The Bad Side to Teaching English Online

Teaching English online has just exploded in the last few years.

To many people, it seemed like the perfect digital nomad gig — sit in front of a computer screen for two hours and teach English to students far away and get paid a reasonable amount. Chilling in your bungalow on the beach in Thailand…

Idyllic.

Except that real life is not like that and prefers to send you a curveball when you least expect it.

Below is a list of some of the main gripes and grievances from online teachers. Read on and be warned. At least that way, these things may not come as too much of a surprise to you.

Let’s take a look…

 

Bad Connection

You are in full flow, explaining a vocabulary or grammar point and happy that your lesson is going so well. When you notice that your student hasn’t moved for the last ten seconds.

You check — hello? Are you there? — and you find that you have been disconnected.

This has to be the number one problem with teaching English online.

I hate this! I have been in the middle of a lesson and suddenly the connection just cuts out. Then I have to try to reconnect, which can take up to five minutes. And if I can’t reconnect, I have to then try to prove to the school that it is not my fault. It’s a nightmare!

And if you are living in a part of the world with spotty internet connection, then this is something that you are very likely to encounter. It is out of your control, and you totally depend on outside forces.

Should you be working for one of the big online schools, if the connection breaks down halfway through a class, you will probably have to prove that it was not your fault. The online schools need any excuse they can to not pay you.

And even if you do reconnect, you have lost the energy and the buzz — you now have to build that up again.

Losing internet connection can be a drag at the best of times. In an online class, it is infuriating.

Technology Failures

In fact, technology — or the failing of technology — is the main problem with online teaching. You are at the mercy of it all working when you need it and every part of it doing what you want during class time.

Yes, you can check your own equipment, make sure your computer is working. That the camera and mic are in full operation.

But if you are working for one of the big online chains, you are at the mercy of their technology too.

The last thing you want it a tech failure in any of your classes. So check all of your own equipment regularly. That is all you can do.

 

Skype Connection Issues

Most of the big online English schools use their own video calling apps.

They do this so that teachers cannot steal the students and set up a class on their own. It makes sense.

But many other teachers use Skype when doing online classes with their own private students. This is fine in theory until you realise that in some countries Skype can be incredibly unreliable.

This means the screen freezing or the sound disappearing completely.

You have to end the call and call the student back and this all leads to a lack of flow in the class.

If you are teaching students in China, the best app to use is WeChat. That is often a lot more reliable than Skype but is still prone to screen-freezes and spotty connections.

 

Teacher Student Connection

And if poor internet connection is not bad enough, having a poor teacher-student connection can just kill the class dead.

In a real live class, you can interact with the students, get up close and personal and move around the classroom. They can see you and you can see them.

In a real class, it is much easier to assess the moods of the students. Little Jimmy might shuffle his feet as he walks in the class, and you know he will not cooperate today. While Sally and May, who are usually the best of friends, are now scowling at each other — they have had words.

Sometimes, I would have absolutely no idea if the student was following what I was saying or not. I just didn’t have that full connection that a teacher has in a real classroom setting.

In an online class, this is all much harder to pick up. You just can’t see the signs as clearly. You can’t pick up all the body language, the facial expressions and gestures.

And it’s not just that — the online class just lacks that human element that you have in a real classroom.

You try to make up for it by using funny gifs, online games or a video to try to bring a sense of fun into the lesson but it is much harder than if you were ‘live’.

Student Gets Distracted

And even if you do have a great teacher-student connection in your online class, there is always the chance that the student gets a notification on his screen that you cannot see.

You think Little Jimmy is paying attention when in fact he is just nodding his head in the right places while chatting with his friend. How would you even know he is doing it?

Most online students are Asian. And they have massive workloads in terms of studying, doing classes after school and homework. Once they find a loophole in the system, they will be all over it.

They will perfect the art of paying attention and giving you the impression that they are following everything you are saying while chatting with their friends — or even playing an online game.

 

Student Discipline

Then there is the aspect of discipline. This is hard to carry out in a real live class — but doing it in an online class? What do you do — tell him to leave the room?

I had one student who was really insolent. He would constantly play around and answer me back. And any time I got angry, he would just laugh — he knew that nothing could happen to him.

In these situations, if you work for an online school, you need to tell someone in the company to deal with it. They will very likely not wish to do this and will pass the buck back to you. You may have to put your foot down and refuse to teach the class.

Or even better — talk to the student’s mother.

One simple chat with her and the student will be on his best behaviour from then on.

