At ALO7, there is always more than one Teacher of the Year because the company is full of passionate teachers who excel at their job. This year ten teachers were chosen, and out of those ten two were the lucky recipients of an all-expenses-paid trip to China to visit ALO7’s home office in Shanghai.
Recently, I sat down virtually with Lauren T., one of the Teachers of the Year chosen to travel to Shanghai. Lauren shared her story of working for ALO7 and more about her teaching style that led to this award. Of course, I also had to get the details about her recent trip to Shanghai, too.
Where are you from? Tell me a little bit about yourself.
I’m an American and from the Midwest. I was born in Chicago and grew up in Wisconsin. I have always had a passion for language and reading. Wandering through the stacks at the local public library was (and still is) one of my favorite things to do. My experiences in the library led me to retrace Jack Kerouac’s footsteps by studying at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. There I earned B.A. degrees in English and History. After graduating, I returned to Wisconsin and worked in the print industry for several years as well as dabbled in freelance work in Milwaukee, WI. Now I live in a small, but very progressive, town in the heart of the Driftless area. When I’m not working online, you can find me spending time with my family on our hobby farm, volunteering for 4-H, cross-country skiing, exploring the world physically and virtually, and having as many adventures as possible.
When did you start teaching for ALO7? And, what made you decide to do so?
I started teaching for ALO7 in May 2017. My path to finding ALO7 began when I landed on an ad for ALO7 while searching for something related to learning Mandarin. It seemed like an interesting opportunity, and I decided to apply. After passing the interview process, Dandan called and asked if I would like to be on the floater – substitute team. I readily accepted and have been grateful for the opportunity ever since. Floating has allowed me to meet a wide variety of new students and work on academic projects as well.
What is your favorite part of teaching for ALO7?
I think that working for ALO7 has two components and the intersection of those components is what I love about working for ALO7. The staff, both in Shanghai and around the world, are amazing to work with. They have always welcomed and considered my ideas from green screen to developing new teaching styles to courseware suggestions. I think their willingness to listen to the tutor community really sets them apart and will help them to continue to be innovative.
The second component is the students. I have been so grateful to work with such a wide variety of students and families who trust us to be beamed into their homes and classrooms to practice their English skills. I can’t believe all of the things they have taught me in the course of practicing their conversational skills.
As an ALO7 2018 Teacher of the Year, what advice can you offer to new tutors to help improve their online teaching style?
Firstly, I still can’t believe that I’m an ALO7 2018 Teacher of the Year. Last year the floater team worked on a QC project reviewing classes, and I know how many amazing tutors we have in our community! In my opinion, there are three things that are the core of my teaching style, and I remind myself of them often:
Think of language as a communication tool, not an answer to a test. Getting the right answer during an exercise is like identifying that a hammer can drive nails. It is important, but it is a foundation. Teaching the students how to build their own uniquely wonderful structures upon that foundation is where true fluency lies.
Remember that one day the courseware and the tutor will be gone. Eventually, the students will be alone in the world with what they have learned. Every time I reconsider this idea, I try to think of new ways to teach our students to express themselves. I want the students to know that when they are talking about themselves, they are welcome to tell me their opinions, not what they think is the “correct” answer. One of my favorite ways to set the tone for this type of learning environment is to play “How Am I Today?”
Most of the time when I would ask my students, “How are you today?” they would say, “I’m fine, thank you. And you?” Whenever I hear this, I say, “Let’s play a little game. How am I today?” then I use TPR to show them an emotion without speaking. I usually try to get them to guess happy, sad, angry, hungry, and tired. Then I ask them again. “How are you today?” Usually, they pause and then tell me how they really are. That transition from “right answer” to using language as a tool to communicate sets the stage for genuine interaction. It also shows students that you care about them and want to know where they are coming from when they enter the class.
Further, I keep this idea in mind when a taboo topic comes up in the courseware. It doesn’t really matter to me if the students disagree with it or agree with it. What matters is that they know how to handle it and what the cross-cultural expectations may be.
Know the carrot. Consider the metaphor of the carrot and the horse. If you know what motivates your students, they will strive to use English not because you are forcing them too, but because they want to. If you expand the material and frame it so that they can discuss what they are interested or at least amused by they will try harder, not worry as much about making mistakes (because they want so badly to get their points across), improve their recall, and look for new words. The desire to use language creates a need for growth. A need for growth creates motivation to learn. Motivation to learn creates a successful class and lifelong learners.
I once had an intermediate student in my class who was about 11-years-old. He was not interested in Lele, Lele’s clothes, or her love of dancing. He was tipping back in his chair and losing interest quickly. I knew that he loved the video game Minecraft and tried to consider how to use it in the class. I said to him, “I know you don’t like dancing, but if you were going to build me a town in Minecraft and I needed a huge dance school, how would you build it?” He sat up in his chair and started to tell me all about bricks, blocks, lava, and Steve. When he didn’t know a word, I taught him additional vocabulary like “torch” and “zombies.” The Minecraft terminology and framework became his reward system for using the language structures and completing the activities. Recasting the courseware changed his perspective, and he ended up learning more than if he would have gone through the courseware without expanding the content.
Tell me a story about your favorite teaching moment.
I have so many favorite teaching moments! The students are wonderful. One of my all-time favorite moments was during a Hi Fun class when teenage students told me how they helped their grandparents. One student named Lancaster told me how he cared for his grandfather’s dog every day because his grandfather was no longer able to do so. In that moment it seemed like the time and distance melted away, and we were having a heart-to-heart conversation. I was so impressed by how genuine the students were. They didn’t have any irreverence about having to care for others as is so often seen in American teens.
ALO7 recently flew you to Shanghai to attend a conference to represent the 2018 Teachers of the Year. What was the highlight of your trip?
Once again, I had so many favorites! Thank you again (and million times more) to ALO7 for choosing me to be one of the Teachers of the Year. Everyone and everything in Shanghai was amazing! If I had to pick one highlight, it would be teaching at the ONLY school. ONLY was gracious enough to let us design our own hour-long classes, socialize with the students over cake, and observe an offline class! To meet the students in person and brainstorm with the ONLY staff was incredible. Before teaching at ONLY (and OneSmart) I felt like I was looking through a keyhole at what it meant to learn English in China, but after those experiences, it was as though someone flung open the door.
Meeting the staff in Shanghai was great as well. It was surreal to be in the same place at the same time as my virtual co-workers. The office was beautiful and had a great atmosphere. There was even a “fruit man” who came around delivering produce for a snack – take that junk food vending machines!
Did you try any new foods during your trip?
Of course! Zing was such a fabulous, patient, and tireless handler. She introduced us to many new foods and provided us with several napkins when we made soup dumpling faux pas. Some things I had never tried before were pig ears, crab roe, duck feet, durian cake, and cheese (cream cheese) tea. All were incredibly delicious, and much of it made me reconsider what I thought was authentic Chinese food.
Thank you, Lauren, for sharing about your journey to becoming an ALO7 Teacher of the Year.
Dalissa McEwen is passionate about education and believes that learning is a lifelong pursuit. When unable to find educational resources in her own community, she founded an educational co-op for over 100 families and had articles on education published online. Prior to jumping into the field of online education, one of her favorite jobs was working as the Editor-in-Chief of a magazine focused on art, music, and culture. She’s also worked in the field of social media for the past 25 years.
Currently, Dalissa is ALO7’s social media manager and blog editor. In her free time, she volunteer teaches art at a local center for Latinx immigrants, and she shows her personal artwork in galleries.
She has a Bachelor’s Degree from Temple University in Philadelphia, PA, USA, and TESOL certification.