The Differences Between Brick-and-mortar Teaching and Teaching English Online.


Whether it is to supplement their traditional teaching jobs, to enable them to spend more time with their families, to give them a source of income after returning home from teaching abroad, or to give them the flexibility to travel, more and more “bricks and mortar” teachers are moving into the online classroom.

I spent five years teaching in a traditional classroom in South Korea from 2010 to 2015.  Two of those years I spent teaching in after-school academies. During the other three years, I shared a homeroom class with a Korean teacher where the students take all of their courses in both English and Korean.  

After I returned to North America and began teaching English online, I found that it took some time to adjust at first. Once I got the hang of it, it became quite an easy and enjoyable transition.

While having bricks and mortar teaching experience helps immensely when starting to teach English online, there are some challenges.  There are also many advantages.

Let’s talk about the challenges first, and then we’ll talk about all the good stuff.

The Challenges

1. You need to be a little more animated, enthusiastic, and entertaining

This is often referred to as TPR in the online teaching world, but TPR is something that has long been used by parents, as well as teachers in the traditional classroom.  It is a language learning method whereby a teacher pairs physical movements with vocabulary or grammar to teach the child the target language. Teaching English online takes more than just regular TPR.

Because the entire interaction takes place through an online classroom that resembles a Skype video call with a PowerPoint presentation in the middle, it can be a little bit harder to connect and establish a rapport with your students. Your smiles have to be bigger, your instructions and responses grander, and your praise and encouragement plenty.

I felt really silly doing this at first.  And the truth is, once you have passed the interviews, established your own style, and developed a student following, you can ease back on the over-acting. That being said, it’s still not quite the same.  Let’s put it this way: if you tried this level of enthusiasm and animation in the traditional classroom, your students might think you were a little “extra.”

2. Props are a little more important in the online classroom

I want to say upfront that you do not need a closetful of props to be a good online English teacher.  In fact, I would say I am a minimalist when it comes to props.  But to pass your interview and to start building your student following, you’ll need a few key pieces.

Again, this is because meaning can be a little bit more difficult to express in the online classroom.  Having props or realia can go a long way in expressing meaning and in entertaining students.

Check out this recent blog post that outlines what props and supplies you will need to get started teaching English online.

3. The hours can be more difficult (or not, depending on where you live)

The majority of demand for online English teachers right now is coming out of China. And the majority of students are school-aged.  This means that online English teachers have to arrange their teaching schedules around when Chinese children are not in school. This is typically from 6pm to 10pm Beijing time on weekdays and 10am to 10pm on weekends.  Click here to convert this to your local time zone.

If you live in mid or western North America, these times can be challenging.  The typical teacher in Sacramento would have to teach from 3 a.m. to 7 a.m. on weekdays to take advantage of the most in-demand times.  

I live in the far east of North America and am lucky enough to teach from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. in my time zone.  If you’re teaching from London, you could do 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

If you find yourself in east Asia, travelling or teaching English abroad, the time zones are also much more favorable.  You can teach in the evenings at similar times to when the children are not in school.

Teaching English online vs. in the traditional classroom; they’re similar, but not totally the same.

Teaching English online vs. in the traditional classroom; they’re similar, but not totally the same.

4. The pay may be less (or not - again it depends)

If you’re willing to work full-time hours teaching English online, the money can be quite good.  However, it may be more challenging doing 35-to-40 hours a week in the online classroom than it is in the traditional classroom.  

First off, you will be actually teaching those 40 hours.  There are no paid breaks. You only earn when you teach. Secondly, you will likely have to teach significant weekend hours to get up to 40 hours per week.  This is because there are only so many hours in the evening for Chinese students to take English classes after they finish their traditional schooling and before they go to bed.

I have had some American teacher friends tell me they are not making a living wage teaching in the U.S . Putting in solid hours teaching English online may actually be a better option than teaching full time for some people.

The average salary for a teacher in Canada starts at approximately $51,000 per year and goes up to $85,000. You would have to work A LOT of hours to make that kind of money teaching English online. Although, with online teaching, you don’t have to have a provincial teaching certificate.

For those teaching abroad, the hourly wage can work out to be much more favorable. Teacher friends who live in countries like Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos have told me that the extra money they make teaching English goes a long way. In addition, not only is the hourly rate higher and the cost of living lower, most companies pay in U.S. dollars, which allows for a generous exchange rate.  

(Check out this recent blog post to see just how much you can make teaching English online.)

5. It takes some time to “fill” your classroom

If you submit your resume, ace the interview, and land a job teaching in the traditional classroom, you’d expect students in your class on the first day.  That’s not exactly how it works with most online English teaching jobs.

It may take some time to build up a following from parents who are clients of the company you work for.  Typically, parents are looking for reliable, well-rated teachers to teach their children. When you haven’t taught a class, you have no track record or positive feedback left by other parents.  The parents are paying good money and they don’t want to take a risk on a teacher who isn’t very good--or just not a good match for their child.

Fear not, however.  Once you get a few good classes under your belt, you can build momentum quickly and start filling your schedule in no time.  

(Check out this recent blog post on how to land your first class and build up a parent following.)

The Advantages

Now that we’ve talked a little about some of the minor hiccups in transitioning from the traditional classroom to the online one, let’s talk about all the good stuff.  

