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In the Spotlight: Elizabeth Drayton from Break Into English, on Teaching English Online vs. Face to

Here we share an interview with Elizabeth Drayton, a teacher trainer at Break Into English, an online English academy that offers personalized high quality 1-to-1 English classes via Skype with native teachers.

We’ve been speaking to seasoned pro Elizabeth Drayton who has over 10 years’ experience teaching English all over the world and now works as teacher trainer at Break Into English. We wanted to explore the differences between teaching English in face-to-face classes vs. online classes with a webcam, and have a look at the pros and cons of each TEFL style.

First question (let’s get straight to what many people want to know): How can you teach online classes to very young learners? Is it possible to do it effectively?

I know it sounds impossible, but actually it’s easier to teach to toddlers and preschoolers online because their parents are always in the background to help keep them focused. If you use fun activities and your style is dynamic and engaging, the chances are the kids will actually learn quite a lot and quickly!

How does that compare to face-to-face classes with very young learners?

I taught in a preschool for a while in Madrid, Spain. I love kids, I really do, but the energy you need to be able to spend all day with babies and toddlers is difficult to find. If on the other hand you land a gig in an after school club it is much less strenuous, because you only have to keep up the pace for an hour or so. In general, with group classes at this age is about classroom management and routines. You need to have lots of resources, not necessarily physical resources, but tools like “call and answer rhymes” you can use to get kids focused on you and ready to absorb what you have prepared to teach them!

Do you prefer teaching online or face to face?

I think it depends on the employer and the individual students you teach. I really enjoyed teaching face to face in a small village in Peru. We provided after school lessons for kids from 9 - 12 years old in groups of about 30 children. These kids were from very simple backgrounds, they often came to the classroom with no shoes for example. I was lucky because my boss let me loose in the classroom and I had a lot of freedom to teach whatever I wanted in the way I wanted to. It was heartwarming to see them laugh and dance really learn through playing games in English. The classes during the day were free classes for unemployed women from the village. I received much less money per hour, but the experience was absolutely incredible. I’m still friends with some of the women almost 8 years later. Although teaching online has many many benefits, it is this social aspect of face-to-face classes that I really miss.

‘Many many benefits’? Please go on…

Yeah, I mean with Skype classes I can roll out of bed, brush my hair and I’m ready. That has to be the main advantage. Travel costs are non existent, there’s no heavy traffic to stress me out and the convenience of working from home - or from your holiday apartment near the beach - is unbeatable. I have young kids and working online is the most compatible system with my family life I’ve found. Another great thing about working online is that you can fill in your schedule quite easily; the different time zones around the world mean that you can provide that much called for ‘after work’ slot at 6pm for the student several times in one day. To be honest there is just a lot more work available.

Do you find it hard to explain yourself properly if you are not face to face with your learners?

Not at all, these days technology is so high quality that it’s as if you were in the same room! What’s more, because you are in front of the computer throughout the class, it is super easy to do a quick Google search for material related to a topic that springs up in conversation such a quick translation of a few words, an image that can help you explain or a TedX talk to get expert opinions on a specific issue. Also when it comes to teaching business English, many clients only need English for teleconferences - so practicing via webcam is ideal.

Do you consider Skype to be the best medium for online classes?

To be honest, although the company I work for is marketed as providing English classes via Skype, we often use other tools depending on the client. For example many Japanese students like Google Hangouts, and the French are quite keen on Slack. I am aware that other companies have their own platforms - but I would be wary, especially with some of the Chinese companies, that they are not recording your classes and selling them to further clients without your knowledge.

You must have had some interesting experiences as a TEFL teacher over the years. Have you got any stories or anecdotes to tell us before we let you go?

Oh my goodness yes! Many stories, I think the the most embarrassing part of my teaching career was last summer via Skype. I was teaching a rather pretentious plastic surgeon who was taking classes from her holiday home in Corsica. One morning in the background through her webcam I saw her husband come into view, stretch and open the curtains - he was STARK NAKED. I nearly died! I tried to cover the screen (to protect my innocence) but at the same time I needed to explain to her what was going on - She had no idea. Curiously she changed teachers a few weeks later, I can’t imagine why!!!

Another story was teaching face to face in a kindergarten in Madrid. It was a small after school club, I had 8 babies aged about a year and a half. Despite the hard work I loved that class, and there were so many times that I was literally rolling on the floor laughing with them. One little guy Carlos, who had quite difficult behaviour, basically would do anything to get your attention, at some point he had learned a bad word in Spanish, which I won't say here. It’s a vulgar swear word which he must have heard somewhere used as an expression of frustration. Well anyway, this little guy had figured out that teachers don’t like this word very much - and he used to chant it out as loud as he could - at the top of his voice. Babies at this age a very heavily influenced by the group (which is fantastic to know if you are an ESL teacher - peer pressure can be a tool) and Carlos was definitely the leader. At one point I had them all sat down in circle time, 8 babies in the nappies/diapers, and they started bouncing up and down on their bottoms screaming this naughty word!!!! In spite of the horror of the situation - the delight on their faces was adorable - but obviously it was not acceptable behaviour. I didn’t know what to do - because if I told them off l them off for this, Carlos would receive his much desired reinforcement for bad behaviour and would continue to do it - so I was trying my best just to stifle my giggles and distract them with a nursery rhyme … keep calm and carry on!

A story I will share another day is about when I accidentally projected a very inappropriate video in the classroom in front of the head teacher and head of studies - in short, be careful when typing URLs - there are some pages which are very similar to children’s websites, a typo can make all the difference.

Wow - I’m not sure how to continue after that! Can you briefly tell us what you expect from your potential employees at Break into English?

Of course … During the hiring process we ask candidates to summarise our way of working, and then give a mock lesson or two using our activities and teachers’ manuals. We have lots of videos on the website that explain to students the type of lessons we offer and demonstrate the activities we expect our teachers to use.

A good quality TESOL or TEFL qualification is a must; although my job is to train our staff in our specific method, ESL teachers need to have all the basics under their belt. We like Promise Open Doors specialist online teaching course because we feel it prepares teachers in the fundamental aspects of teaching English as a foreign language. That’s why if we receive an application from a teacher with a POD TEFL certificate we zoom them to the top of the list.

OK, well, a big thank you to Elizabeth from all of us here are at Promise Open Doors. Keep her advice in mind and be sure to be thoughtful of those URL typos!

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