analogy, if you use the wrong bait, (wrong words), you will not catch the fish you want. If you choose the wrong spot (wrong platform, site or medium), you may go home empty-handed. If you don’t wait long enough, the same may happen.
Finding students through ads requires patience, choosing where to advertise, how to reach your target audience, and writing to them, not from your perspective! Now, whether you’ll find a student who can pay your asking price is another issue, but it’s got nothing to do with your writing abilities. The problem is that the student you’re looking for may not be there. (More on finding the right student later.)
Let’s go back to the chart for a minute. I want to focus on the referrals. When I did my research, even the teachers who do not freelance full-time said that most of their students came from referrals. What does that tell you?
What I’ve learned in my many years working on and off as a freelancer (since the 90s!) is that we have our ups and downs when it comes to finding new students. What we can’t do is to stop advertising! People must know that we “still teach.” I remember when I was living in Chicago and my Mom would tell me someone asked her if I still offered English lessons! I was surprised that after so many years away, some people still remembered me as an English teacher.
I’ve talked to colleagues who are successful freelancers, and we share the same opinion. It’s essential for you to have a professional website or a blog. You’ve got to have an online presence of a sort. Note I said professional, not personal. You have to separate your brand from your personal life. These days you can’t hide anymore. People must know who you are, what you do in order to find you. A good online presence will give you credibility, and you’ll attract new students that are not from your close circle of friends, family, and neighbors.
I clearly see a shift in the way things are happening now. On the one hand, if we do a good job, invest in our development, we’ll have happy students who will give us new referrals. On the other, we live in a connected world which we can’t ignore. I know many teachers do not want to have a website or be on social media, but I’m afraid that if you’re a freelancer, you will have a hard time finding students if you stay hidden. I used to be on of those teachers.
Some teachers love it, though: they are on Instagram, they make videos on Youtube, they love the exposure. I don’t advertise my services on FB, but others do. I think FB works best for courses than for 1:1 lessons. The reason is simple in my view. There are so many teachers on FB looking for students, that the moment someone asks for a teacher dozens reply… in seconds! Remember that when you’re online so are millions of other people! Do you really want to be competing with just about anyone like that?
If you choose to place an advertisement, think about how you’re going to write it. I have a background in Communication, so I’ll give you some pointers.
• Think about you and your qualifications. Then think about who your target audience is. Focus on them.
• The writing has to be clear and informative. Give specifics.
• Talk about you, who you are, and what you can do for the students. Talk about what you offer, how you work but don’t write too much text either. Make it easy to find the significant information.
• I recommend not to say how much you charge in the ad on purpose. (I don’t) Ask the prospect to contact you for further information. This strategy will give you the chance to explain in detail how you work and your value, not just your price. See: How much should I charge?
• Use a good photo of you. You want to look professional and friendly. A smile always helps. Make sure you choose a nice (neat) background. Preferably of where you teach, otherwise a white wall works just fine.
Give it some time. If you don’t get replies in 5-7 days, delete it and rewrite it. Something is off. Change the text, your photo, or where you placed your advertisement.
Do a Google search in your country for private teachers in the language you teach. See what comes up. Then, check where these ads were placed. Now go and place yours there! That’s what I did, and it’s always worked for me.
1. It starts in the classroom. Keep doing a good job. Keep learning, keep getting better at what you do. Your students will notice. They will learn, and in return, they will bring in new students.
2. Show yourself to the world, but do it your way! You should always be comfortable. Just don’t stay hidden.
3. Keep it up. If you have placed ads, don’t stop running them once you reach a desired number of students.. (I made that mistake once!) Things happen. People may change their plans, their priorities, or lose their jobs. If one or two suddenly stop taking lessons from you, then what? How long will it take you to get two new replacement students? 2, 3 Months?
In my previous post I proposed a reflection to put you on the right track to become a successful freelance teacher. Once you define the who, where, what, and how to start your teaching business, it’s time you thought about the more practical aspects involved. It’s time we talked about money.
I don’t know about you, but I was never very interested in numbers, let alone finance. If you’re like me, you’ll know what I mean.
For you to succeed as a freelancer, however, it’ll be really useful to understand where your money is going. Not only will it help you run your business more efficiently, but you’ll also know when/how much to save and invest back into your business.
If you feel overwhelmed, you should hire an accountant straight away. At the very beginning, though, you may not need to do that depending on your income, where you live, and the tax laws in your country.
