Online Teaching: 10 student FAQs

Last week I decided to write a beginner’s guide to teaching English online, encouraging people to try it to build up their teaching experience before working abroad. In this article, I briefly mentioned the art of messaging students in order to set up a steady flow of students and classes. Over time I’ve noticed that I often get a standard set of questions each day that can feel repetitive if you’re not accustomed to it. With that in mind, I’ve collected the most frequently-asked questions that I get while online teaching, as well as my semi-expertly crafted responses in order to put yourself across and set your students at ease as effectively as possible.

1. “Can you teach me English?”

It’s easy to see how some can edge towards the fringe of frustration when they receive this message throughout the day – isn’t that what the app is for? you might think. However, put yourself in the student’s shoes. They are about to call a stranger for the sole function of using them for language practise – it’s almost as daunting as marching up to someone in Tesco and demanding they chat to you over the deli counter for 20 minutes. Furthermore, many students are new to the apps and are unsure of the etiquette. Don’t get mad at people for being polite.

Example response: “Of course! No problem.”

2. “Are you a teacher?”

Again, the caller can’t see you yet. They can’t see that TEFL you did last summer. They also can’t tell that you may or not be some lewd creep looking for a power trip. This message often comes from concerned parents who want to ensure they are about to let their children speak to a safe, trained professional.

Example response: “Yes. I have (insert experience, however small). I’ve taught…”

3. “Can we make friends?”

Most students mean this more in the sense of connecting via the app than weaving friendship bracelets.

Example response: “Yes, of course.”

4. “You are so beautiful/handsome.”

I heard this frequently in China and I can assure you on many of those days I was certainly not looking beautiful (key example: crying in the hospital blood test queue with severe tonsillitis). It soon dawns on you that this is just a polite compliment. Remember you’re a teacher and don’t dwell on it. If the comments persist and you feel as if this person might not mean it in the you’ve-had-three-hours-sleep-but-I’m-being-nice way, it’s fine to stop responding and move on.

Example response: “Thanks. What part of your language would you like to improve on/practise?”

5. “Can you speak Chinese?” (or another language)

I get this a lot and it is often followed up with some Chinese messages to check I’m not a big phoney. However, this can mean that some students expect to be taught completely in Chinese, or even just use the app to chat in Chinese, and although it can be a terrifying prospect that the teacher will be speaking a foreign language that you’re not confident in, that isn’t what is was designed for. It’s up to you, but I usually gently steer the student in the direction of English practise.

Example responses: “No, sorry.”/ “Yes, a little, but I mostly speak English in class.”

6. “Do you have WeChat/QQ/Facebook?”

This happens almost 50% of the time. In my previous article I mentioned how any interaction off the app/website will be free for the student and salary-less for you. In addition, don’t forget your personal safety – do you give these details out to students on the street? While I’m sure most students have only good intentions, it can cause issues if you start to mix work and social life. Do you want a student seeing that high school photo of you in bad Star Trek cosplay?

Example response: “Sorry, I don’t use any social networks. I only use this app/website.”

7. “How do I learn English?”

If we could wave magic wands and say “Ta-da! Now you know English/Chinese/Icelandic,” that would be great. Until that day, there is no secret formula other than practise and as much exposure to the language as possible. I like to explain this by referring students to the way they learnt their mother tongue – repeating phrases from native speakers, reading, listening to music, watching TV, etc. It’s a good time to tell the student what you can offer them in your lessons in terms of teaching methods, as well as really assuring them that you’re here to help.

Example response: “There’s no fast way, but have you tried…(see above)?”

8. “How can I get a British/American accent?”

Similar to above, sound is key to perfecting certain accents. I like to recommend BBC shows such as Sherlock that have the standard accent students are looking for. I also offer the students the chance to read through short paragraphs with me so I can perfect each word. It can also be fun to send students those tables that show the differences between US and UK English (hundreds are available online).

Example response: “I can help you to improve your pronunciation (this way).”

9.”Can you make an appointment for me?”

This depends on the platform you’re using. For some apps, only the student can set the schedule, which can be difficult to get across particularly as you are teaching people who aren’t fluent (it’s something some apps should really consider and put more thought towards improving).

Example response: “You can call any time.”/ “You can call me at 3pm.”/ “Can you see my schedule? You can book an appointment there.”

10. “Can we talk about [insert inappropriate topic]?”

No example response other than report and block. Only happens rarely in my experience so don’t be put off.

Overall, messaging is free, so depending on your earning goals, it’s best to keep things as brief as possible. Remember with beginners, simple sentences or responses such as “No” aren’t dripping with passive aggression as they would be if you heard it over the counter at your local post office. Be welcoming, be friendly, and remember that it can be hugely nerve-wracking to speak to someone in a second language.

Do you agree with my responses? Do you get any other FAQs? Simple can’t hold yourself back from telling me how wrong I am? Whatever your opinion or question, don’t hesitate to contact me in the comments below or on my social media. Happy teaching!

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