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1,095 days (or so) can lead to an entirely new version of yourself that you barely recognize. Each day, many small, consistent efforts done thousands of times can introduce you to a person capable of things you had never imagined. I knew this from building skills as a musician, but I didn’t realize building teaching skills as an ESL teacher would change my entire life. Three years ago, almost to the very moment that I began writing this blog post, you could have found me studying a libretto by a not oft-performed opera called La Forza del Destino by Giuseppe Verdi. La Forza del Destino translates loosely as The Power of Fate and is sometimes translated as The Force Of Destiny. At that time, I had not imagined myself on the edge of a complete life transformation, with a career change to becoming an ESL Teacher being catalyst for the change. I thought I was destined to become an opera singer and teacher three years from that time, but fate had other plans. The teaching skills I learned from my music training and music teachers, which I then used as an adjunct lecturer at a community college and private music teacher, would be fated to take me on an adventure of a lifetime.

With Piano And Music Theory Teacher
Teacher Annette (far right) with her piano teacher, Dr. Steven Smith and Dr. Tim Melbinger in November 2017 after a PMTA recital.

Through a series of trials that befell me through the beginning of 2017, I decided to try teaching English as a foreign language. I hadn’t really been familiar with the work of an ESL teacher before my mom, Catherine, began working with ALO7. My mom, who was already working with the company, suggested that I apply to work with ALO7 in the spring of 2017. I was unable to interview at that time, but as fate would have it, I was able to interview with the company in February 2018. 

The email came through that I would be interviewing with my now colleague, Abraham. As I sat in my office waiting for the interview to begin on a Sunday night, I had plenty of worries. I had just quit my current job, and ALO7 was my sole prospect of rebuilding my life, for the third time. I knew moving forward in my life relied on making a good impression through this interview. What if I missed an important prompt for the mock student in the mock class? What if I didn’t share the courseware in the Zoom program correctly? What if I messed up the timing of the mock class? What if I gave the wrong answer during the interview? What if my internet was unreliable? What if I failed the technical test? Will my performance in the mock class showcase my teaching skills accurately?

With time running out before the interview began and all these thoughts running through my mind, I realized a major distraction that I had failed to notice in my green screen tests before my interview. I looked at myself in the Zoom thumbnail of my camera feed, with the Malu named Lele at the piano happily playing behind me on my green screen background, and I realized something very embarrassing and too late to change. My eyebrows looked nothing short of a Christmas tree farm having a fruitful bounty for this Yuletide season. 

“Oh, my gracious!” I thought as I pawed my eyebrows hastily, “My eyebrows look absolutely atrocious!” Too late now, I was committed to this interview – me, myself, and my oddly left raised and right lowered bushy eyebrows that only seemed to make themselves known in the light of Zoom. I only hoped Abraham wouldn’t think my lack of control over my eyebrows would indicate any unprofessional behaviors on my part. Thankfully, my unruly eyebrows didn’t stand between me and my fate of ESL teaching with ALO7. My eyebrows have since been maintained successfully, as well, and are no distraction for my students in the classroom!

I received the exciting news that I was hired, and then began the work of developing teaching skills for my new students while waiting for our partner schools to book classes with me. Being a very goal-oriented person, my parents showed me how ALO7 and their partner schools choose a tutor who has demonstrated dedication and excellent teaching skills with the company to be ALO7’s Online Teacher of the Year. The chosen tutor is invited to visit China to meet the staff in Shanghai and attend an educational conference. This planted a seed in my heart and mind to aim for a goal beyond simply making a living, but I had to make a plan to reach this new, exciting goal.

To achieve this goal, I knew I had to work toward being the best teacher possible. I already had a base knowledge and love of teaching, and opera had given me a wealth of experience with vowel and consonant production experience that I was more than willing to share with the dedicated students of China. Translating my vocal skills as an opera singer to tutoring English as a second language was unbelievably practical. Teaching ESL students and teaching music, particularly from my voice and opera background, share many similarities. Still, there was also a significant difference I noticed later in my journey as well. 

Both ESL teaching and music instruction require consistent repetition of new and previously learned skills. Phonemes and grammar forms must be drilled and repeated, just as scales and solfege syllables must be practiced consistently. It does little to no good, as well, to study the language from a book and only think about speaking English or singing a song. It must be kinesthetically incorporated into the body to be mastered. A teacher must be consistent with correcting errors as well; I notice the most progress in my private piano lessons as a student when my teacher corrects my errors immediately. And finally, both music teachers and ESL teachers must provide a safe environment in which students can practice these skills without fear of these inevitable errors defining their potential for future success. 

