Carmen in Canada’s Top Ten Tips for Teaching Online

As I was writing “working with less” and thinking about what we as online teachers put out there to other potential online teachers, and each other, it got me thinking. I said with that post that you shouldn’t be intimidated by veterans and the elaborate set ups you see online. However, what would be useful when you’re just starting out?

I’ve been at this around two years now and turned it from a side hustle to a full time gig. Here’s my Top ten tips:

  1. Pick something you’re comfortable in and wear it all the time.
    For me, it’s a plain black, long sleeve shirt. I bought several and I keep them on hand. I put it on and then don’t think. From class to class, company to company throughout the day it’s professional without being over the top and it’s comfortable without being too casual.
    If I’m feeling ambitious I might up my game with simple, elegant accessories or a little extra effort in hair and makeup. But truly, you’re in a small box on a screen, keep your look simple and clean.
  2. Pick a space you like being in.
    Sometimes on the really long days I migrate around the house if I’m feeling stiff or stir crazy from endless hours in office. I do that less now than I used to, though. The more you create a space you enjoy being in the better you’ll work in it. So go ahead and hang those twinkle lights, white boards, posters… whatever it is to make it cozy and comfortable for you.
  3. Smile and laugh.
    Smiles and laughter transcend borders like nothing else. When I teach children I also sing with them and I laugh at the sound of myself singing so they know it’s okay to have fun while in class. When I’m with adults I tell embarrassing stories about myself and laugh with my students. Remember that being a teacher is a position of authority and you can be intimidating to your students, especially when they can’t understand the language. But this isn’t regular school – if they don’t like you they won’t book your class again so welcome them and make them feel comfortable.
  4. Take breaks.
    Value your time. A gap in your teaching schedule does not need to be filled with errands and other commitments. During working hours I try to make my gaps refreshing and celebrate the mental down time. I watch netflix, eat, fetch tea, shower and go for walks. Anything to refresh my mind and body.
  5. Use breaks
    That being said, a good passion project on the side doesn’t hurt. Often I write blog posts during my break, check in on the social media channels and promote the blog. I try not to work to intensely in between classes so I don’t exhaust myself but I do like a good side hustle.
  6. Build a props collection as needed.
    When you wish you had X, Y, or Z to reach for take note and either create it or find it to purchase in the near future. This way you build a collection of props based on what will support your teaching style and not just what you see other teachers have.
    Try to avoid wasting a lot of time and money guessing what you’ll want and buying things “just in case”. Stick to things you know are useful.
  7. Organize and Re-Organize.
    As you collect props and equipment you’ll need to create an organization system that works. It doesn’t have to be elaborate. For me – I have one drawer that stays open all the time on my right hand side. It acts like a tray-shaped side table that holds stuffies and props ready. Smaller things like cue cards sit underneath my laptop (which is raised so that my camera is at a flattering angle). Not only should you have a system but as you’re teaching you’ll shuffle stuff around.  When you finish class, shuffle things back where they belong or chaos will eat your work space.
  8. Get your fam on board.
    It took some getting used to for my family to know that even though I’m right here in the office at home, I’m not available.  I felt guilty for a long time, too, as they adjusted.  It feels awkward and strange that sometimes they’re eating downstairs all around the dinner table but I’m not there because I have a class to teach.  It took a while for the idea that what I’m busy doing up here in the old spare room is actually just as serious as the work they do from 9-5 every day and I needed the same kind of respect and space they enjoyed at their offices. Don’t be afraid to have that conversation with your family and help them understand that you need them on board with this job, too.
  9. You are Your Brand – Have Personality!
    Remember how I just said that you’ve got to make students comfortable because unlike regular school, if they do’t like you they don’t have to take your class again… Well as an extension of that, you are a sort of brand. Even though there’s a bigger company or brand you’re teaching with – the company who you work for – you are what makes students come back to book you class after class. I’ve written before about how I have a sort of “Teacher Carmen” personality that is separate from who I am as a whole person (See Carmen in Canada). That’s my brand. That’s the consistent experience that students can connect to, come back to, and rely on. Be yourself – be memorable – build yourself a brand as a teacher.
  10. Pay Attention to Trends & Competition.
    When I started there weren’t a ton of companies doing online education the way my company was. Now? Ther’es a TON of companies.  Pay attention and maybe work with more than one if you want this to be a full-time gig with reliable money. If your company closes its doors they don’t owe you severance or benefits. Nothing.  Pay attention so you know if your company is losing its edge, and keep yourself open to opportunities!

Bonus Tip: Start Now!

