Teacher Troubles

Sometimes, no matter what you do, The universe comes to bite you in the butt. It isn’t often that I have trouble with my online teaching, as I’ve said most of my students have been pretty good. My trouble comes in the form of the tech universe. VIP kid has an extremely strict cancellation policy. You can cancel six classes in a six-month contract. Without it counting against you. As a result of most of us are extremely careful with how we use these cancellations. I mentioned that I had never canceled for anything particular frivolous. Well, with the exception of Denmark. Every single other time I’ve canceled because my tech has done something and I cannot teach. The first time I canceled due to tech issues was in March 2017 the day before I was due to leave for Amsterdam. I had moved out of my apartment and was staying at my dad’s who himself was in Greece. Their Internet crapped out. I had to cancel three classes and then figured out how to use my hotspot to teach from. I swear, that hotspot saved my life.

The last time I canceled due to tech issues, Was entirely my fault. I was in the middle of teaching the word “prefer”. As in, “I prefer tea to coffee.” To illustrate my point of course, I had a cup of tea. Unfortunately, while trying to show my student the tea, It spilled on my computer. I didn’t realize just a couple of drops of liquid could short out the motherboard so badly. I had to cancel six of my morning classes and run out to Apple to buy a new computer. I was up in teaching for my afternoon classes. But let’s just say I am now extremely careful with what liquids I have near my computer. And I’ve learned to teach the word prefer differently now.

It wouldn’t be so bad if the cancellation policy for VIP kid was a little looser. But you really have to budget your cancellations. In my case things were relatively simple. In other cases not so much. Like the fact that her sister was not considered immediate family and there was one teacher who was denied permission to go to her sister’s funeral. There was so much backlash in that case that VIP kid changed their policy.

Online teaching Is a horse of a different color. The advantages are that you are in your home and don’t have a commute. That can also be a disadvantage for someone like me who has the possibility of being an effective shut in. I will say that I get kind of tired of looking at my four walls every day. Even though they are beautiful walls with a Canalview in Amsterdam.

I just got back from a very stressful US trip. Where, I over scheduled myself of course. In addition to trying to teach three hours every day from 7 to 10 AM, I also had to see various and sundry people. To say that I was tired would be an understatement. I was sleeping early so that I could get up at 6 AM to teach. And then after teaching I would run around trying to get various appointments taken care of. By Friday last week my body had had enough. And my back gave out. On Saturday I had to teach standing, and then had to take a plane for seven hours to get back to Amsterdam. I got in yesterday morning, and literally spent the rest of the day in bed.

It’s Monday morning, and I have to teach 10 VIP kid classes and three of my own extra classes. And I can’t do it while sitting. I’ve crafted a makeshift standing desk for the day. I think it’s going to be one. A day that is. And not a good one. Here’s to hoping that I have no more teacher troubles. Or maybe I need more teacher troubles. After all, there’s got to be something to write about.

Online teaching can be extremely lonely. Any job when working from home can be lonely but online teaching is one that can be especially lonely unless you make all your own community. I decided early on in my English language teaching a couple years ago that I didn’t want to be one of those people that worked alone. As soon as I got the gig with VIP kid I started thinking about how can I connect myself to other teachers. Want to find out how I did that? Keep coming back, that’s up next.

That’s all she wrote for this Inkreadable installment. But keep coming back, as always, there is more to come.

Student Shenanigans

All of my students, without exception, are very cute and very bright. Some simply can’t get the language. It is beyond them. No matter how hard they try they can’t possibly make the sounds in English that they need to to make words. One of my students, an older boy named Leo, can read some words but not others. He consistently makes the mistake of using a hard C like in the word cat, instead of a soft c like in the word cycle. He also has a hard time saying a word the same way twice. I suspect that it may be dyslexia or another speech problem, but lack the special ed training to actually make a diagnosis. He has the most wonderful attitude towards learning, and he is heart-meltingly apologetic when he makes a mistake. He does have a basic understanding of English as he is able to do very well on the unit assessments and thereby pass through the course. Other students have a more than basic understanding of the language but do not have the mechanics to make the sounds. In particular, one of my students George, who also struggles in Chinese. These two are the students that I look forward to the most. They challenge me and uplift me every day. George also has a twin sister, who has chosen Jerry for her English name. Being a twin myself, I connect with that whole family on a level that is different from any other.

