Why online teaching liberates ESL teachers

Inspired by her talk at Innovate ELT, guest blogger Jaime Miller of English Success Academy looks at the reasons and pluses for getting into teaching online.

During one of the mini-plenaries at Innovate ELT 2015, in Barcelona, Spain, Duncan Foord referenced a fear in the industry: that EdTech will render teachers obsolete.

Nothing could be further from the truth, and I say that with five years of experience teaching ESL online, and three years of sourcing 100% of my income from private Skype exams lessons for TOEFL iBT (without touching services like iTalki, WizIQ, or CourseEra). As our industry moves forward, teaching will inevitably change – but teachers will remain as essential as they always have been.

At Innovate ELT, I opened a discussion of the future of teaching ESL online with an observation about many English teachers and expats around the world:

Today, we work in the world… but we live online (through social media). What if, we work online so that we can live in the world more fully?

Here’s how it emerged for me…

Teaching online makes me happy.

In 2008, I moved to Turkey for my first ever teaching gig — imagining endless adventures would stretch before me. Instead, like a tetherball on a pole, I was tied to the Turkish countryside. Getting back to California to see my family was really challenging, so about a year later, I moved to Istanbul — the regional hub of transportation. Here, I thought I could find the magic balance between work, life and travel.

I took on freelance teaching gigs because they seemed more flexible. But as I schlepped from building to building, I couldn’t deny that I was still stuck. Nothing made me lonelier on the eternal commute than seeing strangers living it up.  Pathetic, I know, but at that time, all of my fun was happening on Facebook.

Then, in 2011, my college roommates invited me to a reunion. Three days of laughter and friendship or honoring my contract and making rent? When they posted their glowing photos (on Facebook of course), I was the responsible adult, but absolutely gutted. I realized at that point that the only way I could travel and work the way I had always dreamed of was by teaching students online.

And so I channeled all of my energy (and disposable income) into developing an online teaching career for TOEFL iBT. Sure, my YouTube videos made me cringe and my self-made html website was reminiscent of 1997. Despite all the odds, slowly, I grew. Then I created digital self-study programs for my students and word spread. And spread.

When my schedule was consistently full of extraordinarily motivated students, I began training English teachers to work online with TOEFL iBT students. Slowly, my one-woman show has morphed into an eight-person team and online school. Since December, 2014, I’ve been on the road, visiting family and friends I haven’t seen in years while working and teaching from eight cities.

The best part? My Facebook account endures regular neglect.

What would teaching online do for you?

I invite you to consider the same questions I posed to the delegates at Innovate ELT:

What excites you about teaching online?

What are the biggest challenges you think you’d face?

The delegates expressed reserved excitement about …

  • having independence and flexibility.
  • teaching different nationalities, not just local students.
  • how learners want to travel just as much as teachers, so it’s a huge draw to do that and simultaneously keep up with their English.

Then, they erupted with a whole mess of digital challenges:

  • An admin system is needed to deal with time zones.
  • How does tracking students change – especially in one-to-many classes?
  • In large online schools, how are teachers trained so they are ‘on the money’ in the virtual classroom?
  • What about getting paid?
  • How do you maintain students’ motivation and engagement?
  • Students need to be marketed to in a different way.

We could have gone on all day – but traditional schools come with their own dramas…

Buildings: a Blessing and a Burden

Today, teaching orbits a building. The administrative staff, teachers and students all need to be in the immediate vicinity to reach the physical building of the school itself.

So far, it has obviously had to be this way.

Schools perform essential roles. They attract students, deal with fees, schedule lessons, pay teachers, provide resources and classrooms. The building facilitates education. BUT the building exists under a constant pressure of massive overheads. The building requires cleaning and maintenance, insurance, taxes, utilities, and a bunch of other unglamorous expenses.

What would be different if we took a school out of a building?

I asked the group to discuss the question above.

How the delegates answered:

‘I’m still quite scared of teaching something important online.’

‘We thought the opposite – mostly now you meet someone after you’ve had some online interaction. A lot of us meet people on Skype – it’s not as if when you meet them face to face it’s a challenge. We’re quite used to doing that.’

‘Trust with the students is going to change. They know the school is there and they go and pay, and the teacher will be there. Then if they pay for something online, how do they find that teacher?’

I agree 100% that there are many challenges and things that must shift in an online model. If we focus on the positive differences of online schools, we will naturally start overcoming the challenges — because humans solve problems like nobody’s business.

In an online model, teachers and students’ connections and learning relationships can be the focus – and the digital administration team is like an invisible bowl that facilitates this relationship.

It’s win-win-win.

