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Transitioning from the in-person to the online classroom

6th August 2019

By Mary Catharine Breadner

Working from home, flexible hours, customize your own classroom – becoming an online English teacher is so appealing, and there are lots of opportunities to get started. In this article, I will go through some of the most important changes and considerations I had to make when moving from the in-person to the online classroom. I believe that the rapport with students and sharing in students’ success is very similar, teaching online can be a very rewarding experience.

School or freelancer

The first thing to consider is are you going to freelance or are you going to seek teaching at an online school. Working as a freelancer will give you the ultimate in flexibility, ability to create your own schedule and freedom to create your own lessons. Like me, if you have spent time working in a very structured environment, the opportunity to use your creativity and apply some new techniques is appealing. However, remember that planning, timetabling, and ensuring students are getting a cohesive, comprehensive course is quite difficult and without the proper experience and research it could be overwhelming. As a freelancer you will only be paid for your face-to-face time, all the preparation and research are going to be on your shoulders.

Working for an online school can be quite similar to a brick and mortar school. There is generally a curriculum development department or head, and they will at minimum give you timetable with expectations for content. There are also schools that will provide you with absolutely everything, included all lessons predesigned. Your sole responsibility will be to deliver the content and prepare yourself with any background research. It is really important to ask during your interview, what the expectations are for you around planning and delivering content. And depending on your experience and comfort level you may be looking for something different. There are many options for online schools, so read reviews, check out what both students and teachers are saying, this will give you a good starting point before you start the application process.

The application process and onboarding at online schools can seem long and cumbersome, but these mock and observed teaching experiences are an opportunity for you to learn about the expectations, the teaching platform, and the curriculum. I find that having access to an observation session really helped me grow as an online teacher. This feedback will be really important as you start online for the first time.

Teaching platform

The teaching platform is one of the most important parts of your virtual classroom, and in order to increase student participation, you will need to think about how you can leverage the teaching platform and the materials you use.

Some platforms include functions for rewards, which can allow you to give extra encouragement during the lesson. Younger learners often really enjoy the extra praise, if your platform doesn’t have a reward system, you will need to think about physical rewards you will show students on camera. This can include surprise questions, stars that you hang in the background, or other creative games. There are many suggestions online for rewards, but from my experience, this is a really important tool for young learners online.

Other platform features are share screen options, this is essential if you prepare slides or handouts for learners. If nothing else, this is the most basic function you will require. I also recommend looking for a platform that has a chatbox, this is a great way to type in new vocabulary, offer correction, and even do some writing practice with your students. I also find a ‘freeze screen or pause sharing’ helpful, this will allow you to flip through your materials, or look at your lesson plan quickly during a class without the student seeing. It is also really beneficial to have a touch screen that you can write or highlight on for the students. Especially with lower-level learners, the ability to draw their attention to text is really helpful.

Chances are you will have to go with whatever platform your school uses, if you are on your own, I encourage you to look up some options. I personally use Skype because it is very easy, and most of my students already have experience using it. However, if you are willing to pay for a platform there are many options out there. Take your time, and read reviews, choosing a platform will have a big impact on your classroom environment and lesson planning.

Lesson Planning

Virtual schools often have their own curriculum, courses, and lessons planned. As a teacher, you will be responsible for reviewing, and preparing yourself to deliver the materials. I would like to throw out a word of caution, although lessons are prepared you will still need to think and plan how you are going to teach the lesson. Following someone else’s lesson plan isn’t always as straightforward as you may think, and if you haven’t taught a class online before, eliciting and concept checking can be different in the virtual environment. You will need to consider if props, puppets, TPR, or realia might be needed. I use my whiteboard during most lessons.

If you are planning your own lessons, you will be at an advantage when delivering, because you most certainly have a better sense of the overall lesson objectives. Music and videos are still very useful in the online classroom, you will just have to consider different things like screen sharing, download speeds of your student(s), among others.

One-on-one teaching is often what is pictured online, but you may also be teaching larger groups. So, you will need to consider how to keep everyone engaged. It may also be possible that you are connected to several students who are all in separate locations, or that you are being broadcast to a larger group of students. Building in some ways to deal with your connection situation and the interactions students will have, will help you in classroom management.

Kids online – parents online

There are many opportunities to work with kids online, and if you enjoy working with children you will love the online environment. You will be able to use costumes, puppets, and so many other props to engage children. You can also decorate your classroom for kids, I like to put up decorations and other fun backgrounds to keep kids engaged. Rewards will also be an important part of your teaching, I use lots of simple rewards systems, my students get used to the ones I use and then I can introduce them quickly during all my lessons. Unlike my in-person classroom, I use lots of TPR and hand gestures to convey meaning. In the online classroom, acting and eliciting using gestures seems to come more naturally and doesn’t seem so silly!

With children, you are also going to interact with parents. And like many teachers already know, parents have high expectations about what their children are learning. As a freelancer, I often have interactions with parents over email, they want feedback and also want to ensure that their children are progressing. With very young learners, parents will often be sitting with them or at least in the same room while their child is online. You will need to think about how to get a student re-focused or engaged if things go off track. Once a child is accustomed to the classroom, most of these issues will fade with time. Be prepared that things might not always go as planned.

Feedback – immediate and consistent – for you and the student

One aspect of online teaching that I absolutely love, is the feedback cycle. You will be giving your student feedback after each lesson. This is rewarding for students, and also helps you address issues that are short-term or long-term. Unlike the in-person classroom, there are clear and focused opportunities to engage with students one-on-one after each lesson. Remember, if you are working for a school, talk to them about their feedback system, and ask whether or not you will be compensated for this time. Lengthy feedback expectations could become a burden, but quick immediate feedback is a great way to keep on track with your students’ overall learning progression.

While I enjoy giving feedback, you must also be aware that many online schools give the opportunity for students and/or their parents to also provide immediate lesson feedback. When you are first starting out, one or two low reviews can really impact your overall average. Remember that this feedback often includes some written comments, take it seriously and try to constantly improve your teaching. I found this difficult at the start. However, over time, this feedback will help you to make your lessons more effective and interactive.

Final thoughts

There is still so much more to talk about in the online teaching world, these are just a few things you will need to consider when you decide to make the transition. I have heard people say that online education will be the future and that we need to adapt to evolving technology. And although I couldn’t agree more that we need to adapt, whether it be bringing technology into the brick and mortar classroom or using technology for a virtual one, the principles are the same.  As EFL teachers we can provide, facilitate, and support successful learning in many environments.

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Mary Catharine Breadner

Mary Catherine is an EFL freelance teacher, currently living and working in Portugal. She works with students of all ages, in both the in-person and online classroom. In her free time, she loves to travel and spend time with her family.

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