Then there are the students, who intentionally decide they don’t want to learn. In Greek, we have a saying “Αυτά τα παιδιά είναι τα χρυσά μου”. It translates to these are my golden children. Mine are the ones who come into class with their Dino plushies (He’s the VIPKid mascot), Or their Rubiks cubes, or other assorted toys and can’t be made to pay attention at all. It took me a while to figure out that the best way to engage those children was to bring the toy into the class with you. So I would make up conversations with Dino, and pretend that he was the student. In terms of other distractions, I asked the student to play a game. For instance, with the Rubiks cube I would set the timer and find out if the kids could get to the red side in a minute all the while using the target language for the slide that we were working on. So far the strategy has worked really well.

I am a very lucky teacher. I haven’t really had the same trouble that some other teachers have had. Privacy in China is a different animal to most other places in the world. Teachers have reported on Facebook groups that I am a member of that they have seen children running around naked, or have taught children in unsuitable places shall we say, and they have had children do inappropriate things on camera. I have seen half dressed parents walking around, and I have seen parents berating their children on camera. Perhaps they don’t realize that everything is recorded. Or maybe they do. It can be hard not to assign Western cultural norms when teaching online. When does the line cross from parental discipline into something more? It’s a discussion that we have quite a lot with other teachers online.

When my students misbehave it’s usually quite cute. And at least I get a laugh out of it. But even I have a student that I don’t want to see on my schedule. Sookie was her name, and I can’t even tell you her game. I think that an online platform is not the best place for Sookie to learn English. She did not have the attention span to focus on 25 minute classes for even 30 seconds of the first minute. As soon as veteran teachers for VIPKid got priority booking, I started begging other students to book my slots so that I wouldn’t have to see her on my schedule. She wouldn’t participate, she would barely come to the camera, and she was rather insolent. All in a super cute way that was frankly genius manipulation. I wasn’t the only teacher having problems with her. Teacher to teacher feedback indicated that. My strategy with priority booking worked for a while. But then earlier this summer, she reappeared for a time. Even Jasper, the most laid-back person that I know, understood the trouble that I had with Sookie, As he had had his own run in with her.

You can see everything within camera range when I’m teaching so that if someone is walking in the kitchen they can be seen. On one occasion, I had a problem with my headphones and so was not able to use them. It was a Saturday and Jasper was with me. I had decided to teach for three hours and Sookie was one of my students. Jasper walked into the kitchen into Sookie’s line of sight. “Is that your grandpa” she asked.

I simply could not restrain the bubble of nearly hysterical laughter that from my lips. “Sookie, that’s not my grandpa, that’s my boyfriend. ” “Teacher, he’s old. He looks like a grandpa.” “That’s OK, Sookie.”I responded. “I am old, so he should be old.” She got a huge kick out of that. That was one of our better classes. For the most part, trying to get Sookie to respond to anything was like pulling teeth. It’s been a while since I have seen her in my classroom. Probably about six weeks or so, and they have been very stress-free weeks. But students aren’t the only stressors when online teaching. Want to find out more? Keep coming back. That’s up next.

That’s all she wrote for this Inkreadable installment. Stay tuned. As always, there is more to come.

Exciting Extras and Luscious Language

While VIPKid is still my main bread and butter, as I mentioned, I have had a few students outside of that. I edited an English language thesis and got my first adult student. Both of them from my colleague Despina. George was a great student. He’d lived in the UK so his English was super advanced and he wanted conversation. He was a welcome break from the VIPKid classroom that, though fun, is extremely tedious because you are staring at a computer for 6 to 7 hours per day. As George wanted classes in the middle of the day, VIP Kid took a backseat for an hour and a half twice a week.
The great thing about adult students is that you can take your lesson anywhere. George and I mostly met at my house, but sometimes he would meet at a café, and once I had a lesson while walking a dog.

I highly recommend, whenever possible taking your lessons outside the classroom. There’s a whole world to be able to teach a language. Walking a dog, for instance, can help you with the use of the imperative. Sit, stay, and wait I have found are much more impressive with a lower voice register. And dogs really do respond better to the male voice than the female one it seems. At least that was the case for me. And that is not a sexist observation it’s a question of decibels. Speaking English with a Dutch dog is always an amusement. I’m doing this as I write this blog post in fact because I happen to be dog sitting for my favorite black lab. Her name is Blue and she is a Dutch dog. Dutch is very similar to English in many ways. Sometimes it’s just a matter of the right pronunciation. But register still comes into play as Blue doesn’t listen as readily to me as she will to a voice with a lower register. Of course, if she sees another dog, she listens to no one, lower register or not.

Going to To a café can also be a really good place to teach what is called in the industry functional language. In fact, when I have private students that’s often how I structure my lessons. Functional language first. That is, the language that you need to use when out and about in a country. How to get yourself some food, how to get yourself a bed, how to function in a clothing shop, And how to ask for directions to a place. Of course, functional language could also backfire on you. Often when I try to speak Dutch, for instance, I get people speaking to me at their native speed and then I cannot listen to what they are saying, It proves to be very difficult. The same is true of any language.