For those of us in Brazil we have the option of becoming a Micro Entrepreneur (MEI) and we can register online for free. In addition, there’s SEBRAE, a non-profit entity which offers free advice over the phone and in person for small business owners. They are pretty helpful. For Americans, The US government (SBA) offers a similar service. Their 10-step guide is worth checking out.
Regardless of our location, what we all need is to be informed.
See what’s available in your town. If there’s not much where you live, start by checking the online courses posted below. There are many other courses to choose from.
The point is, we have to know more about our business, our clients, our market, and all the legal requirements to operate. We have to pay our taxes, and think about our retirement as well. Without this knowledge we may not last long and we’ll lose money for sure.
To give you a better idea, I made a list of expenses that should help you see where your money goes.
What are your costs to get to your students? (Include transport & time);
If you work from home, make sure you include: electricity (e.g. A/C adds a lot to our monthly bills in Brazil), internet, monthly subscriptions like Zoom, Off2Class, or any other service related to your classes;
Materials you buy: books, tools, paper, ink, anything you purchase and use in class;
Paid courses you take for your advancement, paid events you participate in, CPD (Continuing Professional Development) investments in general;
If you have your own website, add the costs with domain & hosting to the list;
We’ve just scratched the surface here. This list includes your overhead expenses like utilities, others like investing in your CPD, and of course you should account for the unpredictableexpenses like fixing or replacing broken equipment, or not being able to work when you get sick. You need to be prepared. You need to have a business plan, a contingency plan in place.
I suggest you try one of the courses below to learn more about business and finance. I recommend these online platforms: Coursera and Future Learn. Coursera offers many paid programs, but you can audit almost any individual course for free. Just search the catalog using the course title, click enroll, and a window will pop up. You’ll see at the bottom of the screen “audit the course”.
I know the feeling. The excitement when you realize you found something you think is going to work for you. I’ve felt like that many times. The last one was with Pilates. I took a trial lesson, thought it was great, and then signed up for a month. I then did it for a few more months and stopped. Before that were my art lessons, which I truly enjoyed! I took 3 courses in a period of a year and a half and that was it. Fast forward a few years, and now I have tons of paint, brushes, paper, etc, all gathering dust in my drawers and boxes.
What’s that got to do with freelancing, you may ask? Well, it’s about commitment.
These are examples of things I really liked doing and I still quit them! The difference is that these were hobbies, not what I chose to do as my sole source of income.
Things will come at you when you least expect, so you must be prepared for them if you want to thrive (or survive) as a freelance. If you’re serious about making it a career for yourself, you can’t approach it as something you’re doing just to make some extra cash on the side. You need a plan.
So, how do you start?
I will start by asking you some questions and later I’ll answer them myself, based on my own experience. (I invite you to post your answers below in the comments).
1. Being Professional
Do you feel prepared to teach? Have you been formally trained? If not, do you know how to find the help you need? Do you know about any free opportunities to develop as a teacher? How about paid development/training courses for teachers?
2. Defining your niche
Who would you like to teach? Who wouldn’t you like to teach? Have you thought about that? Would you be teaching 1:1, groups, online, face-to-face?
3. Finding your workspace
Where are you teaching: at the student’s place, yours, online? Would you a rent a space?
Can you produce your own materials? Do you know how to create a syllabus that will address your student’s needs? Can you write your own lesson plans? Would you use a coursebook? If you say yes, do you know how to choose a suitable coursebook? How can you adapt coursebook lessons? If you teach online, can you still use a coursebook? Should you? Would you change your online course format? How about ESP lessons?
5. Assessing your students’ progress
How are you going to assess your learner’s progress? Are quizzes and tests enough? How else can you check if they’re learning? Where would you find tests/quizzes/ rubrics? Do you know how to make/use a rubric? How often are you going to assess your learners? How should you assess pronunciation? How can you assess writing? What if the classes are online? What changes?
In my view this is how a (freelance) teacher must start. By asking questions and being curious, we should look for answers and ask for help. This is the way to grow, learn and become better teachers. We have to keep asking questions. Freelance teachers have to ask more questions and be even more proactive.
There are many puzzles to be solved as there are questions to be considered regarding course creation, methodology, assessment and so on. These are just some that came to mind.
Next, we need to talk about the business, marketing and PR side of freelancing.
Do share what you think. I’d love to hear from you!