You can email me at ohmymermaid.blog@gmail.com and I will tell you more details about the specific companies I work with and I can refer you, which means I’ll be there for you through the whole process of applying and starting out!

This is a job, so have fun with it and make informed choices to create security.  However, it’s a job that is interacting with other human beings so be human and have fun!

Carmen

 

Working with Less

So if you’re out there doing your research about working from home, especially as an English teacher, you might notice the same trend I do: over-freaking-complicating what’s physically needed to do this job. If you watch online videos about teaching online you’ll see crazy class set ups and hundreds of props. you don’t need that! It’s mostly about YOU.

Some teachers are out here making videos showing their classroom or office set-up, showing off impressive collections of props and a wide range of technology. One teacher I saw a set-up video from even had her classroom in a very nicely finished shed, with electricity and internet wired from the house to this separate space. Now it was a really nice space – she had a little kitchenette and space for guests to use it as a guest house. I could totally see myself absolutely loving a space like that, and I was definitely a little jealous.

She had whole drawer sets full of this type of toy or prop, and that type of flash card. She even had a filing cabinet with the printed out lesson plan for every lesson she’d ever taught. It made it easy for her to know what she’d need and quickly prep when she got booked for those lessons again.

Honestly – kudos to her because she’s killin’ it.

But as I watched it occurred to me that if I had watched hers and videos like hers before applying to be an online teacher I would of thought I couldn’t do this – I don’t have that kind of space. As someone in search of employment I didn’t have the money to create anything like that or buy all those props. I would of figured this career was for someone else.

Now, there are others out there making videos that show just how do-able it is. I’ve also seen “here’s my space” videos from teachers who are literally making their classroom in a closet. Hang a backdrop, tweek the lighting and BOOM! International classroom in the basement closet.

So there’s definitely a spectrum.

The Truth: These Videos come from Experienced Teachers

That’s not a bad thing but it’s definitely something you’ve gotta remember when you watch these. You might be just considering your application or preparing for an interview when you go down the rabbit hole of videos about classroom and space set ups, prop organization and more. It can be super intimidating because it seems like you would never be able to compete with the kind of resources and collections that are literally at the fingertips of these teachers.

Fear not – they didn’t go to target and buy it all in one haul. They built those collections while they built their careers and you will too.

When I got hired I went to chapters and bought one lavender coloured bunny from the kids section. I like things that are soft, and cute so it was kind of a treat for me too. I never really got over my affection for plush toys. I call her Flora.

I keep her by my desk with a hedgehog that Ben gave me one year for our anniversary because he knows about my affection of plush toys.

There’s also a Panda toy that mom got me one year when Telus sold them to raise money for a wildlife organization.

I have more but I don’t use them as much. I don’t need a different toy for every class and any given class doesn’t need more than 2 or 3 toys, if that, because they aren’t really what class is about.

I use a hand drawn set of music notes to show when it’s time to sing.

But most of the time for anything else I just use my hands or demonstrate on the platform. For example if I want my students to circle things, I circle them. If I want them to read, I underline.

I also keep whiteboards near me because sometimes it helps to draw the letters and do little reading games with them. Really anything else I use is a common desk item like a book, pen, or sometimes I use coloured markers to show colours and practice the names. Lamp, keyboard, ipad… nothing extraordinary. No super collection of reward systems. I cheer my kids on and then get back to the lesson. No bucket of action figures.

Honestly, you know what my students love? When I cheer and dance in my chair like a FOOL. It’s interesting, funny , and it clearly communicates to them that they did well and their teacher is happy. THAT’s what matters.

When the teacher is happy, so are the students!

So here I am, making just as much a career of it as the woman who built a separate classroom in her back yard.

I kind of get it though

I kind of get why these teachers create such elaborate set ups and why they show off just how elaborate they are. We as a society have a habit of seeing validity in complication. The more intricate the system, the harder it is for us to understand the more valid we consider the person who is understanding and doing the work. Think of scientific careers like doctors and astrophysicists, or the scholarly such as lawyers whose job it is to navigate systems that are so large and complex most of us need help using them.  Consider the validity we give these career choices over say, writer or even a traditional teacher. While we acknowledge that writing and teaching are respectable careers we tend to underestimate the difficulty of careers we understand and see as uncomplicated.

So sometimes there’s an urge to sort of demonstrate the validity of our career choices by making our careers fit a more complicated, difficult narrative.

“Look how I’ve organized the reward systems and over here are the lesson plans…” translates in to “Look how much equipment and paperwork is required.”

