Teacher Tim's TEFL International Blog November 12th, 2011

Teaching ESL Online


Teaching ESL online has become big business; already millions of Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans are plunking down cold, hard cash to learn from native English speakers over the Internet.

If you have a decent computer, webcam, and headset w/microphone, you can be in business teaching English from the comfort (or squalor) of your own home.

The question is: Do you want to?

Online ESL teaching is completely unregulated right now; fly by night companies spring up, and disappear, connecting you with students for a month or two, and then blink out of existence without ever having paid you a cent for your time & expertise.

The whole online ESL field is ripe for an honest, aggressive, company to put qualified ESL teachers together with students overseas, for the benefit of both. I don’t believe this has happened yet, but it can’t be far off.

Thailand is home to about 100 online ESL teachers right now. They manage to cobble together enough online tutoring to pay their inexpensive way in Thailand. It’s not easy, but it’s being done.

Let me tell you about my time as an online ESL teacher in Thailand.

A Korean company (which shall remain nameless) engaged me to teach four 30-minute online classes to Korean school teachers, five days a week. The school teacher’s employer paid the Korean company directly for the classes, and, in theory, the Korean company was supposed to pass on my salary from there.

Because of the time difference between Korea and Thailand, I started my classes at 4am.

Just as in a regular on-site class, I was expected to take attendance, administer tests, and give each student a final grade and assessment.

As in a regular class I also had to have some kind of lesson plan in place, but it was a much more relaxed format. Each lesson was actually provided by the company and was on the computer screen while I taught the student. Since these were adult English teachers, and they were expected by their school to excel at these lessons the school was paying for them, they were pretty motivate. We were able to cover a lot of ground in a half hour, so often I had to have something up my sleeve when we had finished the complete lesson plan in 20 minutes.

I always had something about movie stars, sports, or some slang expressions, to fill the gaps left by my eager beavers.

I was able to type onto my screen for the student to see, so it was easy to introduce new vocabulary; and since the student could type onto their screen, I could have them write impromptu essays on whatever we happened to be studying to see how much they were actually absorbing.

Push a button and flick the mouse, and I could produce any image I had previously saved onto the screen for the student to gaze at. We seemed to look at an awful lot of photos of Halle Berry, whom I had a crush on at the time.

I found that students online are much more likely to spread themselves, to speak up, then in a brick and mortar classroom. For one thing, they are alone with just me, not subject to the embarrassment of making mistakes in front of classmates, and for another, the inherent intimacy of the Internet made it more comfortable to open up and tell me something real about themselves – what they really thought about politics, religion, their boss, etc. I had some very intense conversations with these Korean students, which I know would not have occurred in a regular classroom. To the Western way of thinking this is a good thing – but you’ve got to be careful how far you let it go. I had one or two female students who started to share some mighty intimate details with me, and since I didn’t feel like starting a matchmaking service online I gently stirred them back to conjugating verbs, not describing their love life.

I presented lessons for this nameless Korean company for 2 months, without a paycheck ever being issued. They were always telling me my paperwork was incomplete or done wrong. Finally an ultimatum was issued; no money, no lessons. No money was forthcoming, so I cut my students off. It kinda hurt, as I had grown much more familiar with each of them than I would have in a normal classroom setting. Even though I had experienced burn-out with presenting regular ESL lessons in a classroom, I found that I always looked forward to the online lessons. It felt like I was putting on a private TV show for an audience of one.

From my experience, and the experience of others I’ve talked here in Thailand and elsewhere, here are a few tips if you want to enter this field. And I think you’d better give it some serious thought, because I believe at some point many countries, especially in Asia, are not going to welcome any more expats into their midst, and you may wind up back home, whether you like it or not, trying to scare up an income. It’s my firm belief that universities, colleges, even high schools, are going to go digital and online when it comes to learning English – that way there’s no need to deal directly with those crazy foreigners anymore. Think about it.

· You’re going to have to take a chance on the first month of employment, since you’ll never be paid more than once a month. Like I say, this is an unregulated industry, where there are no guarantees. If you can find an online ESL company that belongs to the Better Business Bureau I’ll eat my bamboo hat. If you don’t get your paycheck immediately the first day of the second month, accept no excuses and do not teach another lesson. This means that you should have another company or two ready to hire you if you need to jettison the first one. It’s sad but true that the one who hollers the loudest, longest, may just get their paycheck, and other, meeker, teachers will have to wait an unconscionable time for theirs.

· Double book, if you can. That way if one student fails to show up, you have another one waiting in the wings. The reason I suggest this is because often you are not being paid a salary, but are paid per lesson.

· In conjunction with that, try for a contract that guarantees you a certain amount of time and pay, no matter whether students show up or not, or, especially in Asia, no one tells you about the week-long Chinese New Year festival, when nobody works or studies(at least, not sober).

· To start, check the recognized job boards at Dave’s ESL Café and Ajarn.com; they are featuring more and more online teaching positions.

· Finally, once you have established a relationship with your online students, start to lobby them about friends and family who may want their own private lessons. That’s how you get started as a private online tutor, and right now, that seems to be the best way to make a steady income with online ESL teaching, avoiding the ubiquitous and iniquitous middle man!