 

Students Reluctant to Ask Questions

What can he do? Raise his hand?

And because of the disconnect in the online class, the student may not wish to ask questions at all, preferring to just keep quiet.

This is because of the lack of real connection that you might have in a real class. As a result, you may find that you are constantly checking with the student to see if they are keeping up with what you are teaching. This can really ruin any flow in the class and hinder progress.

 

Pacing of the Lesson

In a traditional class, if the student cannot follow what is going on, not only does the teacher have a better chance of picking up on this but can change the pacing of the class to let the student catch up. This is more difficult in an online class.

You might make the mistake of galloping ahead, assuming that the student is following everything you are saying. Or you are going way too slow and the student is bored out of his mind.

In a real live class, there are visual clues that the student is confused or bored — the teacher can pick up on this easily with the right experience.

But in an online class, the teacher loses a lot of visual contact.

No Personal Understanding of the Student

In a real live class, the teacher can often get to know the students on a more personal level. This might happen when the student asks questions after class or in some conversations outside the classroom. The teacher might get to know the student’s interests and likes or dislikes.

But in an online class, not so much.

And in a real school, the teacher doesn’t only teach classes. They may have to be present at sports events or lead after-school clubs and activities.

It is in these situations that the teacher can really get to know the students as people, as real human beings.

Not so in an online class.

 

Group Work is Impossible

In a classroom, this is easy to do. In an online class? Forget about it.

And this can limit what you can do in your lesson.

No group discussions, no role plays, no group presentations.

Only you and the one student.

In traditional classes, I loved doing group activities — games, role plays, and all other kinds of activities — but there is no opportunity to do this in any online class.

 

Parents, Teachers and Students — all in the same room!

In a real class setting, the teacher is alone with the students. You might have a teachers’ assistant in the classroom to help you out.

What you certainly do not have are all the students’ mothers hovering around and helping their kids out with the answers.

This is what you are likely to get in an online class — especially if the student is from China, Korea or Japan.

One of the most difficult things to deal with is having mom just off-camera, trying to help their kid, and pushing and prodding them to speak. It drives me mad.

Helicopter Mom is indeed a real thing.

And how can you deal with it? Tell the mother to leave the room?

She won’t do that, she will just go off-camera.

I had one mom who would micromanage every single class to the point where I was not in control of the class at all. She would also insist on having classes whenever she and her daughter had time — that meant having class while they were in a car or eating in a fast-food restaurant or one time in a shopping mall.

She means well, but she is just encouraging her kid to be reliant on others to spoon-feed them the answers throughout their life.

Some teachers have had to endure teaching a class with the whole family in the room, all adding their input and making comments. Or mothers trying to book a class with a very young child — a baby or toddler.

Or demanding a complete breakdown after each and every class. Insisting on knowing every single thing that their son or daughter needs to work on, so they are fluent in six months.

These mothers can be very demanding and will blame the teacher if their child is not progressing at a galloping pace.

It makes the entire process very difficult for the teacher.

No Colleague Interaction

In an online class, you don’t have the opportunity to hang out with other teachers after class. No way you can discuss a certain class and get feedback or advice from your colleagues.

There is also the social aspect of just hanging out together at the weekend.

As an online teacher, you have none of that.

I used to love exchanging ideas with other teachers when I worked in a school. Or just getting some advice on certain things. Even meeting up for dinner or a beer after work. But none of that with online teaching.

 

Online Teaching is not Real Teaching

It may be a controversial thing to say: But real teaching is done in the classroom.

Online teaching is more like assessment and giving feedback. You are really only checking that the student is capable in certain skill areas.

Many online teachers say that online teaching is like having a small test with the student.

With online teaching, it is much more difficult to have a lesson with a well-planned lesson plan and enlighten the masses within.

That only really happens in a real class.

 

The Money is Not as Good as Real Teaching

The pay for online teaching is less — sometimes much less — than teaching in a traditional classroom setting.

The online schools say that this is because you have the freedom to live wherever you want and work from home.

Come to work in your pajamas!

I have heard of some schools that pay despicable rates to their teachers. This may be why many online schools try to find teachers in The Philippines. They can pay really low-level pay rates.

And many online schools use rating systems that determine how much to pay their teacher. This is a means to pay as little as they can.

If you were working in a small city in any Asian country, your overheads could be a lot cheaper than living in America, plus the salary would invariably be higher than any online teacher’s pay.

Online Schools not Paying on Time

This is true of many English training centres around the world. Many of these schools seem to exist from month to month.