“See how I’ve arranged this space to optimize the light and….” turns in to “There’s more to this… This is where I work hard to support my family.”

I feel this temptation too. I want people to join me in this career because it’s been rewarding and I really, genuinely enjoy it. But it’s also tempting to put up barriers and push people to see that this isn’t a hobby or a passing phase. It’s work, the same as any other job in so many ways.

Ultimately, it takes balance.

It’s a career like any other. It demands a set of skills that, if you have, you’ll excel and without, you’ll struggle. It can mean long hours, waking up early and going to bed late. Sometimes it will be awesome and some days you’ll hate it.

What you don’t have to worry about to start out is having an elaborate set up.

So I’m here to say to you – you who may be considering or just starting on this path – don’t be intimidated by the veterans. Settle in to a little corner you’re comfortable in. Wear a covering, plain shirt. Bring a cup of tea and a smile. You can be great at this.

Working from Home and Setting Your Own Schedule

The biggest misconception people have about working from home or working for yourself is that you work when you want or need and can take it easy the rest of the time.  The reality, for online teachers at least, is that we work at the demand of our students.

The only way to make this job work as a full time gig is to set work goals in accordance with your financial goals.  I know I need to make X number of dollars a month to pay my bills, save and have some room for unexpected costs.  It is necessary to translate that dollar amount in to classes taught, break it down by week and meticulously track day by day.

I’ve learned I have to notice early on – by mid-month at least – if I’m falling behind on my goals. After that point there isn’t enough time to meaningfully add to my schedule and make up the hours. With teaching it’s easy to fall behind on goals.  If classes don’t get booked it adds up fast. Being a class or two short of a daily goal quickly means stripping down the budget to accommodate anticipated shortcomings.

The truth about working from home means I am available until my goal is met.  Maybe I only need to work 8 hours in a day but I can’t force my students to consistently fill 9am-5pm so that I can go live my life. I start around 7:30 most days, many days earlier, and most days I work until 11pm or midnight. Some days it’s 1am or 1:30am.

Working crazy hours Monday to Thursday allows me to end earlier (mid afternoon) most Fridays and then take Saturday and Sunday off with my family.

The hard part is having to politely remind people that you actually do work and it isn’t possible for you to change your schedule last minute the way some work from home jobs can.  Even if I could, changing my schedule for last minute plans would still mean making the time up so chances are even if my companies let me change my schedule last minute I would still be held on schedule by financial obligations.

What we really mean when we say our work from home jobs are flexible is that, with 24 hour potential to work you might be able to set up a unique schedule that suits your life.  My whole family works 9-5’s with weekends off so I try to mimic that as much as I can to maximize my time with them.

That being said lots of people are working jobs like mine on a when-the-kids-are-out schedule, or using it as a night job. Flexibility doesn’t mean that I can change my schedule last minute, but it does mean that I can book classes around other obligations outside a traditional work schedule.

Oh, and I guess it’s true that outside of my budget, I don’t have to ask anyone for approval when I want a day off.

Thinking of picking up extra work? What kind of schedule would working from home mean for you?

Sincerely, Carmen in Canada

When I write about working from home I caution my  readers not to romanticize the reality – I give up stability, normal working hours (although I am slowly building towards normal hours, more on that another time.), and many of the perks of a “regular job”. I always acknowledge that I’ve traded these things for the convenience of staying at home and pursuing a flexible career.

Let’s talk a bit about what I get in return for my trade.

Who I work For and What I Do

I work for three different companies.

Company one, the company I’ve been with for the longest, is a Chinese company focused on educating Chinese children. It offers one to one classes and they have designed the curriculum. Students book me at the time they prefer and I try to make the process of learning English fun and interesting with games and lots of smiles, virtual high fives and rewards.

Company two I am new too. It offers one to one classes as well as group classes with as many as six students. This company focuses on adults, however, and they take student from all over the world. In a class I might have a few people from Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, or Germany! These classes are also focused on teaching the art of conversation by supplying students with useful sentences, natural back and forth examples and pronunciation guidance. They will have already studied the basics like vocabulary and grammar on their own – I’m just there to help bring it all together.

Company three is the leas formal. There is no powerpoint or directed class goal. Really it’s skype built in to a web platform where the minutes spent on a call can be easily tracked. This offers a one to one video connection and the goal is unstructured conversation practice. Think of it this way – someone in a foreign country has spent a lot of energy learning English but doesn’t know if they can take what they know in theory to the real world with effective conversations in English. This company is their way to connect with native English speakers, practice, have interesting conversations and get some advice along the way.

Why I Love my Job(s) – Seriously!

