Note: I now use Zoom — if you still use Skype, this article could help you — but for the article on Zoom, please click here.
When you use Skype to talk to your family and friends, I’m sure that you feel comfortable, right? But what about for teaching?
Let me share some of the most important things you can do to ensure your online ESL lessons go as smoothly as possible. I’ve been using Skype to teach my online lessons since 2010. In those days, there were a few digital classroom options that I looked in to, but at that point, the quality of image and sound in Skype was comparable — and free.
I’ve literally taught thousands of hours on Skype.
It’s been a couple years now that every single student who has a first lesson with me wants more. At this point, 100% of my income is sourced from online lessons and services. The demand is definitely there.
Let me give you some tips!
10 tips for great Skype lessons that make students sign up for more
#1 Check your audio.
I cannot overemphasize the importance of investing in a good headset. Audio is the most critical aspect of a successful online lesson. Without it, your student cannot improve their listening or pronunciation skills.
If you’re not willing to invest in your students’ ability to hear you clearly, then why should your student invest in their English with you?
You need to buy the best headset you can afford — commit 2-4 lessons’ worth of income to buying this. If you buy nothing else of quality for online lessons, it should be a good headset.
Also, all ears are not created equal. What sounds good to one student is less than perfect to another student. Navigate to Skype’s “Tools” / “Options” and double-check out your audio before the lesson starts. Practice switching quickly and smoothly between microphone sources in case your student prefers your voice one microphone over another.
#2 Check your video.
Navigate to Skype’s “Tools” / “Options” and check out your video before the lesson starts.
Make sure your background looks professional, and that you are framed well. If you look tiny, your student will feel far away from you and it is harder to establish the emotional connection that is essential for successful Skype lessons. If your student has a fantastic view up your nose, that is also awkward — but in a different way.
Play with lighting and camera angle to achieve a nice, warm, friendly look.
#3 Take it seriously.
You’re teaching at home and your students are learning at home, too.
There’s a big temptation to be really relaxed about the time that the lesson starts, and whether or not you accept your student’s cancellation. “Well, I’m just sitting at home, so I guess it should be ok that so-and-so just canceled at the last minute…” Yeah, except you’re losing money. As you get busier (always assume your success will grow!), you will have less and less room to be make up that lost lesson time.
To teach successfully offline or online, you have to cultivate the mentality that your time is valuable. From the beginning, tell yourself that you’re busy and make sure your student knows that you won’t be able to make up any time if they are 5-10 minutes late getting a coffee or hanging up their laundry. If necessary, tell your student a white lie that you have another lesson immediately after his/her lesson.
Trust me, your students will follow and respect the rules you create — and if they don’t, they should be studying with another teacher who they do respect.
#4 Prep properly.
First and foremost, be ready to explain and guide your students through the potential technology issues they may face. These are some common ones that my students have — particularly if they grew up in households without a computer:
- “Teacher, why can’t I see the messages you are writing in Skype?” (Hint: Your student needs to click the button that displays the chat box.)
- “Teacher, you’re sharing your screen but I can’t read the words because they are so small!” (Hint: Your student needs to maximize and adjust the display panel in Skype so that your screen fills the entire computer screen.)
Can you explain the solutions to those things in basic, calm, clear English? If yes, your students will trust you and want to continue. Otherwise, they will feel stressed and be more likely to quit lessons with you.
Then, get ready for the grammar! I still remember the sense of stress I felt the first time I wanted to teach a student about reduced adjective clauses. Sure, give me a piece of paper and some highlighters and I’m golden. I can get a student to understand it in a few minutes.
But with the added technological barrier, I lost all confidence in myself. I was like, “How the hell am I going to do that through Skype?”
It took some brainstorming of ways to combine Skype’s screen-sharing feature with tables or charts that I made in Word Documents or Power Point Presentations. Slowly, I learned how to draw and write with my mouse.
Today, I can explain absolutely anything on the fly.
A few years ago, however, Rookie J had to do a significant amount of prep to get through the staging of digital lessons.
If you’re in that rookie stage, too, don’t stress! Prep properly in advance.
Perseverance always wins.
#5 Use Skype chat properly, in moderation.
I used to exclusively use Skype for lesson notes. It drove students crazy because they wanted to copy/paste our chat, and instead of clean copy, they had [Jaime: 09:40] and [Student’s Name: 9:42] stamped all over the place.
If you’re going to use Skype, use it for quick activities or error correction that are not really for tracking important explanations.
Here are two sweet Skype tricks you might not know:
First: You can add spaces and line breaks to help format things You can press “Shift + Enter” to add line breaks between text.
Second: You can edit messages that you have already written. I only learned after like a year of using Skype that I could edit my messages. You can right click on any message you type and select “Edit” from the menu. You can change the text and by pressing “enter” again, your newly-edited message is displayed for the student.
Editing messages is exceptionally useful when you want to show a student a mistake. For example, you type in a sentence that has an error, like…
Is better than first option.
And if you ask your student, “What’s the problem here?” and s/he can’t figure it out, you can edit the message to add spaces as clues – like…
___ is better than __ first option.
And as your student says the words, you can re-edit the message to add the new words:
IT is better than ___ first option. → IT is better than THE first option.
#6 Close Facebook, email and Youtube & silence your phone
OK, imagine that you decided to try out lesson with a teacher. You are paying big bucks to have this teacher listen to you and only you — oh wait, no, she is actually updating her FB status, or looking at Etsy…
Sorry — can you repeat that again?
Not to mention that it looks incredibly unprofessional if, when you start a screen share, the first thing that pops up is your FB account or some random page you were looking at when you were supposedly paying attention to your student.
#7 Decide how you’ll organize notes about your student. Then stick to the system.
Are you going to use Microsoft Word documents or One Note? Or something else?
You need a place to track lesson topics, new vocabulary, homework that you assigned, documents you might want to use, etc.
It doesn’t really matter what you do as long as you feel good about it.
#8 Mute your sound if you’re going to type a lot.
Keyboard keys are very, very noisy. Students can hear you and it’s distracting, or they might think you’re Facebook-ing, or emailing, or writing down all the mistakes that they’re saying that you notice ;-)
Tell your student if you’re going to type and take notes while they talk; otherwise don’t type. Or mute your audio through Skype.
#9 Collect & assign homework through a cloud-based file-sharing site.
Here are the reasons why you don’t want to use email:
- It’s a pain in the @$$ when a student submits an essay, and then thinks of a change, and sends you a new version — which might get attached to an existing email thread (and your smart phone or laptop screen may or may not display it properly) or you’ll get a whole new email thread.
- Some students don’t know how to attach multiple files to an email, so they send everything separately. If you’re dealing with multiple essays or speaking files, that is a royal nightmare.
- Some files are too large to be attached to emails.
- When you start teaching a measurable volume of students online, multiply the emails from #1 and #2 by the number of students you have.
- Waking up to these email goodies or seeing a whole bunch of them before you go to sleep at night is stress-inducing.
No thank you. Use Sugar Sync, DropBox or Google Drive — anything but email.
#10 Prepare to engage. Be friendly.
You have to overcome the technological barrier by emphasizing you. We both know there’s a difference in how you feel when you are properly dressed and when you’re wearing your PJ’s.
Never teach in your jammies! Get dressed nicely because it helps you mentally show up and serve your student. Smile! If necessary, watch your favorite guilty-pleasure pop power song to boost your energy before your lessons.