Five Tips for Being a Great Online Language Teacher (from Language Students)

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A great online language tutor in action

It’s hard to figure out how to be a great online language tutor. Apart from the obvious things — be knowledgeable, be prepared and be on-time — it’s difficult to know what students expect and want.

Particularly because they don’t tell you. They just stop using you after a while if things don’t improve.

Being a good online language teacher has many benefits. You retain students for longer. Your classes become easier over time because you don’t have to spend time getting to know each other’s style of learning and teaching. This is the relationship you want: long-term, mutually beneficial.

If you’re a student, read our guide on how to be a great language student and get more out of your language tutors!

We’ve used a lot of teachers, both on- and offline and have seen a huge range of ability. Here are some tips from we have seen from the very online teachers that keep students for a long time.

Tip 1: Listen and be empathetic

The first sign of a great teacher is one who listens to the student.

Ask the student questions and encourage them to speak naturally. Keep getting the student to speak, allowing them to express themselves to the best of their ability, even if they make mistakes.

It’s important to be able to grade the student’s level both when they start and when they’ve been learning for a while, and adjust your style and tempo to suit. For example, in the beginning a student might not know any verbs or tenses. It makes sense to teach them. But once they’ve been using them for a while, adjust so you’re teaching them more complex phrasings.

An unempathetic teacher will not really listen to a student but just start speaking, instructing they way they do every other student, as if reading from a textbook (which is what they might be doing). This is a terrible sign for a student that they won’t ever feel comfortable in class. Avoid this.

It’s tempting to think you can ask the student what they want from you. But there are two drawbacks to this. Firstly, most students don’t really know. It’s not until you’ve had a few great teachers that a student knows what they can expect. After many great teachers, we know we can expect an online tutor to do things like take notes, give us mini-tests and give us extra-curricular activity like TV shows to watch. A beginner student doesn’t know this is possible.

Another aspect of empathy is knowing how often to interrupt someone. No student speaks perfectly. It’s important to get a student to try to express themselves and then correct the most pressing mistakes, allowing time to adjust the smaller style errors later.

Finally, empathy dictates that you understand what the language learning process is like. It’s really hard. Students need constant encouragement as well as an appropriate amount of correction. Telling students they’re doing well is as important as showing how they can be better.

Tip 2: Enjoy talking to the student

A great teacher should genuinely enjoy teaching and talking to the student.

Everyone is different. No matter how positive our intentions are, two people aren’t always guaranteed to be friends. If you do become friends quickly, great!

But if not: Look for ways to enjoy talking to the student. Find topics of mutual interest. Make jokes. Be prepared and be on time. Express interest in things the student does. Ask them for their opinion on things. Remember details about the student like how many siblings they have, their nationality, their ethnic background if relevant.

Basically, do everything you would read in “How to Win Friends and Influence People”.

You don’t have to like everyone you teach. We don’t like some teachers personally, and don’t click with them when we speak with them. This doesn’t help us as students because we don’t feel comfortable and relaxed and so the information doesn’t sink in as best as possible.

If you don’t like a student, you don’t have to teach them. You don’t have to teach anyone! An intelligent student will quickly pick up on this and stop scheduling lessons, too.

Tip 3: Love the language and culture

The best teachers love their language, countries and cultures. They enjoy when students use elegant turns of phrase and speak eloquently. They love discussing their culture and politics and talking about their place in the world.

A person who loves their language and culture might find fault with the country in which they live, but this is an inevitable consequence of love.

For example, with my teacher in China, we’d regularly talk about commonly discussed social issues: the environment and pollution, education, health and diet. None of this is taboo, though outwardly criticising the government is — we kept it to talking about. However, despite all the problems that China endures, the conversation always remained positive: How do we fix this? What should we do? What do you think? What will you do?

Contrast this with teachers who are clearly sick of their own countries. Yes, this actually happens. Some teachers enjoy teaching because it connects them with foreigners, their preferred company. They’re desperate to leave their own country and situation. They might say things like “I want to live in America, but it’s hard without a job.” They’ll call the people of the country ignorant and say they can’t wait to leave, if it weren’t for some situation with family, passports or money. It sounds shocking, but there are actually teachers like this out there and we’ve encountered them.

After one or two lessons, we never schedule lessons with them again. It’s a negative experience for everyone.

Tip 4: Be culturally sensitive

A great teacher teaches both language and culture. The two are naturally interrelated.

But it’s also important to be aware that the student may not know anything about your culture and might not know what is normal to say or talk about. Things that are totally normal for most people in one country to discuss are not normal topics of discussion in another.

For example, in Egypt, it’s quite common to talk about religion or income quite early in a conversation with a foreigner. This is quite awkward for foreigners who aren’t used to talking about these things (see our discussion here of awkward questions they ask us in Egypt). We don’t mind it when someone who has no idea about foreigners asks those questions. But we would expect a teacher to be more culturally sensitive.

Students also lack sensitivity of course. I’ve seen beginner Chinese students try to talk about Tiananmen square or the Cultural Revolution with Chinese teachers. These are things every foreigner knows about, but they don’t know that educated people in China are aware of them, they know better than to talk about them with anyone under any circumstances. So the same should go both ways. In these circumstances, it’s fine to tell a student that you would rather not discuss this topic.

On a similar note, great teachers know that foreigners feel somewhat sensitive about local politics — particularly Americans, whose politics are in the international news every day. Americans are well aware that their country has its issues, and don’t really like it when foreigners have opinions about them. Great teachers don’t discuss foreign politics at all unless the student does.

Tip 5: Take great notes

This is a practical comment but still very important. A great teacher takes great notes!

At a minimum, notes are in the form of a shared document broken up by date so you can see what you learned in each lesson. Each word or phrase that you didn’t understand and had to learn should be taken down.

Some teachers go a lot further, breaking their notes up into, for example:

  • New words and phrases
    • Nouns
    • Verbs
    • Other
  • Pronunciation issues
  • Grammar issues

All of that structuring is fine, but the most important part is taking notes and being consistent about format. As long as a student knows where to go to find notes, it’s fine!

The student can also take notes (and should), but the danger in relying on the student is that they sometimes don’t take the correct note down, and don’t take complete notes. Besides, the student is working very hard just to be able to express sentences out loud. If they’re then forced to write things down it will slow the whole lesson down.

Things that aren’t important to be a great online teacher

Let’s dispel some myths, too. These are some things you DON’T need to be a great online tutor!

A great teacher does not have to be:

  • Infinitely flexible with style: Some beginner tutors think they have to teach students however the student wants, whatever the student wants, etc. This isn’t true! As a teacher, you should guide the student a little in what is best for them. If you don’t know, then it will come with experience. If you think it’s time the student learns to read more because you know it will be good for them, then encourage them to read more.
  • Cool: Slang is great, but it is almost never what’s best for a student. Once a student is really proficient, they will start to learn appropriate slang naturally from their environment. When people ask about slang or swearwords, they almost never learn them right!
  • Good looking: Maybe this is a tip for students: why are you picking the most attractive teachers? I’ve noticed that the most attractive (female) teachers online are usually the most expensive. On the other hand, my best teachers don’t even use video: it’s 100% audio!
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