Teaching Online: Can It Work?

Theodora PapapanagiotouTeaching Online: Can It Work?

Theodora Papapanagitou

 

Some people believe it is extremely difficult to teach online as it creates a distance between students and the teacher. Students’ parents are skeptical (can it actually work?…) and teachers who are not so familiar with technology do not support this way of teaching either. Once there is this distance, there is no real interaction and, consequently, there is never going to be a successful lesson if the teacher is not actually close to the learner. That is a myth. Learning can happen in all sorts of environments as long as we are all willing to work towards the goal. 

Personally, I have never seen distance or technology as a barrier to my teaching. On the contrary, I view them as an opportunity to learn new things and experiment on what I can and can’t do. And here’s how it all started for me. 

Some of my students were going away during the summer for three whole months, but they also had an important exam coming in the beginning of the school year, so they had to study hard and work with a teacher during their stay abroad. As it was impossible to find a teacher over there, I decided to create an online learning page where they could find texts to read, revise their grammar, and learn new vocabulary. Since I had been working as a content creator for an English language-learning platform at the time, I didn’t find it too hard to look for new resources and create a page on a free website using Moodle and Edmodo in order to help my students. However, with that set-up there was always a problem of how to give feedback and work on the speaking skills. At first, we thought we could call each other – but this would take too long and would also be very expensive. So, why not use Skype? Now we could talk and see each other, and we could use Google documents as a whiteboard. Distance was not a barrier anymore. The whole project went really well, the students worked with great enthusiasm and passed their exam with flying colors. 

Although it was a lot of hard work on my part, I enjoyed creating materials for my own and my students’ use in the process. That experience also gave me a chance to see that teaching at a distance was not that challenging, no matter if you use your own materials or not. 

From then on, whenever my students (mostly university students) had to go to their hometowns to visit their parents or study abroad for a semester, there was no reason for us to cut lessons and lose time: instead, we continued our classes using video call (Skype, Facebook, What’s up – whatever communication app was available). 

That’s how my online teaching journey began…  It is not my main job and I don’t always have online students, and I usually find online students by word of mouth. I have tried to find a job through online schools several times; I sent applications and had interviews. My first application and interview were successful, but the student I was offered to teach lived on the other side of the globe and this, unfortunately, meant a bigger time difference than I could handle. 

Overall, my experience with a lot of online school recruiters so far has been negative. Some of the companies preferred native speakers (with sometimes minimum teaching experience). Others were trying to sell their own online TEFL certificate courses, which was a requirement to have before you’d start your training – with no guarantee that they were going to hire you in the end.  

As a freelancer, you have the freedom to choose your own clients, materials, and working hours, although it can sometimes be a challenge to find students. You might have to spend money to advertise yourself on social media (Facebook or Instagram), maybe create a page with articles and ideas in order to build your audience.   

Technology should not be a barrier though. There are a lot of free and paid programs you can use and a lot of free tutorials on how to use them, for example MoodleEdmodoGoogle DriveWiziqAdobeSkype, and so many others. You can always experiment with different software, ask friends and colleagues to be your guinea pigs in the beginning. In fact, using a variety of online teaching platforms is not as hard as you might think at first. If you work for an online school, they will have their own platforms ready and they will train you before you actually get to teach students. They will also provide you with ready-made materials with instructions, which means you don’t have to prepare much. That said, I would advise to be aware of the time zones and the money, so you don’t end up staying up all night for a minimum wage. 

Teaching online has many other advantages. A big one is that you don’t have to commute to work. When you teach offline, sometimes the school may be far away, or if you are a private tutor like me, you have to go around the city all day, which costs both time and money. If you teach using a computer, however, you can manage your time more efficiently and save money on transport as well. You can work with students from all over the world, nothing limits you anymore. 

So, if you want to try teaching online, why not try it? There are so many online schools you can apply to and learn the ropes. You can also try teaching a lesson online to the students you already have in order to experiment. And then… Who knows what comes next!  

Working Conditions in Greece

Theodora PapapanagiotouWorking Conditions in Greece

Theodora Papapanagiotou

 

In my previous posts on this blog I talked about what it is like to learn and teach English in Greece. This time I would like to expand on what it is like to work as a teacher in my country

There are various categories of teachers and schools in Greece and it is a bit complicated.  