Surprisingly going to a bar is also a good place for language acquisition. I find that the more people drink, the less afraid they are to use the language they have acquired. For a native speaker of that language, it’s a source of quiet amusement. Because the slightly tipsy are extremely amusing. As long as you, yourself are not tipsy also. As an English as a second language teacher I have found the secret to being a good teacher is never show that you’re inwardly giggling at something someone says. The trick is to subtly correct them without realizing that they’re being corrected. A good strategy is to repeat what they’ve said using the correct language. And then to use the same language in another sentence.

With the children I teach, repetition has been taken to another extreme. There are a couple of units in the VIPKid curriculum that are extremely repetitive. And keeping those interesting has proven a challenge. For example, I have a wonderful student who excels at reading. Her name is Apple. Yes, that’s right, folks, you heard me. Apple. Hey if Gwenyth Paltrow’s daughter can be named Apple, then why not a girl from Shanghai? I love Apple, but she has a tendency to want to read through things very quickly, and sometimes without taking a breath. In fact, sometimes it is very difficult to get her to stop reading. She reads everything from teacher focused questions to the text that I’m trying to get her to read and answer questions. Often, I have to tell her to stop and wait. We were working for the last month and a half on a unit about indoor and outdoor hobbies. It’s a very repetitive unit. It only highlights six or seven hobbies in either case. By lesson seven of 12 in that unit we were running out of things to say to answer the question “what’s your favorite Indoor/outdoor hobby?”. As a result, Apple would get quite cheeky with her answers. “Teacher, you know what my hobbies are. You’ve known for a week. Two weeks even.” And then she would turn the question on to me. Which was OK though it increased teacher talk time a bit. Still, it got Apple talking in the role of a teacher and that was all to the good. I was also able to get a little cheeky in my own answers. “Teacher, what’s your favorite indoor/outdoor hobby? Apple my indoor hobby is the same as yours. And my outdoor hobby? Well, I don’t have any it’s why am a little fat.” My self-deprecating humor, got apple to open up and laugh. It sometimes even got me a compliment but that wasn’t the main focus of the exercise it was to get her to use higher order words and adjectives like beautiful, pretty and the like. Then the lesson would segue into a lesson about adjectives and describing people.

As you have seen, different types of language blend into various lessons. There is a richness when teaching language both for the teacher and for the student. I get to learn new words as much as my students do. And English is quite a rich language to be able to do that. My teaching business starting to pick up and people are starting to discover me through my website.

I need to go and pay some attention to my black lab dog sitting charge. She’s looking at me with a very mournful look as if to say “Auntie Tina will you come to play with me?”. Want to hear more about some of my other students? Stay tuned, that’s up next.

That’s all she wrote for this Inkreadable installment. But keep coming back as always, there is more to come.

Inkreadable: The Reboot

The first five weeks of my new life in Amsterdam was spent in what I considered the suburbs, but in reality were still “inside the ring”. The distinction would be quite important. Where Jasper lives is still considered Amsterdam city, at least to the residents of the area and the local government. For the people that know me, they’ll realize just how difficult it was to be in North. I mean, there was a bus from Central Station, but any place that you can also take a ferry to get home is in the middle of nowhere. For me, not being a driver or a biker, being that far away from “civilization” made it a bit of a challenge to go out every day. But I forced myself to do it. The nature of teaching online for VIPKid made that absolutely imperative. Otherwise, I would’ve been a recluse. In fact, I probably would’ve been a card-carrying member of the International Union of Recluses.

At the end of May 2017, I moved into my own place. It ticked all of my boxes: Elevator building, upper floor, two bedrooms, canal view. Before you get all excited, canals are kind of a dime a dozen in Amsterdam. And mine was not one of the main ones. In hindsight, I should have checked a couple of things before I moved. In addition to being a card-carrying member of the International Union of Recluses, I was also a member of the International Union of Pyrophobics, to which I paid my dues religiously. My pyrophobia was (and is) so bad, that as a child that I could not light a match. To be fair, I still can’t. This was to prove problematic in my new place. My apartment has a gas stove. I did not realize at the time, but the burners on my stove are not connected to electrical power. As a result, they do not ignite automatically. For someone who has as violent a fear of fire as I do, the discovery was a disaster. When I realized that I couldn’t light the stove without a lighter, I began to hyperventilate. Also to cry. How do you not connect the stove to electricity? My landlord didn’t see what the big deal was. I will tell you that it’s really very annoying to have to light your stove every time you want to use it. I have gotten used to it now and using a kitchen lighter to light the stove on the lowest setting has gotten easier. The first month was rather terrifying. I learned my lesson, however. Before signing a lease, make sure that the appliances work properly.