But with online schools, they have the advantage that the teacher cannot burst into the accountant’s office and demand to be paid.

All you can do, as the teacher, is send another email. And wait.

 

Online School Teaching Material is Dire

Another truism of many English training centres. ESL books that have been hacked together by the staff and then the teachers are expected to perform magic with them in the class.

One of the most annoying things was using the material that the online school gave me. And I had to use it. I had no means to use any of my own material because I couldn’t send it to the student.

It was so infuriating.

Much of the material that the schools use is of no use to the students at all. It may not be right for their English level — or it is completely irrelevant to their needs.

You may find you are forced to use worksheets that are for a beginner when the student is about to take their IELTS test next week.

 

Lack of Respect from Online Schools

And if it is not bad enough that the online schools have terrible rates of pay, pay late and have next to useless teaching materials, they treat the teachers with complete disdain in other areas too.

I felt like I was the online school’s virtual teaching monkey!

I had to do endless free trial classes with students with the vague promise that they would become my own students. But most of the kids I had a trial class with could speak no English at all. It was just an exercise in insanity.

And the school will expect you to follow every single one of their rules to the letter. No matter what the situation might be.

If the student makes a complaint about you, do not expect any support from the school. You will be held responsible for every single complaint raised towards you.

I had to pay a fine because I only taught one student for 50 minutes instead of the full hour. This is because the student was always late. I pointed this out to the school and told them to check when the student appears in the class but the decision was made — the student complained, therefore I was in the wrong.

Lack of Respect from Students

And if the schools don’t treat you with any respect, the students may have even less regard for you.

Teachers have voiced complaints of students expecting them to lie. For example, stating that the student attended every single class and on time. They need to show full attendance to their company, or they could be punished.

While the teacher risks being fired — or fined — by the online school for lying.

Many female teachers have had to endure conversations laden with sexual comments. This could be explained as cultural differences, but the teacher has no way to deal with it and no support from the school.

 

Lack of Communication from the Online Schools

Unlike a real school, online teachers have great trouble communicating with their online employers. Some teachers have said that communication is almost non-existent — and that this is done intentionally, so no one has to listen to anything the teacher wants to say.

The only course of action that the teacher has is to email someone — and those emails are usually ignored.

 

High Expectations from Students

One of the problems with online teaching is that the teacher is often the only face that the students see.

Because of this, the student may have very high expectations of the teacher — imagining that they can conjure up anything they want in the class.

One of the common complaints from teachers about online schools is the quality of the teaching materials. The student may then expect the teacher to provide all the teaching materials that they expect to see.

As the online schools often practice a hands-off policy when it comes to preparing any curriculum, they may leave this to the teacher. Or the school may even tell the students that the teacher can help them with all their study needs.

Come the day of the first class and the teacher may be expected to have a full curriculum and course ready having never met the student or know anything about their English level or what they need.

Another issue is that because the online school is hard to contact — or just ignore any emails from both the teachers and the students — that the teacher becomes the representative for the school.

So if the student has any complaints that should be levied against the school, they often have no choice but to talk to the teacher about this.

This is grossly unfair to the teachers and the students.

 

Classes Too Short

Online English classes are usually only thirty minutes in duration.

Many teachers feel this is too short in time and they have no chance to get into the meat of the lesson. By the time you have said your hello’s and how are you’s the lesson is already five minutes done.

And if you are following the standard ESL lesson plan of presentation – practice – production, then you could easily run out of time before the student has the opportunity to show you what they can do.

Teachers say that just by simply doing the class online that time gets sucked into the vortex — like there is real-life time and virtual online time.

Then there is the issue of having all your classes stacked back-to-back against each other. No time for idle chit-chat, no time to say goodbye or ask about their weekend. Time is running out and you have to log the student off to meet the next one.

With online English teaching time really is of the essence.

Weird Time Differences

Speaking of time, you also have to consider the time differences.

If you are teaching with one of the big online companies, your students will be from China. That means that the students have to operate on China time. Which means you also have to operate on China time.

Now if you are based in The Philippines, that is no problem at all. Wake up, make some coffee, stare out of your window, and you may not even have your first class until four o’clock pm.

China and The Philippines are in the same time zone.

Which is great if you live on Boracay.

But what about if you live in Nevada?

That means a 5:00pm class time in Shanghai is 1:00am in Nevada.

Many teachers have their first class of the day at 5:00am. If getting up early is part of your lifestyle, then no problem. But for most people that is a real struggle.