Let’s start with public schools (state schools). If you want to work at a public school over here, first of all, you have to have a BA in English literature, and it doesn’t matter whether you are a native or a non-native speaker of English. There are state exams taking place every 3-4 years, testing potential teachers in methodology, pedagogy, and language. If you pass this exam, you can get hired according to the needs of various areas in Greece, which means that you probably have to relocate. Although it is hard to pass this exam, then your job is secure, you can be sure to get a steady salary and you have steady hours. If a school cannot offer the required number of hours, then you have to work at another school in the nearby area to fulfill the required hours needed for a full-time position. 

Unfortunately, not all teachers who pass the state exam are hired, simply because there are not enough job openings. In that case, every year you can also apply to be a substitute teacher and then you will get teaching hours, again, according to the needs of the schools around the country. The difference is that most of the times you will have to work at several different schools during the week to have a decent amount of working hours, you will still have to relocate, and you get fired at the end of the school year. If you want to work as a substitute teacher again, you have to apply all over again and probably go to another school (if hired). 

There are also private schools where English teachers could find a job. You still have to have a BA in English literature, and some schools prefer to hire native speakers (fortunately, not all). In order to get a job in a private school you have to be on their list. You send a copy of your degree and your qualifications to the Ministry of Education department responsible for managing private schools. Then you will have the right to apply for a job opening and go through the traditional interviews. 

Working as an English teacher at a state school can be either a very positive or a very negative experience. A lot depends on the school: sometimes you might have to teach in very remote areas where there are no computers or even a CD player. It also depends on what kind of cooperation you have with the other teachers and the director of the school and if they are willing to participate in international projects or not, since not everybody is willing to put in extra time or do the paperwork. 

As I mentioned in my previous posts, Greek students usually attend classes in a private language school after their regular school hours, so that they can prepare themselves for language exams. Teachers employed by such schools usually work part-time and get paid by the actual teaching hours. Until a couple of years ago, teachers who wanted to get a teaching license for private language schools were required to have a BA in English literature, or have a language certificate of a C2 level, or be a native speaker of English and have a BA in anything. Now this law has changed and people with a C2 level certificate cannot get a license and work as teachers anymore.  

Depending on the school, the teacher has or does not have the freedom to choose materials. Some language schools have strict curriculum to follow and some don’t. What books to use, whether teachers and their students are going to be involved in project work or any other activities, what kind of exams the students will sit for at the end of the year – all of these choices also depend on the owner of the school.  

Finally, I would prefer not to talk about the salaries that teachers get… Greece is in the middle of a financial crisis, which in most cases means that the pay is not that good compared to what it used to be in the past. And yet, there are still wonderful teachers who love their profession and try to do their best, no matter what their working conditions are.

Learning English in Greece

Theodora PapapanagiotouLearning English in Greece

by Theodora Papapanagitou

 

In my previous post, I wrote about what teaching English is like in Greece. I emphasized that we are a very exam-oriented society, so teaching almost always revolves around exam preparation. In this post I am going to be a little more specific on the structure of classes and what is actually learned.

What better example could I possibly use than myself? Just like everybody else in my country, I had to learn English as a foreign language. I loved English. My first introduction to English came from my cousin, who had just come back from the States where she lived with her parents, and she didn’t speak any Greek. So she became was my first teacher, a ten-year-old girl trying to communicate with a four-year-old! I remember watching “Charlie’s Angels” with her and, although I did not understand the language, I still loved the way it sounded to my ears.

At the time when I was a schoolgirl, English was not part of the elementary school curriculum, so we started learning it at junior high school. This has changed over the years and nowadays Greek children begin learning their first foreign language, English, in the third grade of elementary school (8-9 years old) and their second foreign language, usually German or French, in the fifth grade (10-11 years old).