Online schools in the future have…

  • a global staff, student and teacher base who gather because they all share something in common.
  • more consistent income staggered all day every day (because students in different time zones naturally want to study at various times, and countries have varying holiday schedules).
  • much lower overheads.
  • new budget options (if schools choose to reconsider how to pass on savings of lower overheads).

Online teachers in the future have…

  • location independence which allows them to be with the people they care about.

I waxed poetic about being on the road, which triggered the following unscheduled debate:

‘If you choose to be closer to family, what does that say about your commitment to students?’ a teacher asked me.

‘I care insanely about my students.’ I answered. ‘I don’t think the two have to be mutually exclusive.’

‘But you’re not with them.’ responded the same teacher.

‘Yeah but… It would be weird to choose your students over your family.’ broke in another teacher.

A third chimed in: ‘You’re not with your students in a traditional classroom environment except in the classroom – and you’re with your students in a pedagogical sense and emotional sense that doesn’t need to rely on physical presence.’

‘It might be totally counter intuitive,’ I said, ‘but the connection I experience with my students online is stronger than what I experienced in a typical classroom… So…’

Back to teachers’ benefits:

  • flexible schedules which allow them to teach when they actually have energy and are in peak performance. This leads to higher-quality lessons that students love being in, so that leads to…
  • more appreciation because students can sense teachers’ genuine enthusiasm and passion for working when and where and how they want, they know their teacher is doing something they care about.

Online students in the future have…

  • more access to learning (because no matter where they live, they can get lessons).
  • affordable 1-1 lessons (if schools revamp their budgets).
  • more improvement (which is what we all want).

As EdTech takes over, pixel by pixel, learners crave authentic human connection and the flexibility that studying ESL online offers. And that undoubtedly requires a lot of experienced English teachers who choose to work online — and live in the real world.

Jaime Miller is the director of English Success Academy, an online exam prep school that matches motivated students with dedicated teachers for private, customized online lessons. Before embarking into the digital realm of online teacher training, she self-published digital TOEFL iBT study programs and marketed them directly to learners.


Featured image credit: neatnessdotcom via Compfight cc. Text added by ELTjam.

11 thoughts on “Why online teaching liberates ESL teachers”

  1. Hi Jaime

    Thanks for the post – interesting reading and I agree with a lot of the comments you make. We run an online school also, although teach through Adobe Connect, and we have very happy teachers and students!

    One question, and feel free not to answer(!) – how do you structure your pay for online teachers? Obviously, there is a great deal of competition out there, especially from companies operating with teachers based in countries where a comparatively (to the UK) low wage is good earnings. This of course pushes the price of the lessons down, so in a global market such as this, how have you managed?


    • Richard, so sorry for responding late! I got stuck in delays caused by summer storms and I haven’t had normal internet access the past couple days. You’re right that this is a tricky conversation to have in a comment thread 🙂 Feel free to connect with me via email or on Linked In.

  2. This is one of the most inspirational blogs I’ve read on this site, Jaime. Thank you for sharing – it’s great to see that all your hard work and dedication has paid off. Sorry I didn’t catch your talk at the conference. Next time …

    • Brendan, I’m so sorry for the delay in responding! I was travelling the day this was published and I got caught in massive airport delays, unfortunately. I’m glad that you found the post inspiring. 🙂

    • Justin,
      Oh your question makes my heart sing. Personally, I have no doubt that there is a future for online ESL teachers. From personal experience, I cannot recommend anything but having a highly-targeted skill and niche who you work with.

      I’m no wizard in Economics, but I do remember the supply and demand curve. In fact, apps and websites are doing a great job at getting students used to learning online. Students want the convenience of studying at home, but they still want the luxury of talking with a real human — and an expert is even more valued. So… Will EVERYONE have a future as an online ESL teacher? No. **Mostly** because there are lots of people who aren’t willing to do the business side that is necessary to have a strong foundation. But the teachers who hustle and make themselves valuable? Most certainly.

      Best wishes,

      • @Justine Love,

        I think this depends a lot on what you mean by future. I don’t think anyone besides A.I. researchers can see much further out than 7-8 years. But on the other hand, the same thing can be said of many industries these days. As an online teacher the reality is that you are on your own. That means you better stake out a niche and be prepared to defend it while also learning to incorporate the most stunning developments in A.I. as they appear.

  3. Hi. I’m considering a second career teaching English as a foreign language. I have a BS in Elementary Education, minor in English that I ended up using mainly as a base for my ‘accidental’ 22 year career in Recreation and Community Development.

    Will taking a 4week accredited in-person TEFL class prepare me for online teaching? My plan was to take the course, try teaching on-line, gradually add students for experience and to see if I was any good …. THEN go off into the ‘real’ world and teach in person somewhere. Is this advisable, or would you recommend another route?


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