Once I had worked on my fear (I won’t say conquered) and settled into my new place, I could get back into the swing of teaching. This I did with alacrity. I was soon teaching 36 to 40 hours a week over seven days. I have maintained this schedule for the last year. Three months after I moved into the apartment, I could start thinking about where I wanted to take my teaching career. I started thinking about how to transfer my skills in English language teaching to Amsterdam. Lots of little ideas were flying back-and-forth in my head, but I realized that I missed Inkreadable and face-to-face, in-real-life classroom interaction. I had the fortune to meet a woman who had been teaching for about 10 years in Amsterdam, though her language was Greek not English. Despina was all that was encouraging about my language teaching goals in Amsterdam. She told me and she was absolutely certain that I was going to be able to find clients who wanted to better their English. I told her about Inkreadable. She took a look at my website and told me that with a few changes I could easily bring it here to Amsterdam. This I duly started to do. It proved to be remarkably similar to the journey that I began in DC four years before.

I went to the city government of Amsterdam, registered as a self-employed person with a company and engaged the services of an account to pay my quarterly VAT Taxes. It turned out that I could run all of my income from VIPKid, as well as any extra income that I earned through the company. That allowed me to pay taxes in the Netherlands, which is good because you also get different benefits if you pay taxes and are a Dutch resident. Despina turned out to be a godsend. She gave me my first non-teaching lead in Amsterdam, as well as a Greek student who wanted English lessons. Things were starting to look up.

I had figured out that in order to excess both of my skill sets, the approach Inkreadable took would have to be a little different. I would market writing skills to English speaking children of the international school community, and English language lessons to parents who wanted a base in English for their kids earlier than the nine-year-old start. Now all I needed to do was figure out how to do that. That was easier said than done. Want to find out why? Come on back, the plot thickens.

That’s all she wrote for this Inkreadable Installment. But stay tuned, As always, there is more to come.

Amsterdam Antics

The fall of 2016 was rather idyllic. I was in Europe, I was teaching full time though as any online teacher knows, that took about a month and a half to get up to 36-40 hours a week with VIPKid.

I’d gone back to DC in December 2016, having been teaching full-time for about three months. The hours in Europe were wonderful. I taught in Greece, in Holland, and in Denmark. Denmark was to be the only place that I canceled VIPKid classes because I was on vacation. My sister was pregnant at the time, and I had scheduled an hour and a half of teaching each day, for the week that we were in Denmark. In hindsight, I probably should’ve thought that through a little bit better because at that time there Was a seven-hour minimum of classes a week. I should’ve done the 7 1/2 hours altogether in one day. Alas, I learned my lesson. And thankfully, every other time that I canceled classes, it was circumstances beyond my control. As I mentioned in my last post, you have to be very careful when you cancel.

I generally enjoy the holiday season, and that Christmas season of 2016 would have been no exception. Except that I was waking up at 3 o’clock in the morning to teach To teach from four until 10. That was Monday through Thursday. On Friday and Saturday evenings I also taught from 8 PM until midnight. That schedule was grueling. For the VIPKid teachers who read my blog, you all know what I’m talking about. And for those of you, who live on the West Coast, it’s even worse. It was arguably the hardest thing I ever did besides my Celta. By February that year, I was done. I booked my ticket to come to Amsterdam one day, when I was in a really cranky mood, after having taught for six hours in the morning and three hours in the evening. I am not the world’s best sleeper by any stretch of the imagination and if you yourself are an insomniac of any stripe, this resonates with you as well.

I will admit that in preparing to move to Amsterdam I took the easy way out. The hours here in Amsterdam are 9 AM to 3 PM in the winter and 10 PM to 4 PM in the summer. Well at least, those are the hours that I am willing to work. I know there are other people who still wake up well before the ass crack of dawn To teach. More power to them. And I sold a couple pieces of furniture to pay for my move into a storage unit that we already had. They are my beautiful things sit until such time as I wish to claim them again. Or take the step of moving them internationally. As you may imagine that internal dialogue has been going on for the last year and a bit.