Back then, I skipped the first two years of English classes and started learning English at the age of 10, since I had learnt the basics from my cousin. At that time, everyone in Greece studied using the same textbook series called “Starting out,” published by Oxford University press. The book’s idea was learning through the story of Arthur, an English clerk, and Mary, the love of his life. I still remember how Arthur left his job, started studying at a university, and later got together with Mary – and I believe that students still love textbooks that have a story and they are eager to find out what happens next. Other than that, the book was full of pattern drills and repetitive grammar exercises. The teaching methodology in its variety as we know it now had not gone that far yet. Looking at textbooks now we can see projects, games, interactive exercises, integration of technology – everything to keep the student interested.

These days students of all grades use locally published textbooks approved by the Greek Ministry of Education. A lot of teachers also choose to take part in big educational projects like Comenius, collaborating with other schools in Europe, learning with art, movement, music, and even participating in Model United Nations conferences at the senior high school level. Of course, whether a school and a class take part depends on the teachers and the directors of the school, since it means a lot of extra work for the teachers involved.

As I mentioned before, Greek students and parents are keen on taking language exams and receiving certificates proving the achieved level. There are over 30 different institutions that offer exams of all levels and, depending on the difficulty or exam format, students are eager to pass them and get a language certificate as early as possible. Most of the schools prepare students for language level exams to receive a certificate from the Greek Ministry of Education, and students can take this exam, if they wish. This particular exam is similar to the British and American ones, testing students on their reading and listening comprehension, use of English (Grammar, Vocabulary), writing and speaking.

However, many Greek students are not satisfied with taking only this exam. They also attend private language schools in the afternoon, usually from the age of nine or even younger, so that they learn better English and get a “foreign” English certificate. It is believed that students can’t learn proper English at school (although, of course, there are a lot of school teachers who do a wonderful job).

Since there are a lot of students now who are interested in studying or working abroad, a relatively new trend in Greece is studying for IELTS or TOEFL, which usually happens over the course of 2-3 months. A popular option is taking private lessons at home with a tutor, who can adapt to the student’s needs (or not), and maybe prepare for these exams a bit earlier with their intensive courses, compared to the time students would spend studying for the same exam at a language school.

When I was a student, there was no certificate available from the Greek Ministry of Education, nor from any other institution, so I had to take the Cambridge FCE. My preparation included a lot of tests, grammar, and lots of practice. As a university student majoring in German literature I took the ECPE from University of Michigan, having my best friend, who was studying English literature at the time, as a tutor and then later I continued with a British tutor preparing for the  CPE exam. It was not much later that I decided to teach both English and German and furthered my education in that direction.

As a non-native speaker and a teacher, I have to say that you never stop learning. And whether it is with the help of endless exams and certificates or not, many Greeks do learn English. Most of them can more or less speak, understand, and communicate in the language, because they know that English is their window to the world.

Teaching English in Greece

Theodora PapapanagiotouTeaching English in Greece

by Theodora Papapanagiotou

 

Every country has a unique education system which suits the needs of its inhabitants. I can say that Greek people try to learn a lot of languages and English is certainly the most important foreign language, since we need it for both educational and professional development in various careers. Learning English is crucial to us also because almost 25% of Greece’s population is involved in this or that way in the tourism industry.  

There are various places where one can learn English in Greece, but for every child with no exception it starts in elementary school. English is a compulsory subject from the third grade and some schools, especially in the private sector, might even include it in their curriculum in the first grade or at kindergarten. Students continue learning English until they graduate from high school at the age of 18.  

One interesting (or strange) thing I observe in Greece is that we don’t think that learning a foreign language at school is enough, and so we send our kids to private language schools that they attend after school in order to learn more and/or better.  

One of the reasons why this happens is that here people love taking exams and receiving certificates, which makes language schools focus on preparing students for these particular exams. There are over 30 different English language certificates and exams in Greece, so most teachers have to be exam-oriented, unfortunately.  

It is very important for Greek students to acquire a certain level of language at a specific age: for example, get to B2 CEFR level at 13-14 years old and then reach C2 CEFR level at 16. The expression that may often be heard from the parents, “We would like our child to finish with English as soon as possible.” I see no clear reason why this is happening. Some people will say that it is impossible to “finish with English” at the age of 16, especially because the higher levels of language (such as C2) are meant for people who have some kind of experience in life, can understand certain types of texts, and write an article or a formal complaint letter. Nevertheless, when faced with such demand, teachers have to overcome this obstacle, find ways to teach students of any age regardless of their life experience, and make them ready for exams.   

