After meeting up with Sandy at IATEFL Manchester 2015 (having not seen each other face-to-face since finishing our university studies in 2008 – one of the reasons social media is great!) and chatting about the fact that I do most of my teaching on Skype, she asked me to write a guest post on her blog, and here it is!
I’ve been working as a freelance English teacher since the beginning of 2013, when I set up my business, Get Ahead in English. I’d just moved to Barcelona, and after teaching at SGI in London for a couple of years, was keen to see if I could strike out on my own! I built up to a full timetable of private students, almost all 1-1 with the exception of two students I taught together, and a group of three students in-company. I also started my first Skype lessons whilst in Barcelona. This was a 45-minute lesson with a student I’d taught face-to-face in London. We met once a week and mostly practised speaking, as well as email English. In this case, he didn’t have a webcam, which worked well as it gave him the chance to practise telephone English – in his job, he has to speak English to people without seeing their faces almost every day.
My husband and I moved back to the UK in December 2014 and I offered all my students in Barcelona the chance of continuing their lessons on Skype. Some were immediately keen, others said they’d prefer face-to-face (for example, those taking lessons in-company who felt they needed the motivation of a physical person appearing in their office every week) and some said they’d think about it (most of those have now started Skype lessons too!)
Most of the activities I do are not that different to those I did in face-to-face lessons. Instead of arriving at the lesson with printed handouts, I email them in advance, or send documents via Skype (there’s a paperclip symbol next to the chat box where you can attach files), and they arrive almost instantly. I also use this to send homework. To review students’ writing, I sometimes use the screen share function on Skype so we can look at their work together. I think some Skype teachers use Teamviewer, but I haven’t found it necessary.
It’s also very easy to look at websites together online – a student can send me something they’ve seen that they have questions about, I can send an article, or we can look at exercises together. Google images is also great when one of us is trying to describe something!
How different is teaching on Skype to teaching face-to-face?
As long as you both have a good internet connection and webcam, not that different at all! I have actually met the majority of my Skype students face-to-face as well, because I was teaching them in Barcelona, but I now have a few who I’ve never met in person. People ask if this is awkward, but I don’t think it is. One of the reasons I offer a free 30-minute consultation before students have to pay is to make sure the student feels comfortable with the format, as well as to check their internet is good enough and to conduct a needs analysis, of course!
One difference I have noticed is timing. When going to a student’s house or office, you arrive a couple of minutes early and by the time you’ve come in, sat down, they’ve offered you a drink and you’ve chatted about a new picture on the wall or something else you’ve seen, you’re at least 5 minutes into the lesson. With Skype, the lesson starts as soon as you press the “call” button! This also means that there are generally fewer distractions, which is nice.
Of course, there are sometimes technical problems. Touch wood, I’ve had fewer problems with my internet connection than I did with late trains/buses when teaching face-to-face! It’s important to have a strategy in place for these types of things though – do you still charge a student if their internet is broken? I ask students to give me 24 hours’ notice of any changes or cancellations, but treat those with less notice on a case-by-case basis. If my internet broke and we couldn’t do our lesson, I wouldn’t charge the student and we’d arrange another time to make up for it. This is yet to happen! We did have a power cut last week but luckily not while I had any lessons scheduled. Occasionally mine or my student’s internet connection will cut out for a minute or two during the lesson, but that’s rare and only for a short time.
How do I find students?
I’m lucky in that the majority of my students are ones I already knew. However, I’ve found a few new students through TutorFair and others through Blabmate. Be warned that with the latter, you’ll receive a lot more enquiries than paying students! There seem to be a lot of people looking for free lessons. However, for the £1.40/month fee, you don’t need many paying students to make it up. I would also say it’s important to have your own website so students can find out more about you.
I asked my Skype students to tell me what they most like about learning on Skype for a blogpost I wrote on my website, and the main thing they mentioned was convenience. They can take their lessons anywhere (even on a beach or in their pyjamas!) as long as they have an internet connection.
This is also an advantage for me, as my travelling time and cost is now zero. It also means that I have students all over the world, which is great to increase my client base, but also to learn about new cultures.
Last but by no means least, there’s the environmental factor. I print so much less now that I’m teaching online. A recent ELT chat highlighted the desire for teachers to reduce the amount of paper they use, and this is one way to do it!
I used to enjoy teaching face-to-face in Barcelona as it gave me the chance to walk around the city a lot and get to know it. This is slightly less appealing in rainy Manchester, but I do miss the exercise and variety!
Sometimes you can’t beat being in the same room as a student – they may have a book they’d like you to look at, and it’s easier to pick up on body language etc.
I haven’t taught any small groups on Skype but imagine that would be more difficult. Having had three-way conversations with friends on Skype, we’ve tended to end up with lots of people starting to speak at the same time as it’s harder to see visual clues. However, I’m sure you’d get used to it and would be good practice for meetings etc.
Overall, I really enjoy teaching on Skype. It’s comfortable for me and the student, it’s more environmentally friendly and it means I can teach students all over the world!
Thanks a lot to Julia Phang for writing this post. It was great to catch up with her after so long, and the fact that she could write a guest post on a topic I often get asked about was an added bonus! If you’d like to find out more, you can follow Julia on Twitter and read her shiny new blog too.