I was recently speaking to a Korean friend of mine about how things have changed for him since COVID-19. As you can imagine, there was a long list of differences. Toward the end of it, he mentioned that his children were now getting their English lessons online. As someone intimately acquainted with online language teaching, my ears perked up.
“How’s that going?” I asked.
“Terrible!” I probed him for details. ‘All they do is talk,” he said. “The whole time. Nothing else. No teaching.”
I asked if it was important for his children to be able to speak English. “Of course,” he said. “Most important. But they need teaching. The talking they’re doing in the lesson is…” He trailed off. “It’s like friends.”
The expectations people have of teachers differs vastly from place to place, and there was definitely a cultural dimension to his argument, but I found myself wondering if he had a point. A lot of what goes on in online language lessons more closely resembles socializing than traditional teaching.
Don’t misunderstand me, I firmly believe that unstructured conversation is the single most effective way to improve speaking and listening skills in a language. However, what unnerves a lot of those who pay for language teaching (I’m speaking of parents here) is the apparent lack of curriculum. They worry that there’s no plan, no clear destination, and if these things are lacking, how can they judge the value of what they’re paying for? This uncertainty is what drives them toward the big online language teaching companies with their levels and stages and assessments.
So what is an independent online language teacher to do about it? Unfortunately, the most common response is to complain. Online communities are filled with self-justifying statements and hostility toward what they see as meddling from parents or other stakeholders. It’s good to get things off your chest, but the in echo chambers of online forums solutions can be scarce.
Let me pose a question. Would you trust your money to a fund manager who reported the performance of your investments with verbal reassurances and handwritten notes? Probably not. You would expect a lot more rigor than that. You would expect regular statements with graphs and figures. Even if you couldn’t fully understand them, they would signal that this is a person you could trust.
In other words, appearance is important. It’s a fact that applies equally to teaching as to other areas of life. I’m not talking about physical appearance (though that can be important too). I’m talking about the appearance of your lessons. Do they appear to have structure? Do they appear to be going somewhere? Do they appear to connect to a set of objectives that can be communicated to students and other stakeholders? If the answer to any of these is “no”, then I would argue that you have some work to do if you hope to find and retain students.
As a profession, teaching attracts some of the most caring, empathetic and principled people. People who believe strongly in the value of what they do. They want (and expect) their judgments to be trusted. But in the online world trust can be difficult to win, and there’s a nearly endless stream of others to choose from if something about your teaching hits a wrong note.
How to appear trustworthy and professional as an online language teacher
- Clarify (for yourself and prospective students) what it is you intend to achieve. Do you intend to teach your students to sound like a native speaker? Do you intend to raise their TOEIC scores by 200 points? Do you intend to help them function in professional encounters in the target language?
- Get a simple learning management system (LMS). An LMS will give you a place to create valuable online content for your students to engage with between face to face sessions. It will also provide reporting options and a gradebook, which are hugely appealing to parents or supervisors (often the people who pay your fees).
- Measure progress. It could be with test scores, but there are lots of other options. It might be more suitable to refer to descriptors of language proficiency. The Council of Europe has devised a global scale of reference levels (called the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages or CEFR). The entire framework is available online and serves as a valuable tool for structuring curricula and mapping your online lessons and content to real world language skills.
- Share information. Something as simple as a monthly schedule goes a long way to reassuring stakeholders that you have a plan and are on course to achieve it.
The best teachers respond to the needs of their students, which often requires them to deviate from the plan. That’s fine. Straying from a plan to address a deficit in the learner’s knowledge or skills is what you’re being paid for, but without a plan it’s hard to distinguish purposeful teaching from, well… just talking.