February 15, 2021

What becoming an Online Language Teacher has Taught Me.


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I teach English online, currently to European students—all of them adults, most with families.

I love it—I love my students, and while my lessons might not be conventional, I think they love me too.

It’s incredibly gratifying when your student, who initially battled to string two words together in English which made any sense, now chats away about their lives, quite happily—no longer being nervous to try speaking English.

I tell them straight off I’m not here to teach them grammar. The only grammar they need to know is that today is the present, tomorrow is the future, and yesterday is the past. I take the KISS approach. I’m here to instill a love for English and how to speak the language.

I like to think that, rather like a 12-step program, I have created a safe place for them to keep trying and not feel silly, stupid, or inadequate when we converse.

This space between me and my computer screen has the intimacy of two people connecting, laughing (huge, great, belly-laughs), sometimes crying, but mostly enjoying each other’s company, sharing ideas, opinions, likes and dislikes, worries, the psychology of lockdowns, and a thousand more topics of conversation.

It has certainly been my salvation in this surreal time we live in, where the rules change on a whim—both, here where I am in Africa, and where they are in Europe.

It has taught me to listen and really hear what they are saying.

I have picked up that some of my students are living on their own, and while I can’t take the credit for being the only outside-contact they have, but I am at least an exotic one as I live in Africa, mostly known as the one with the wild animals.

And while we chat, I show them videos of Africa in all her beauty, and in turn, I learn from them their customs—especially about food and its preparation. I blithely told a newly-divorced and now bachelor, all he needed was an air fryer and a microwave and suddenly, I got a full lesson on the culture of food in France.

And the laughter—such laughter—when a “w” creeps into an accent at the end of the Christmas break because the student visited his Croatian mum, and hearing the mangled English/Spanish/American of a student who travels all over the world.

And even more so, when the tables got turned and I found myself trying to correct English pronunciation with a French accent—a lesson not to be forgotten by either of us. We are all trying our best.

I’ve come to realize that this online teaching is not just teaching; it’s about being a friend, a sounding board if needed. There is a delicate balance between pushing my ideals and accepting theirs. It’s drawing out that little train of thought from each of them.

Sometimes it comes roaring out at speed, and other times, it’s a painful enticement, a gaining of trust, and a lot of love. Sometimes it’s breaking down an arrogance gently, so the student realizes that he or she does need a little help, but most importantly, it’s about encouragement.

So, this space between the screen and where I sit has not only made me a listener, teacher, and confidante, it’s also made me some sort of therapist. I take these gifts in my hands and hold them close to my heart—even with the students who have wildly differing political views than mine.

I also get to subtly push my convictions about conservation, and in turn, I’m learning about the politics of democracies, which differ so much from the banana republic I live in. It’s a wonderful, intimate two-way space between us, and who knew I could do it? I certainly didn’t.

I owe my students more than they will ever know, they brought out something in me that I never knew I had, and I am so grateful for that.

The most fascinating thing I’ve learned is that it’s true what is said: we all have the same wants, needs, and worries.

A new career for me, born out of survival necessity, but what a privileged career it is. And how lucky I was to get accepted into a school, while many others are trying to do the same.

I had no idea teaching was so much fun and so gratifying, even though, at times, it is also really tiring as well. I have a newfound respect for all the teachers I know—and long may it last.

So, it’s back to class; I get my Skype ready, put a smile on my face, and a plan in my head.


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