We’ve all had that friend who is the life of the party (or maybe it’s you). You know, the person who can always make any situation fun and bring a smile to everyone’s faces from the most mundane things. Before I became an online ESL teacher, I had my reservations. I had looked up YouTube videos of current tutors from various companies to prepare for my interviews. What I saw were brightly colored caricatures of people. They reminded me of those people you know, the life of the party. I wasn’t sure I could be like them, as I have always been reserved and quiet. But I was wrong. It turns out that a lot of the traits that I thought were inherent to a personality can be learned (with the help of a strong cup of coffee).
Yes, being fun can be learned! Yes, being humorous on the spot can be learned. And yes, keeping young students engaged while educating them can be learned. “Well, dear detached 1st person writer, how did you learn it? Do I also have to be an over-the-top singing, dancing, puppet-wielding maniac to be a good online ESL teacher?”
My answer is: NO! But you should be energetic, animated, and willing to be a little silly sometimes. How can you do that when you’re not an outgoing person (like me), let alone at five in the morning?
Total Physical Response (TPR) can seem awkward or unnatural when you first begin online teaching. However, using gestures for commands like “listen,” “say” or “look” soon becomes part of your ESL teaching methods. I have heard many online tutors say that they soon began using TPR unconsciously in their daily life, earning some strange looks from their friends and family. After a short time, it will become like second nature. Remember, while TPR seems like a game of charades to you, it does help reinforce English learning for students. For gestures and ideas, Alo7 has a GIPHY library with tutors demonstrating their favorite TPR motions.
If you are still struggling with using TPR, learning basic American Sign Language may help you. It will help you get more comfortable with using your hands and body to express language. You may find additional gestures that are useful for your students. After all, ASL is a language that uses signs to mean words and concepts. Dr. Bill Vicars, professor of Deaf Studies, has a YouTube channel with several videos for basic signs. Bonus: you now know a new language.
Watch your recordings
Something I noticed when I go back to watch my old classes is how terrible my old haircut was! And more importantly, how boring I was. At that time, I thought I was being funny, moving a lot, and using intonation. But on video, I came across as flat and not very animated. It’s like an actor on stage: he or she must be more dramatic and exaggerated so that the audience sitting far away can still see the actions and feel the emotions. Have a look at your previous classes and critique yourself. Are you using enough TPR? Do you vary the pitch and tone of your voice? What kind of facial expression do you have?
Practice TPR in front of a mirror
Now that you’re aware of your strengths and weaknesses, you know what to focus on. As the saying goes, practice makes perfect. Keep in mind that no matter how silly it seems to you, it probably won’t seem strange to your students. Instead, your gestures, facial expressions, or additional props are aides to students to understand the English meaning of your words.
Try a standing desk
Standing desks have benefits for your health and posture, but did you know that it can help improve your online teaching as well? Okay, there isn’t a specific clinical study to back that claim up. But there is research that shows standing desks can improve your energy throughout the day. That means you’ll be able to bring that energy to your classes. More importantly, you have more freedom to move, which naturally encourages you to use your body more while teaching. For those who have commitment problems, like all my exes, there are also hybrid sit-standing desks.
I know I said at the beginning that you don’t have to sing to be a good ESL teacher and I stand by my words (because I have a standing desk wink). But music is more than just singing. It can be clapping, drumming on your desk or bringing in an instrument you play. Read things in a sing-song voice. Change the tone of your voice as you teach the vocabulary words. It helps break up the monotony of a regular class and gets students following your lead. Singing also helps with intonation and stress, which is challenging to teach, but necessary to sounding more natural in English.
It’s no coincidence that “improv” is one letter away from “improve.” That’s a lie. I improv’d that line. It’s a complete coincidence. Being able to think on your feet is a great skill to have as an online ESL tutor. You can quickly react to something a student says, or surprise them with something spontaneous and fun. To help build this skill, you may consider joining an improv group or class. Besides helping your teaching skills, you might find a new hobby and friends. But, if you don’t have the time or budget, you can practice improv games with friends or family. A classic game is ‘Tell a Story,’ where each sentence begins with each letter of the alphabet. For example:
A: “Animals attacked my house yesterday.”
B: “But didn’t you know I was attacked by aliens last year?”
A: “Couldn’t you fight them off?”
A: “Every…., uh…elephant?”
Mick Napier, a director and improvisation theater teacher, gives several suggestions for solo practice in his book Improvise: Scene from the Inside Out:
- Speak gibberish: Literally, make a conversation using only made up words and sounds. This will help you focus on intonation and how we say words without thinking about the meaning.
- Play a word association game: Pick any object in the room and say it out loud. Then, without pausing, begin talking about that object. You may describe it or talk about an experience you have had with that object. Switch objects after 10 seconds.
- TV dialogue: Watch a TV show with the sound off and make up the dialogue for the characters
- Not all improv has to be funny or only with words. The focus is also to help you expand on the content of the lesson. Try crazy things like wrapping a sheet around you, pretending to fly like Superman or eat a lemon. Incorporate yourself into your props.
My transformation from a mild-mannered introvert to a visually verbose and vivacious virtual vocabulary….vicar….vixen….ventriloquist (?) wasn’t overnight, I was determined to create the best possible learning environment for my students. And this started with engagement. It’s something I still strive to improve every day in my classes. With some practice, tenacity, and confidence, anyone can be the kind of teacher who makes a lasting impact on students.
Remember, you do not have to transform 100%. Everyone has their own preferred teaching style. These are ESL teaching methods to enrich what you are already doing. If nothing else, adding any combination of these skills might mean one less cup of coffee in the morning. Except TPR. Always use TPR. wink
I started teaching English abroad after graduating from Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts with a degree in English Literature. Although I originally planned to teach in Cambodia for a year, I discovered I had a passion for helping students around the world achieve their academic, professional and personal goals through language learning. I’ve been an Alo7 tutor since April 2017 and am currently living in South America.
I am Chinese-Japanese American, but sadly, I’m not trilingual. I grew up in a relatively “Western” household–no Tiger Moms but plenty of fried rice and a healthy dose of Asian guilt. My favorite part of English teaching is getting the opportunity to learn about my students’ daily lives, traditions and customs, so I’m very excited to be writing about Chinese culture on the Alo7 blog!