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: