Hello everyone! Today I’m writing about something a little different from my usual content. You may know me as a travel blogger, but as I lack both a trust fund and sugar daddy, I work to support my travel addiction. I have been an English language teacher since 2013, teaching both adults and children the weird and wonderful workings of the English language. I do this both in-person and online. I’ve worked with language schools, companies and private students in England, Italy and Germany, as both a freelancer and full-time employee.
A lot of teachers are switching from face-to-face lessons to online platforms. There is also a new wave of people qualifying to become English language teachers, in hope of finding an alternative source of income – or a side hustle – until life regains some sense of normalcy. It is more important than ever to associate yourself with a reliable, professional company. Whilst there are lots of good ones out there who really care about the wellbeing of their staff and students, there are also a few bad apples. These schools may push boundaries and take advantage of their teachers, especially new and inexperienced ones. In this post, I am sharing 12 questions that you should ask an online school before signing a contract and/or agreeing to work for them.
(1) What material will I be teaching?
Many online schools produce their own material (usually in the form of PDF documents or PowerPoint presentations). This can be very helpful as it provides your lessons with a clear structure and specific goals. The document will show you the specific grammar points or vocabulary you should go over in class. Other schools might have a weekly syllabus, which teachers can supplement with their own ideas or material. I have worked for schools with strict weekly plans, flexible monthly plans and no plans whatsoever, where teachers have free range to teach whatever they feel their students want and need. All of these have their merits, but for new teachers, online schools with structured syllabi can be very helpful. You already have tons to think about: putting your theoretical training into practice, managing a classroom and getting your head around the technology. Throw lesson and curriculum planning to the mix…. it’s a lot.
As I’ve grown more experienced, my schools have given me more autonomy to decide what to teach. It is great to have so much freedom and flexibility but it also takes more preparation and planning. There are thousands (millions?) of excellent websites out there, full of resources and downloads, but it can be overwhelming. If your online school asks you to prepare a weekly or monthly plan for a new student, I suggest looking at the index of online or physical coursebooks at your student’s level. These can give you a good idea of what students at that level of English should be able to do. These ‘can do‘ statements from the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) are also a useful indicator.
Many syllabi are teacher-led or decided by the school’s management, but one well-regarded online school does things differently. Its students choose the topic and time of the lesson. This method works well as the students are interested and motivated as they chose the topic. However, it could happen that students deliberately avoid important topics because they simply don’t like them, which could result in fundamental grammar mistakes or big gaps in their vocabulary which they shouldn’t have at that level.
(2) Are there any websites or coursebooks I should/shouldn’t use?
If your online school doesn’t produce its own materials, you will need to find worksheets and articles elsewhere. Your school may point you in the direction of material that they’d prefer you use. It’s unlikely that you will be steered away from a coursebook or website (unless the school has tried to use it before and received negative feedback from the students) but it’s worth checking. Some of my favourite websites for teaching material including Onestop English, Lingua House, ESL Flow, The British Council and BBC Learning English.
(3) How many students will be in the lessons?
This information is crucial for planning your lessons and the activities that you might want to do. The class dynamic changes dramatically from two students to six.. or eight. You can have more dynamic conversations with a greater number of people sharing their points of view. However, you need to moderate the conversation more closely to ensure everyone has the chance to speak. Two or four students are ideal for pair work activity in a more intimate setting. If you only have one student, you can give that person your undivided attention and a lot of specific feedback, but you may take on a more active role in the lesson, taking part in activities which require a partner.
(4) What ages, levels and nationalities might I be teaching?
This essential information can help you to choose age-appropriate activities and material which is suitable for the students’ levels (i.e. Beginner, Elementary, Pre-Intermediate and so on). It can also make sure that the school is the right fit for you. If you prefer to teach a certain age group – young learners, children, teenagers or adults – then you should ask which ages you are likely to be teaching. If you can’t bear the thought of teaching young children, and the student demographic is age 12 or younger, it might not be the right school for you. There are lots of online schools to choose between so take your time to choose wisely, taking your preferences into account.
Knowing the students’ nationalities in advance tells you if you will have a monolingual or multilingual group. The more experience you have teaching different nationalities, the more you are aware of potential problems students may have. I say ‘potential’ and ‘may’ because not all students of the same nationality have the same issues, but there are certainly some common themes. It may be common pronunciation errors or easily confused words. ‘False friends‘ are a common culprit (words that look and sound similar between languages but have different meanings). Making yourself aware of some typical errors that certain nationalities students make when using English means you can help them not only identify errors and correct them, but understand – at a deeper level – why the mistakes happen in the first place.
(5) What will I be paid per hour?
If you are finding your own private students and placing adverts online, you can charge whatever you think you’re worth, based on your experience and qualifications. However, in online language schools, you often have to put up with whatever rate they have set. The hourly rate may not be open to negotiation, especially at the start of your contract. Some schools offer incentive schemes like a special bonus if you refer a student to their website, or an affiliate link you can share with friends who might want to teach online. You should also ask when you’re going to be paid, is it week-by-week or at the end of the month? Do you have to submit an invoice or will the money automatically arrive in your bank account?
(6) What are the cancellation policies for teachers and students?
This one’s really important because, despite our best intentions, sometimes we have to cancel lessons due to illness or emergencies. Similarly, our students need to cancel from time to time. Most schools have a 24-hour cancellation policy, meaning that if your student cancels less than 24 hours before the lesson start time, you are paid for the lesson (either in full, or partially). Cancelling more than 24 hours’ in advance means the student isn’t charged and you don’t get paid. However, some schools have stricter policies when it comes to teachers cancelling on students, so definitely enquire about this. One online school I work for blocks its teachers from booking any new lessons for a week if they cancel a class with less than 24 hours’ notice. Other schools ask for 48 hours’ notice before a cancellation.
(7) How is the students’ progress monitored?
Should you set and mark homework with your students? Should you be giving regular tests to your class? If so, do the results need to be fed back to the school’s management? Some online schools are more hands-on than others when it comes to monitoring and testing progress. If your manager asks you to set a class test, you can find examples of these online or in the back of coursebooks (which are based on the level of said book). The tests may not include everything you have covered in class, but offer a useful overview of what the students should be able to do by that point. Some schools don’t test their students during the course, but award certificates after successful completion of a level or certain number of lessons. For example, if the student completes 20 lessons at B1 level, they are given an “Intermediate” level certificate.
(8) How is my performance evaluated?
Companies take different approaches when it comes to performance evaluation and student feedback. Your first lesson (or few lessons) may be observed and you receive feedback from whoever observed you. Students may be asked to complete feedback forms after each lessons, rating you, the teaching materials and the classroom technology. Students might be asked to complete feedback forms halfway through their courses, or at the end (if the course has a fixed end date). Feedback is great when it’s positive… and a bit tough to take when it’s not, but try to view it as constructive. It can point you in the right direction for extra training that would improve your teaching.
(9) Does the school provide any training opportunities for its staff?
These might take place in the form of webinars, discussion forums or presentations to read in your free time. I’ve been teaching for years but still regularly engage in personal development. It is so important to stay up-to-date with new technology and methodologies, and is a great way to connect with other teachers in what is otherwise quite an isolating job. Sure, you spend a lot of your day talking to your students, but interacting with peers is limited both in online and ‘offline’ language schools.
(10) When will I be working?
If you are teaching adults who are fitting English lessons around their full-time jobs, or children having English lessons after school has finished, you might need to teach evenings and weekends. If this is a problem for you – or you have any time constraints – you should communicate this to the online school as soon as possible. Your school will probably let you work as much as you want (assuming the demand is there from the students). However some schools have a minimum number of hours they expect their teachers to work each month. Ask about this in the interview, especially if you intend to work for multiple language schools.
(11) How much annual leave can I take?
We may not be travelling at the moment, but it’s still important to ask about annual leave. During these stressful, uncertain times, self-care is more important than ever and you shouldn’t be expected to work seven days a week (unless you want to). Bear in mind that if you’re a freelancer, any annual leave you take is very likely to be unpaid. If you have a full-time, permanent contract, you will probably have a specific number of days per year that you can take as holiday.
(12) Which online platform does the school use?
There are lots of different websites that can be used to host online lessons, so you should ask which your school uses. Common platforms include Zoom, Skype, Webex and Go To Meeting. Once you know which platform you will be using, check out some tutorials on Youtube to see how it works and all the features available.
I hope this blog post has given you some useful questions to ask in your next job interview for an online school. Many of the questions are also pertinent for face-to-face interviews. If you have any other ideas of good questions to ask, please write them in the comments section below.
You can find my other posts about teaching English here.