1. No grading homework

Yep, you read that right.  There’s no homework or in-class assignments to grade! (unless you’ve trained for some special supplementary courses).  All you have to do is write a short (100 word) feedback after each class.

I write mine in the five minute break I have between classes using some templates I have made.  You can check out templates for VIPKid and Gogokid here.

2. No dealing with parents

I suppose this is not ENTIRELY true.  Parents ARE able to leave class feedback after you’ve taught their children.

Generally, they give you a rating out of five and tell you what they did, or didn’t like, about your teaching.  Most parents are generous and give you a good score, even if they ask you to improve something. But, you never have to actually speak with the parents directly.  And they can only leave one piece of feedback for each class their child has had with you.

Some eager parents may ask you for your personal contact information, but most companies frown upon this and you will face no repercussions for politely declining.

3. fewer discipline issues

When I compare teaching in the classroom to teaching English online, I realize I’ve encountered way fewer discipline issues.

Of course there are students who don’t want to learn or will act naughty by drawing on the screen or trying to talk over you, but for the most part it is smooth sailing.

Parents pay good money for these extra-curricular lessons, so many parents actually monitor their children while they are learning to be sure they are participating.

On top of this, if you are having a problem with a student, there are support staff that you can “call” to come into your virtual classroom and speak to the student in Chinese.  They can even call the student’s parents, if necessary.

To top it all off, you are never really stuck with a student (unless the parent absolutely loves your class and keeps booking you). This is unlike a brick and mortar classroom where you may have the same student for a year or more. In my experience, if a student and teacher do not “hit it off”, the parents will only book you once or twice before trying to find a better match for their child.

This is particularly true if you politely point out some of the issues in the feedback you leave after class. Let’s be honest - not every teacher and student are a good match.

This could be you five minutes before your class starts.

This could be you five minutes before your class starts.

4. Little-to-no preparation

When I first started teaching English online, there was a bit of a learning curve. I knew how to teach, but I had never done it in this format before.  In the first few weeks, I did a lot more prep work than I do now. I used to spend about five-to-ten minutes before each class reviewing the class slides and planning what I was going to say or do.  But about a month into teaching, I relied less and less on extensive prep. These days, I only need to take a quick look over the lesson material, and that’s only if I haven’t taught that particular lesson before.

Once you get the hang of it, you have to spend little time outside of teaching class and writing feedback.  And if you write your feedback between class, you really only have to commit your time to the actual teaching of class.  This is a far cry from the preparation and administrative work that has to be done in the traditional classroom.

5. There’s no commute

That is unless, you count the walk from your bedroom to the kitchen for coffee and then to the corner in which you’ve set up your laptop.

Seriously, though.  This doesn’t seem like much, but I have saved a lot of gas money (and/or transit fare) and added an extra two usable hours to my day.

6. Less money spent on school supplies

My sister is a bricks and mortar teacher. The amount of money she spends each month on her students is shocking. Don’t get me wrong; she is a great teacher and I am sure her students really appreciate it. She also chooses to do this. However, the amount of money she spends is enough that she has to make it a part of her monthly personal budget and account for it.  

Aside from a few key props you’ll need to start teaching English online, there is no ongoing requirement to purchase supplies. Most people already have a computer and a set of headphones.  The only other things I personally recommend are a small whiteboard, a hand puppet, and some kind of secondary reward system. All of which you can pick up at your local dollar store. You can read more here about what you need to get started teaching English online.

7. Totally flexible schedule

The great thing about teaching in the traditional classroom is having the summer off.  I still get jealous of my sister in the months of July and August.

However, for the rest of the year, you are pretty much tied to your desk.

With teaching English online, you can teach when you want.  Granted, you don’t get paid if you don’t teach, but this gives you an incredible amount of flexibility.

When you first start teaching online, you’ll want to open up as much of your schedule as you can for as far out as you can.  After you get some experience and a parent following, you can then choose to only open your schedule a week, a few days, or even just a day ahead of time.  

Feel like taking the day off to check out that new exhibit in town? Have family visiting unexpectedly? Want to escape to Mexico for a week? No problem. You control your schedule.

8. Teach in your PJs

This is another one that seems a little trivial, but it’s the little things that count.  I have a zip-up track jacket with my company colors that I put on over a t-shirt every morning.  I wear my pyjama pants on bottom. I don’t have to plan what I am going to wear the night before, I save a ton of time on laundry, and I don’t have to maintain an expensive wardrobe for work.  

Spend more time with your family.

Spend more time with your family.

9. Be with your family

This really is a great one.  If you have children (depending on their age) you can be home with them while making money and building a rewarding career.  If they are mostly capable of looking after themselves, you can teach away while you set them up with something to do.

Even if the above scenario isn’t a possibility for you, simply having a few extra hours in the day from not having to commute gives you a lot more time to spend with your family.  Some teachers work early in the morning and finish up before their children even wake for the day.

Whatever the situation, teaching English online gives you the ability to make things work if you have a family at home.

Questions? Comments?

We hope you’ve found this post useful today. Overall, moving from the traditional classroom to teaching online is not without its challenges. However, there are many benefits to giving online English teaching a try.

Do you have any questions/comments about the differences between teaching in the traditional classroom and teaching English online? We’d love to hear from you. Leave a comment, or send us an email.

Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram. Happy teaching!