The pros and cons of teaching English online as a freelancer

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I taught English in language schools and universities between 2006 and 2013. In 2013, I started teaching English online. So, I think I’m well-placed to pinpoint the pros and cons of teaching English online as a freelancer.

Let’s dive in.


THE PROS OF TEACHING ENGLISH ONLINE

1. YOU CAN PICK AND CHOOSE WHICH GRAMMAR POINTS TO TEACH AS YOU’RE NOT BOUND BY THE STRUCTURAL SYLLABUS AND CURRICULA

I’ve banged on a bit on this blog about the need for language teachers to do whatever is in their power to free themselves from prescribed syllabi and curricula.

Unfortunately, teaching to the test is commonplace in language schools. Hence, it’s mightily tough for teachers to rebel against the system and do their own thing.

My biggest bugbear is the structural/grammatical syllabus. This is that dubious fallacy that the learning of English must start with the learning of the verb ‘be’. After that, learners typically compare the present simple and present continuous tense aspects. You know the rest.

My beliefs began to shift after doing my master’s degree and due to a dawning realisation that I would become a freelancer. During this two to three year period, I became more and more drawn towards a lexical approach to language teaching.

As an online tutor, I find it so liberating to not have to rush through a grammatical syllabus. 

As my experience teaching Polish learners of English has shown me, there’s no way students can “acquire” the present simple after a few weeks of doing gap-fill exercises in a language school.

Teaching one-to-one online enables me to go into the most important tense aspects much more deeply. For instance, I’m able to get students to tell, and retell, personalised stories about themselves and people they know in a certain tense aspect. 

A new student of mine recently shared descriptions of three people he knows with me. I’m a fast enough typer to be able to transcribe what my students say. Anyway, the key point about this student is that he is coming out of his shell and really opening up to me:

English language student stories

In addition to transcribing, I occasionally sound record some of my students' stories. Check out this post regarding the virtues of voice recording in language learning. 

2. YOU CAN ENGAGE YOURSELF IN MATERIALS SELECTION THAT REVOLVES AROUND AUTHENTICITY AND VARIETY

When you go it alone as a freelancer, you’ll be inclined to work with authentic materials of many different kinds.

Movie scripts, online news articles, songs, TV commercials. The sheer variety of authentic materials you can exploit is never-ending.

One of the key features of my online classes is the variety and thematic approach I take to keep students interested. It’s not uncommon for my students to watch a TED talk about obesity one day, and read an article about the Japanese art of not sleeping a few days later. 

In my view, it’s not a sin to skip from theme to theme. What is vital is this idea of revisiting texts for further structural analysis and the revision of key words and collocations.

I outlined the benefits of using authentic materials in my previous post.

3. YOU CAN SET UP A SCHEDULE THAT SUITS YOU

The beauty of working from home and teaching online is that you can create a teaching schedule that suits you.

The wonder of my current schedule is that I tend to have classes from 8am until around 10:45am in the mornings. In the evenings, I teach from 18:30pm until around 8:15pm. I also teach a Polish student every second day at 22:30. Therefore, I generally have a long pause in the middle of the day when I can be active outdoors or go out with my wife.

All in all, it’s not easy to turn down new students. However, you have to put yourself and those around you before a few extra dollars.

4. YOU CAN WING IT WHEN THERE’S NO OTHER CHOICE

Once in a blue moon, I check my student’s lesson content five minutes before a class and then find out that I haven’t prepared a set of discussion notes for the set article/talk.

I must confess that it’s much easier to “wing it” when you’re sitting behind a computer. 

Imagine trying to ask questions about an article you’re not familiar with if a student is physically sitting just a few metres away from you.

When you teach online, it’s always possible to skim read an article for gist on your screen while a student is speaking about something else at the start of class. 

Despite the above confession, I’m usually honest with my students and tell them if I’m not prepared for the class. Therefore, we just have a general discussion or do some revision.


THE CONS OF TEACHING ENGLISH ONLINE

We’re looking at the pros and cons of teaching English online. Now, let’s check out some of the drawbacks:

1. TECHNOLOGY CAN BE SO CRUEL AND COMPLICATED

I recently returned to Gdańsk after a two-month break at my parents-in-law’s place in rural Bosnia. 

In this Bosnian village, I’ve never had problems with the quality of my Skype calls.

However, it’s a different story in Gdańsk. My Internet provider promises me 300 Mbps internet speed. By the way, I don’t know what a megabyte is, but it sounds pretty fast. Despite all of these attractive-looking download and upload speed numbers, I can barely get through a twenty-minute class in Gdańsk without Skype playing up. 

I’ve had similar issues on other communication tools in my flat. And it’s impossible to get a technician to come out and check what’s going on.

2. THE SUMMER MONTHS TEND TO BE POTLESS

Teaching English online can be quite a potless affair in the summer months.

In fact, it’s a similar story if you work for a language school or conduct face-to-face classes.

Still, with the thrill of catching a summer breeze and a bit of sun, one of the last things (some) students want to do is to tackle the present perfect continuous whilst glaring at a laptop.

To keep destitution at bay, it’s an idea to agree on a minimum monthly rate with students which is valid for EVERY month. It could be half or a third of what they pay when they turn up for all of their classes in a “normal” month.

I must admit that I haven’t implemented such a rule. However, I may be forced to take this measure in the future.

3. IT’S SOMETIMES DIFFICULT TO TAME A WANDERING MIND

I once wrote about the ideal duration of private online language lessons.

I believe that it’s more productive for language learning students to have short but regular meetings. For instance, every second or third day for fifteen to twenty minutes. Language acquisition results from daily immersion in a language. Pleasingly, some of my students strive to immerse themselves in English every day, be it reading an article, revising vocabulary and phrases or studying material during a class with me. 

Frankly, another reason why I insist on short but regular classes is because I’m prone to mind-wandering. I have no idea how some teachers can conduct online classes for over an hour and say they’re focused the entire time. 

How could I live with myself if I were only half present during a class? I simply have to be fully focused on every syllable a student utters.

Unfortunately, some teachers are not in the financial position to implement the kind of system I swear by. 

I do sympathise with them.


CONCLUDING THOUGHTS: THE PROS AND CONS OF TEACHING ENGLISH ONLINE

I’ve described the pros and cons of teaching English online based on my experience and personal convictions.

What are advantages and disadvantages for me might not be pros and cons for other teachers. This is because teacher belief systems can vary based on the kind of training, background and experience teachers have gained over a period of time.

I believe in the power of short but regular classes, theme-based materials selection, regular revision and repetition, authentic materials and several language learning strategies which can help learners to really get the most out of these authentic materials.

The pros and cons of teaching English online is a debate worth having.

Still, I’m not complaining about my line of work.

Life ain’t bad.

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