Teaching online is a relatively new experience in the education field. Because of this, there are very few resources for us to look for help in navigating and learning exactly how to teach virtually.  As recently as two years ago, I would never have dreamed of teaching ESL to Chinese children in their homes from the comfort of my home office. It is an incredible opportunity for people all over the world to connect with and learn from each other.  Online teaching, however, comes with its own set of struggles and challenges.

Technical problems are one of the significant challenges in teaching ESL online. We deal with Wi-Fi interruptions, equipment failures, computer updates and power outages. Not only do we tutors have to deal with our equipment issues, but we also rely on our students’ equipment halfway around the world. Some of our students are old enough to restart their tablets or to figure out why we can’t hear them, but many of them depend on their parents or other tech-savvy people in their homes to connect their equipment and to keep them connected.  I have had to call in my company’s technical support several times to make a phone call to the students’ homes and walk them through connecting so I could hear and see them. I have also had to read the lips of students when their microphones fail, or to teach a student I could only hear because his screen was black, due to camera issues. Flexibility and adaptation are keys to online teaching and delivery.

Even in my regular classroom, I always have a Plan B regarding technical issues. If my lesson plan includes showing a video or a movie, I need to be ready for that not to work and to pull out another activity. Some of our online class technical problems are wholly unavoidable and will cause us to lose time in class, but many challenges can be overcome with some creativity.  Try not to appear frustrated, but instead look at it as an opportunity to use the skills you have to keep your students engaged and excited about learning English. For example, if you can’t see a student, give him a chance to choose an item in his room and lead the class in a game of 20 Questions, with him offering hints.

Another issue with teaching in a virtual classroom is difficulty in classroom management. Granted, this is an age-old challenge to every educator at one time or another.  We all have “those” classes, the ones that make our palms sweat before the class and need a good glass of relaxation after class hours. The problem with teaching online is that many of the traditional classroom management techniques are difficult to pull off virtually.  

The primary technique I use in my regular classroom for behavior management is physical proximity. I walk the rows of desks while speaking, repeatedly checking the students’ work, ensuring they are on task, and creating barriers between chatting students. Obviously, this is impossible in an online classroom. I have had to learn new techniques for behavior management. These include using more TPR (Total Physical Response), changing my voice inflections often, using positive reinforcement through points systems, and being as engaging and entertaining as possible for my twenty-five-minute or fifty-minute class.

The ALO7 curriculum is very engaging and entertaining, which is helpful for moving things along and keeping the students motivated. I also like to have music videos and approved photos on hand as a backup, so that there is no extra time when a student would even have the opportunity to be disengaged and start to misbehave in the class.  Keeping them busy has been advantageous to my success in my online learning environment.

I surveyed my online teaching community and asked them what struggles they encountered in their virtual classrooms. One common complaint is the difficulty of creating a good rapport with students in a short, twenty-five-minute, weekly or bi-weekly class. It is true that when a student feels a connection with their teacher, they will feel valued in their learning environment and perform better. Our time in the classroom is limited, but we do have a unique opportunity in the fact that we are guests in the students’ homes. They can show us their pets, introduce us to their families, and even give us a tour of their homes. These are things that we cannot participate in while in a regular brick-and-mortar classroom.   

I keep notes on each student as I find out personal facts about them from week to week. Our ALO7 curriculum has many personal warm-up questions and discussion questions. If I take time to listen and even expand upon the content, I learn many things about the students.  Before a class, I quickly review the previous week’s classes, looking for interesting things they may have told me. I have asked students to share pictures on their phones from recent vacations or for them to talk about a particular event that excited them. When they tell me their dreams of becoming a star or a singer, I ask them to perform for us in the last minute of class.  These things all help build rapport as well as to make our learning time valuable. The connection and trust developed go a long way in encouraging the students to be brave in their speaking. A good rapport creates trust and a safe environment for the children to make mistakes and learn.

Some online learning platforms do not have repeat students, and the teachers would find it even more difficult, almost impossible, to build a good relationship with their students. I am grateful that with ALO7 I can work with the same students for anywhere from 20-40 weeks at a time. This enables me to not only know them personally but to identify their learning styles and to customize my lessons according to their needs. I enjoy having up to three students at a time, seeing them interact with each other, and using their strengths in the classroom to maximize their learning potential.

It is difficult to evaluate our students using the traditional means of quizzes and examinations. Instead, we need to gauge their learning by the amount of speaking they do and by their comprehension.  Following Bloom’s Taxonomy, we know that we want to see higher-order thinking, which is more rigorous than memorization. I typically evaluate my students’ skills through expanding upon the content in the lessons and asking open-ended questions. They have to think and apply what they have learned, and I can see where I need to focus my energies accordingly.

At the end of our teaching day, we want to be sure that our students have had the best learning experience possible. There are very few resources available to us about improving our online classroom experience, so we need to rely on each other and help each other out with suggestions and helpful hints. The ALO7 Facebook group (Pili’s Playhouse) is an excellent source of information for current tutors. We share our struggles, give tips, and show each other video clips of things that have worked for us. Getting connected online for me has been one of the greatest tools in improving my ability to effectively teach students, which, when all is said and done is what’s important.  

(Feel free to share your suggestions below in our comments section!)

Jan Millsaps has been an advocate for the improvement of education models in Latin America for the last fifteen years. She is making a difference one classroom at a time. Jan became an online tutor with ALO7 in late summer of 2017 to help pay off medical bills and to provide for future retirement, if there ever will be such a thing in her life.

Jan has a B.S. in Education, concentrating in Reading (K-12) and Math (6-9). However, she has taught every subject and grade level throughout her 25-year career. The last fifteen years have been dedicated to teaching ESL the majority of the time. She also continues to teach math and reading.

Jan believes education is the key to societal development and works hard to make a difference in the lives of her students both online and offline. She is passionate that her students reach their full potential and become world changers.

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