To illustrate how serious the situation is, here’s another example: it sometimes happens that, as people turn to a language school or a specific teacher, they don’t say that they want to try to learn English, but rather that they just want to get the B2 certificate for a job.  

Teaching grammar is another important part of ELT in Greece, largely because of the way we are taught our mother tongue, the Greek language, as well as the ancient Greek. Greeks know what a “subject” and an “object” is, they are well aware of the terms “passive voice” and “indirect speech,” so they feel the need to learn a new, foreign language in the grammar-focused way as well. Even though it is sometimes really hard to do for a teacher, especially in low level classes (and learning through play is a better way to teach children anyway), some parents still prefer the grammar book. As a result, teachers use coursebooks, workbooks, grammar books, activity books, vocabulary books… which is also very expensive.   

Teaching English in Greece is not easy. Teachers have to face a lot of difficulties, such as working long hours or dealing with poor working and paying conditions. Nevertheless, there are a lot of teachers who try to do their best. There are teachers who teach through play, who use projects and integrate technology, who continue to learn new things about their profession through attending seminars, webinars, and teacher groups. And it is those teachers that make all the difference.  

Sometimes You Have to Find the Right Person…

Theodora PapapanagiotouSometimes You Have to Find the Right Person…

by Theodora Papapanagiotou.

 

When I first saw the theme of this issue, it seemed like a topic for an elementary school essay. A description. But it’s probably more than just a description. It is a story about one of the people who influenced you the most. In the end, this is what all of us do – influence the students we teach. 

I always say that after I teach my students for a while, eventually they get my quirks. I am just joking, of course, but in fact, getting influenced by the people you spend a lot of time with is inevitable. In this post I want to talk about my first and only German teacher. I studied the language with university professors after my time with her, but Ms Mary was the only person who actually taught me the language. And not only that. 

Let’s start from the beginning. I was about 10. In Greece it is customary that children attend an extra language school, mostly to learn English. At that time I had already started learning English and I was actually pretty good at it. My parents decided that I should learn a second foreign language. Back then, the “extra” language was not necessary. In fact, almost nobody learned a second foreign language. And I had to do it! 

Imagine how a typical ten-year-old would think: “All kids are out playing and I have to study German? More homework? And how about the pronunciation? What kind of language is that?” I couldn’t stand even listening to that language. Needless to say, I didn’t want to go. I shed a lot of tears before my first German lesson. I finally went, with my face down, and I swore I would be annoying so that the teacher would send me home. 

Ms Mary owned a language school just across the street from my house. She was a middle-aged woman, her kids already grown-up. Very well dressed, she had short blonde hair, really modern make-up, and wore colourful glasses. She looked very impressive. There she was, waiting for me in her big school, with her big smile. All the walls inside the school were covered with posters and pictures, colours everywhere. It looked like a playground of some kind. 

In our first lesson we started talking about Germany, about chocolate, about how easy it is to travel across Europe if you speak two languages. With that, she caught my interest. Learning a second language could make me special?! Was that possible? 

Ms Mary was a very strict and traditional teacher. Her lessons included lots of pattern drills, learning by heart, and a good deal of writing. I had to be perfect. I had to learn really difficult texts by heart. I never understood why I had to do that, but believe it or not, when I had to “recite” my text, I remembered words, their meanings, and grammar. I could talk. 

I continued having lessons with Ms Mary until the age of 17. She gradually became like family to me. We talked about the trips I wanted to take, my dreams and hopes and plans. She was there when I prepared for the university entrance exams. She was always there to help. 

And with her help, I did it. I succeeded in my university entrance exams and started studying German literature and language. During my college years, I still had my notebooks with her notes and tips, which were a kind of a Bible for me. I continued to see her sometimes as I went by her school just to say hi. She was just across the street from my house anyway. 

When I graduated, she offered me my first job teaching in her school. It was just one class that I taught for just a year. Ms Mary retired the following year and she closed down the school. That year was a wonderful experience for me. Somebody trusted me enough, a young person who had just finished her studies, and this was pretty big. 

I will always treasure the relationship I had with my teacher. After all, she was the reason I am a teacher today. 

I hope I can be like her some day.