The Face of Virtual ELT (ep2) How to Get ESL Students Online

Nicola Prentis, ELT materials writer and prolific blogger interviewed Jaime Miller about her experience teaching ESL online. Nicola asks about how Jaime keeps her schedule full of motivated students, as well as her opinion on how women in ELT can step out of their comfort zone.

Use the time stamps and Nicola’s questions below to navigate the 33-minute video interview:

  • (00:00) What do you do online?
  • (01:20)  A lot of people think teaching ESL online is just a conversation online in Skype.  Is there more to it than that? Are there any limitations on what we can do with students in online lessons?
  • (02:58)  You’ve moved away from the traditional language school model which doesn’t compensate teachers for travel time, cancellations, etc.  Is online teaching the answer for that?
  • (05:04) For students, we always say that students love the social aspect of classes.  Are online students more serious and committed because socializing is less important to them?
  • (07:20)  Are your students people who have mainly come looking for you online?
  • (07:53)  A lot of teachers who are watching may be interested in converting their lifestyle. Can teachers do that by encouraging their face to face students switch to online lessons?
  • (09:30) Nicola and Jaime reminisce about Istanbul neighborhoods and how traffic made teaching ESL locally challenging.
  • (10:00) Where do ESL teachers find teachers online? Can you help teachers get found online?
  • (13:50) Do you think it’s wiser for someone to start with an online school or set up their own independent platform?
  • (15:55) There’s such a difference between working for yourself with ESL students you coordinate and students the school coordinates for you… There’s very preferable aspects to doing it by yourself. Why wouldn’t the same apply?
  • (17:25) I did hear about a school that teaches mostly online and they do have some face to face classes, but they were struggling to get teachers to do those classes. Do you think the power will switch from schools to teachers?
  • (19:00) What are your plans for expansion?
  • (20:21) What’s your IATEFL proposal about?
  • (21:05) Last question: I’m quite interested in the role of women in ELT. When I presented at IATEFL last year, that’s what I spoke about with Russ Meyn. We looked at the disparity between the number of women in ELT as a whole and the number of big names, and the people on the covers of ELT magazines and plenary speakers at conferences. One of the reasons given for that kind of disparity is that women don’t put themselves forward. Sheryl Sandberg wrote that “women are judged more negatively than men when they look pushy.” Do you have any insights into that?

“A lot of students’ levels of motivation have to do with the administrative structure and the school’s style of attracting students. If they’re not selective and work with absolutely every student, then that includes unmotivated students.

“I didn’t stumble into a magic garden patch of online students, or wake up with a full schedule. I had to find them.

“I started self-selecting lessons that were just online. Developing a viable online teaching career is a process. It doesn’t happen overnight.

“I really care about helping other ESL teachers start their own online career. The thing is that the longer I’m online, the more students I encounter who want to learn online. The fact is the demand is absolutely there. There are a lot of students who either live in big cities and want private lessons, exam prep or accent reduction conversation (and it’s totally inconvenient to work with somebody locally), or they want to feel like they are choosing their teacher.  I don’t know about you, but when I am searching for my language tutors, I am really, really picky. I want to know who my teacher is, their history, other students they worked with, what they do. Our students are the same! They want to know who we are and what are skills are.

“When students find a teacher online, an individual, they have the opportunity to scope them out in a completely different way than just walking into a school or just saying, “I want a teacher.” In traditional language schools, students are basically pulling the lever on a slot machine and whoever they happen to get, that’s their teacher. Nobody likes that situation.

“So the demand is really there from students who are discerning and want to get someone they feel comfortable with.  The question is, how do we reach them as teachers.

“I’ve seen teachers who are really qualified not make it online. I think it’s a shame. It shouldn’t be happening.

“The way to get students online is a process that starts with picking the type of lesson that you’re going to teach and getting really good at it — it’s what I call specializing. It’s what I did for TOEFL iBT.

“If you want students to choose you, you have to put yourself out there as doing something specific enough that students can instantly understand that you help them.  Don’t make them think about whether or not you can help them. They shouldn’t have a though process like, “Well, maybe if I’m creative and I talk a lot about a potential program and we spend a few weeks discussing what I want…”

“Students should come to you and have clarity about how you can help.

“The other way to get students: Love what you’re doing. Don’t just like your students a little bit. I know it sounds ridiculous because it’s exam prep. Who wants to touch that with a ten-foot pole?  But… I love my students! I LOVE them! And they know that I love them because I take care of them. For me, it’s that enjoyable. I don’t do that all kinds of students — and I didn’t do that for Young Learners. You’ve got to do what you love.