What all of this means is that I spend my day talking to people around the world, literally. They tell me about their homes, the culture and the politics, their travels and their experience with travelling.  They tell me what they do for work, why they like it and what makes it difficult. I learn about and sometimes meet their families.

Secretly, I think I learn so much more than I teach.

I am so lucky to genuinely smile throughout my time working.  Even in hour 12 I am still smiling my face off listening to a 6 year old describe their day at school.

I could work less. Twelve hour days, even if they only happen once or twice a week, are undeniably overkill. Nobody is forcing me to open my availability and allow that many bookings. But its so hard to resist when I know I will more than likely enjoy all 12 of those hours!

I mean, the paycheques don’t hurt either.

My Work Identity: Meet Teacher Carmen

Don’t we all have that person we are at work? That personality we fold up and tuck away in an office drawer when we’re done for the day? I sure do.

She likes tea – and need a  lot of it. But she’ll drink diet coke if there’s no time to make tea. She is obsessed with her planner and anything organizational.

She’s got a bit of a sticky not problem/addiction, and she’s not seeking help.

Sometimes her pets make guest appearances in class.

Her favourite students are the ones that laugh with her or tell her about different cultures.

The practice platform does not require me to send formal feedback to the people I meet but the other two are more formal education platforms so my students always receive feedback. That is how my teacher identity got her name – from my introduction:

Hello, my name is Carmen and I live in Canada.

… to my sign-off:

Sincerely, Carmen in Canada.

 

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Landing that Online Job

So a couple weeks ago I landed two jobs in one week – both of them working strictly online through specific platforms.  So now I want to share a little bit (actually, a lot) about searching for and landing that elusive online job.

My specific jobs (and in case you’re counting, I’m now working with three companies) are all based on teaching English and supporting English learners.  So that’s the experience I’ll be speaking to. There are some general truths that will carry over if you’re looking at other industries online.

Teaching English is a huge online industry simply because the internet is such an excellent way to connect teachers of a language with learners while everybody has the benefit of staying comfortably in their home.

English is the dominant language of business so if you are a native English speaker you have a crazy advantage as many around the world are scrambling to learn our language in order to maximize their business, work and travel opportunities. I have spoken with people from France, Saudi Arabia,  Turkey, Syria, Brazil, South Korea, Taiwan, India, and China.  They are all different age groups and their reasons for learning English range from personal interest and a sense that it would just be good to know, to learning for academic pursuits like attending an international University to learning for travel and work.

There are a lot of companies out there that you can teach with – hence why I work with three.  It’s a good thing for both teachers and learners that there are so many platforms with similar services and job opportunities because it drives each of them to be competitive.

So, Where do I apply?

There are a few different ways that you can apply. You can research individual companies and apply directly to them or you can seek a recruitment group that will consider your resume and suggests companies you may be a good fit for.

I caution that free websites where you send your qualifications and they match you are probably not worth your time.  I tried it and they sent me an email saying they thought I’d be a good match for a company that was already on my resume.

That was the only company they sent me a notification for, despite the fact that I am a good fit for many companies.  Furthermore, they do not support you through the application process.

So really, you’re no further ahead than if you found the company on your own.

It sounds too simple to be true but I recommend starting the way I did: Google search “Teaching English Online” and consider what companies come up.

You want to understand their target client in order to determine if they are a good match for you.  For example, one of my companies targets students in China exclusively.  China is 12 hours ahead of me so if I want to teach them in their preferred time, after dinner and through the evening, I need to get up and start teaching around four or five in the morning.

I don’t mind but I do encourage people who want to do this kind of work to consider how time zones may impact their schedule and availability to work.

Other companies I work for target students around the world.  They have stronger demand from some regions and therefore still have hours where they highlight demand. However, because they do invite students from all over to learn on their platforms they are able to provide some opportunity to work throughout the day for me.

Company requirements range from preferring a long list of certifications to only requiring that English is your native language.

In summary for where to apply:

  • Research companies yourself
  • Understand the impact of their target clients and timezones for your schedule
  • Do you meet their requirements

The Application Process

How many people would love to work online? And why is that?

Because many people consider working online or from home to mean that the work is easy, low commitment, and open to anybody.

Therefore companies looking to hire English teachers and other online contractors are working hard and developing processes to discourage non-serious applicants.

Assume that competition is tough and ensure that your resume and application answers include relevant keywords. If you’re applying to teach English for example, you should be the kind of candidate that can have the words “teach, taught, tutor, children, adults, learners, English” on their resume.