I had taught plenty of music lessons, in person, before moving to online teaching. I had even taught through teleconference to a group of students in a different part of the state during my previous community college teaching work. It wasn’t nerve-wracking, or anxiety-inducing in the least to face a room full of young adults at a community college, or introduce children to the piano, but translating those skills to the virtual classroom intimidated me due to it being unknown territory. Through the resources provided by ALO7, I knew I would need to use clear and simple sentences and instructions and use props to keep younger students engaged. I also learned how to incorporate TPR (total physical response), but that was more a way of life for me as a girl raised with Italian heritage. TPR helps ESL students understand English through the use of hand motions and body language with the intent of having students mimic these motions, thus creating a mind/body connection with the words and phrases they are learning.

Teaching skills weren’t the only thing I needed to develop to feel confident in the online classroom; adapting to the necessary technology for the online classroom would be required of me as well. I didn’t want to be consumed with any technical woes when I taught my first class! To overcome this anxiety, I practiced these technological skills through Zoom meetings with my mom. (Of course, not everyone has a mom working at ALO7 who can mentor them, so interested applicants can always join ALO7’s Facebook group for new applicants, Nani’s Newbies, to find a mentor.) Anyway, while I was in my Zoom meetings, I got familiar with the layout of the courseware with the company, the functions of Zoom, and troubleshooting any possible problems that might arise with technology. This practice eased any concerns I had in regards to technology before beginning to teach.

Thankfully I had a few weeks to practice and review learning materials before the day finally arrived for my first class with Amy and Martin on March 26, 2018. First, Amy logged into the classroom – bright, cheerful, ready to learn, and sporting a pair of red reindeer antlers! Martin logged in not long after, and my first teaching journey with ESL students began. I was taken aback at how well prepared the students were for class, and how easily communication flowed between us. Granted, I had to think of the simplest and clearest sentence structures to make sure my students could understand me. However, once I mastered that, the communication flowed so easily that we were able to joke about the fox stuffed animal prop that I used for teaching the letter “F.” Upon seeing the fox prop, Amy exclaimed, “Oh, it’s a fat fox! The tiger won’t eat it!” I was truly blown away by how well prepared these students were for their phonics class. I expected there to be more barriers to communication, especially at this age. I quickly realized I would need to match the dedication and preparedness they brought to our sessions.

A teaching snippet from Teacher Annette’s first class

The ease of communication and exchange never ceased to surprise me throughout my early sessions as an ESL teacher, and still amazes me to this day. Teaching English as a second language is something that I found immediately more rewarding than being an opera singer. 

I will always love opera, but the art form can be isolating because not everyone understands its true value and how it can be applied in everyone’s daily life. As an opera singer, I was left longing for more human connections and a more practical purpose in my work. Unexpectedly, teaching English to students in China filled that void in one fell swoop. The connections I make with my ESL students are nearly immediate.

Teacher Annette (left) with Shana Lambert, soprano.

I realized this job was more than just a way to make a living. It truly had the potential to change my life. Additionally, it began to change the way I communicated and how I viewed the world. With each session, I found more similarities and ways to connect with my students than I found in the way of differences. One morning I saw my students Dora, Linda, and Rebecca waiting to begin class. Linda brought a bright-eyed white cat onto the screen to show the other girls before we started class, and a flash of creativity hit me. I decided to grab my black cat, Bela, and surprise the girls as a warm-up activity to reveal how we both had a pet cat. 

Once our session began, I picked up my constantly mellow darling cat and showed him to the girls. Squeals from the girls and laughs from the family filled my headset, and Linda asked her mom to grab her cat. We spoke for our cats and meowed for them to share a little cat conversation. That is nothing short of a beautiful memory I’ll always carry in my heart. I love music and spent hours of my life enriching my soul with it in performance and study, but it often left me lonely during all my hours of practicing and preparation for performance. Becoming an ESL tutor filled a new place in my heart that I had neglected for the sake of art.

At this point, everything was going well for me as a teacher with Alo7. I had a full schedule of classes, and the relationships I was forming with my students was changing my life. Always in the back of my mind, though, I wondered if all these daily efforts and commitments to excellence could somehow make me one of the lucky candidates that could have the once in a lifetime opportunity to travel to China and experience the world in which my students live. Could all of these seemingly small, consistent, and careful efforts to constantly improve my teaching skills lead to this extraordinary opportunity? Could these hundreds of nights of early bedtimes and early mornings for a night owl, daily maintenance of technology, along with the day to day tasks and steadfast commitment in each day of teaching in my home, lead to a trip of a lifetime as ALO7’s Teacher of the Year?

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