Early starts like that mean going to bed much earlier than usual. This can interfere with other aspects of your life.

 

Real-life Issues

As well as all the above issues of dealing with schools, dealing with students and their parents and the logistical concerns of online teaching, there are also questions to think about in terms of your own life and career.

Pension

The online school does not offer any pension contributions. So you are liable for all of this on your own.

No Union

Online schools are private companies and as such do not offer any support in the form of a union. In fact, as we have seen above, the online schools offer next to no support at all.

This may come as something of a shock to you if you are used to all manner of union support if you worked in a public school before.

Not a Good Look on your Resume

Online teaching is still not regarded as real teaching. As such, having periods of online teaching on your resume or CV is unlikely to impress future employers.

Something you should definitely consider if you are teaching online in between teaching in a real school.

 

Conclusion

All in all, the list of negatives is quite extensive.

That is not to say that is a bad idea. Many people do online English teaching and enjoy it. It gives them the freedom to live whatever life they are living and are happy to do it.

But if you are new to online teaching, these issues are definitely something you should bear in mind before giving up your teaching position in a public school. Packing your bags and going to live in Bali while teaching nice, well-behaved kids via your laptop sounds great in theory.


What do you think?

Are you an online English teacher? Are the complaints and issues above valid? Or are they totally unfair?

Let me know in the comments below!

8 thoughts on “The Bad Side to Teaching English Online”

  1. This article was a real eye opener and now I’m having second thoughts about online teaching. Of course you might have a great experience but all of the downsides you mention are certainly worth considering.

  2. Sadly this stuff is true. I agree with the article. I’ve been teaching English online for almost two years and been fighting to get out of the industry. It’s really hard once you’re in it. You don’t feel like a real teacher or get any respect from the company or the students. What blown me away most of all is when I did a trace route from my router to the IP addresses they assign me to use their platform. It showed how unstable their’s was (I was consulted by an IT expert to do this) and the school I have a contract with still wouldn’t accept it that they were in the wrong. They gave me my money for those classes though. However, I believe they only gave it to me so I wouldn’t look further into how much of a mess their platform is. These companies know that their technology isn’t good but they don’t care. I also feel bad for the students because they over charge them for crappy service. One of my student’s told me that she pays $4000 a year for the program and begged me for other options to learn English without using the school. I suggested to her to get a language exchange partner and try an online market place to find tutors. It’s a hot mess. I work two other jobs because the teacher pay is so inconsistent because of the amount of no shows and student cancellations I get. I finally found a program that offers an apprenticeship program to become a state licensed teacher. I got a full time temp job for tax season that gives me a bit of a break from teaching online, but it ends in less than two months. If I don’t get another job or start my apprenticeship, it’s back to doing this “full time” again. I’m hoping the apprenticeship program accepts me so I can get out of this nightmare. If any of you escaped this industry I’d really appreciate it if you would share what you did. It would really help. I’m really burnt out. I believe there are a lot of teachers who feel this way but other than glassdoor or indeed reviews they don’t really have anyone to talk to. It’s so isolating.

    1. Maame, I’m sorry for what you are going through with this. Maybe the industry will change but I think that will take a long time. The companies seem to be unscrupulous and have no consideration for their teachers or their students. The end game is to make as much money as possible.

      Best of luck.

  3. I agree with you and I’d add one more bad side, most of the teaching is ineffective.

    And it’s hard to sell the better teaching materials and methods because the students are ignorant and easily distracted by advertisement.

    1. David Buckley

      That’s a good point, Lang. I hope that the entire online industry can improve. I think online teaching could provide a valuable service during these times of corona, but the schools and companies need to shape up.

  4. Michael Cenkner

    Interesting and as others said rather true. I just started doing some online teaching and I’m experiencing some of these things. In my case the company I’m with at least are respectful towards me, but the other things apply.
    ***
    I’m interested in the area of materials and resources. The company I’m with supplies the Big English series, which is for domestic USA-based ESL in face-to-face classrooms. So for online EFL it’s really not very useful.
    ***
    I have this fantasy of developing a really good resource for Chinese learners, but quality of resources just isn’t a priority. Or is there a great resource specifically for Chinese kids learning online? Probably not, since Chinese companies pirate freely, so there’s no money in developing and publishing new resources.
    ***

    1. Yes, it would be difficult to publish material like that. But I do think good quality ESL material specifically designed for Chinese students would be a great asset.

      So much of the existing material is designed for a much larger audience without dealing with the kind of issues that Chinese students might encounter.

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