Assume that your first challenge is to be filtered through an algorithm and use appropriate language accordingly. Don’t write something that would only matter to a human reviewer or a human reviewer may never see it filtered through the system. Straight forward, clear language that relates to the position responsibilities is best.

Furthermore, be prepared for multiple interview and training stages.  You’re going to have to jump through some hoops.  Jumping through hoops both demonstrates your seriousness about and commitment to the position and provides additional assessment opportunities for the company to feel confident they are hiring contractors who are a good fit.

In this process, one of the keys to success is staying organized.  Many companies will have developed their own platform that you would be working through and from the interview onwards they will be trying to teach you to effectively use this platform to meet their performance goals. You want to have clear notes on how to use the platform, all related requirements, and what the performance standards are.

Save any documents they provide you during the process all together in one folder; the documents may be provided through email and through the training platform so collect them in one place where you can access them at a moments notice.

Succeeding Online

Most online companies I have worked with, from transcription to teaching, rate contractors on a 5 star or 5 point system.  Most consider 4.85 and higher to be a generally acceptable range for contractors performance.  Aim higher, always, but especially aim for 4.88-4.95 if you are seeking advancement and bonus opportunities.

The most successful contractors are the ones who treat their opportunities with the same respect, commitment and care that they would be expected to give in a formal office environment. They follow instructions to the letter, follow up on all recommendations (If the company says that something is helpful but not required successful contractors are the ones who go ahead and follow that recommendation!), attend workshops and access all the support offered to them and they take pride in doing good work.

The reality is that it doesn’t matter where you’re working – a more traditional environment, somewhere with a startup vibe, remotely for a brick and mortar company or strictly online – every company favors employees who work hard.

Be that worker.

Developing a Career

I wrote a while ago about diversifying yourself.  I want to reiterate that the downfalls of working online necessitate diversity and maintaining contracts or opportunities with multiple companies.

To most online companies you are an independent contractor.  That basically code for them not owing you anything. No overtime – no matter how much you work, no sick leave, maternity leave or any other leave expected in most Western work environments, no health or wellness benefits, no paid vacation, and no guarantee of work or pay.  You work as much or as little as you want within the limits of how much work they have.  If students don’t sign up for classes my wide open availability means next to nothing. I might open eight, or even 10 hours of availability in a day and still only work 2-4 hours.  The company I work for doesn’t owe me anything for available hours that go unbooked.  The deal is that I work, they pay me, and in all other aspects, I am responsible for myself.

Many people are attracted to working online because of the “set your own schedule” ability and the idea that it is flexible. As I mentioned above though, don’t expect to be paid for any time that you aren’t actively working. You don’t have to open your availability if you don’t want to – but you are going to end up wanting to work as much as possible because otherwise you’re not getting paid.

The Impact of Policy and Culture

There is generally some understanding of uncontrollable circumstances.  For example, a large windstorm took down some power lines near my home and left me without power for 24 hours one weekend.  I messaged my company and was forgiven for canceling my classes because the circumstances were beyond my control and beyond what I can reasonably be expected to cope with while maintaining quality work.

I add the caveat about coping while maintaining a reasonable level of quality in your work because if your online employer is based in another culture you may find they have a different level of tolerance for personal issues than you’ve come to expect.

Some workplaces in Canada have very open and lenient policies for things like sick leave and mental health, for example. You can not expect this from an online company.

Realize this: Your manager might support you staying home from work because of that wicked head cold but it isn’t because they feel bad for you – they just don’t want you getting them sick.  When you work from home your head cold doesn’t affect anyone else.  My sick days with my companies are extremely limited.  Not feeling well is not a reason to not work when you work at home in your PJs.

Even more prominent – mental health and what should be done for people struggling with mental health issues is a cultural knowledge.  In Canada, we have a very empathetic attitude about mental health.  Most workplaces recognize it as a genuine concern and have varying levels of support. I know many companies still fail their employees completely, however, most have good and improving policies.

When working for a company based in a culture like China, I have found that mental health is considered a nonfactor.  It falls under looking after yourself, which is considered separate from your work life and not their responsibility.

Harsh – yes, very much so. However, it is a sacrifice that comes with developing a career that ignores physical borders.  You must work fluidly between cultures and learn to meet expectations that differ from what would be expected of you if you worked strictly within your own culture.

Working from home has its own unique set of benefits – there’s absolutely no doubt about that, for me.  However, those benefits mean mentally letting go of the benefits we may have expected from a more traditional workplace.  It’s a personal decision to favor one set of benefits and deficits over the other and figure out what kind of career is going to bring you the most satisfaction.

Carmen