My first five weeks in Amsterdam were spent living with Jasper. But we had agreed that I would get my own place when I moved to Amsterdam. And my adopted city is a very fun town. There is always something to do. Dutch culture is very much about the outdoors. They ride their bikes everywhere. And unlike in the US, where cycling is tricked out with helmets, Lycra, and spandex, I[in Amsterdam it’s just a mode of transportation. I have seen all manner of strange things on a bike: from someone transporting something from IKEA, to a six-month-old in a car seat contraption strapped to handlebars. My favorite was the woman who was kitted out in elbow length gloves, a floor-length gown, and heels, going to the beautiful Concertgebouw, her violin strapped to her back, on her way to work. The Dutch have picnicking down to a science. They do it on their bikes. They take everything they need on those bikes. That includes not only the food and drink but also sometimes, the charcoal grill.

The Dutch will tell you that for good food, you have to go to Belgium. I will, of course, agree to disagree with them. I haven’t had terrible experiences with food. I am a cheese fiend. I’ve come to the right country. I set myself up once I got here, in a routine that would keep me teaching for a significant amount of time. But my afternoons were spent wandering the city, because if you’ve been staring at your computer for six hours, you are ready to get out of the house. These are just a few of my observations, as I wandered the city almost ceaselessly, every afternoon.

Those first five weeks were an idyllic time in many ways. But things were going to get even better. Want to find out how? That’s up next.

That’s all she wrote for this Inkreadable installment. Stay tuned, as always, there is more to come.

Voracious VIPKid

I completed the CELTA in mid-August 2016. The next task was, of course, to find a job. At the end of the course, I was exhausted and looking to get away from the DC summer. Accordingly, I bought my ticket to Greece on the last day of the course, IN the class, earning me the award “most likely to travel spontaneously”. It’s not a bad honorable mention. I left the US in mid-September. I was also heading to Amsterdam to see Jasper, and my return ticket to the US was not until just before December.

I have always been an entrepreneurial sort of spirit, and I did what every enterprising person who wants some extra cash does in the emerging gig economy of the 2010’s. I posted my extra room on Airbnb that year. It was a great success and I met some amazing people that I am still friends with today. I had about 200 people stay with me from January to September. A couple from Beijing stayed with me after my CELTA course was done and they told me about an ELT company that was taking China by storm. VIPKid was its name and edutainment was its game.

I wasn’t sure about the edutainment aspect of teaching, and the jury’s still out. I had wanted to teach in a classroom environment to adults initially. But then I considered the possibilities with teaching online. Online allowed me to be anywhere in the world with stable internet. I was a little concerned with the entertainment side of teaching kids as I am a natural introvert but thought that I’d be able to be a little entertaining. So I took the plunge and applied. I did two mock lessons and got hired. I started teaching in October 2016. I left for Greece shortly after being hired and I opened my schedule to classes as soon as I got there. In those bygone days of 2016, you had to open a minimum of 7 hours a week and wear an ugly orange shirt. Luckily the minimums are a thing of the past and thankfully so is the orange shirt. Though I will say that on the days that I didn’t feel like figuring out what to wear, the orange shirt as ugly as it was, came in handy.  But woe unto you if you dare to get sick at VIPKid because their cancellation policy is on the draconian side, though that too has loosened up a bit. You could get six cancellations in a 6-month contract period, so you had, and still have, to be super careful. I went to Denmark and set a stupid hour and a half a day teaching schedule. I used a few cancellations for that. Then I got more careful and the only other times I canceled were because of tech issues I couldn’t control, like when my dad’s internet died while I was staying there, and when I accidentally spilled liquid on my Mac while teaching in August 2017.

I discovered that I am a pretty good edutainer, but I am a better teacher for the older kids who have language than the younger ones. There are of course exceptions to that, like two of my students who are beginners who make my week when I see them. I am in touch with a few parents via WeChat, a Chinese chat app, and one mom has told me that I am the teacher that gets her soft-spoken, rather shy kid to talk. I used to have to prep a lot for each class, but now can literally do them in my sleep.

In my last post, I talked about the insane hours that I was waking up to keep my head above water during the CELTA. Once the idyllic vacation in Europe was over in the winter of 2016, I started thinking about working a 36 hour week in the US. You are likely rolling your eyes at that if you are a teacher at a brick and mortar school. But those were teaching hours, as in on camera, with the student teaching hours. That didn’t include any prep time. And did I mention my workday started at 3 am in the winter and 4 am in the summer? And so it was that in the winter of 2016 while everyone was snug in their beds while sugarplums danced in their heads, I was teaching Baobao (it means very clever in Chinese) his ABC’s and learning how to hide my yawns in the absence of coffee.

Needless to say, it wasn’t long before I started thinking about the glorious European hours and how to get back there. That story’s up next.

That’s all she wrote for this Inkreadable installment. Stay tuned, as always, there is more to come.