Advice on Teaching (Teachers) Online

Michael GriffinAdvice on Teaching
(Teachers) Online

Michael Griffin


To be honest, I haven’t done much actual teaching of English online. I have, however, done a lot of teacher education/training online and in blended courses. It was just about 10 years ago I began doing teacher education work online. I was sometimes a bit out of my depth and could have used some advice and help on that course and in the following years. With that in mind, and at the risk of disrupting the space-time continuum, below I will share the advice I’d give to a young(er) Mike of 10 years ago who’d just started teaching online.  


Dear 2009 Mike,  

Greetings from your future self! In this fictional world where letters can be sent back in time you will have already received a letter from me, so this letter will not be as much of a surprise as the previous one, perhaps. It’s September 2009 and you are soon to be finishing up your MA TESOL at the New School. As you are aware, the majority of your classes were online. You’ve seen some great role models and models for teaching online. I’m writing to you about teaching teachers online. You might be surprised to hear that this will be a big part of your life in the future. In fact, now in September 2019 the bulk of your work is related to online teacher education. I have some hard-earned advice and key points that I’d like you to remember as you embark on this journey.  

You have been teaching face-to-face for 10 years already so you know a fair bit about how it goes. Of course, you still have a lot to learn about that, too. The good news is that much of what you know and believe about teaching English can also be applied to teaching teachers online. Just like in teaching face-to-face, scaffolding and modeling are two big things to keep in mind at all times. That’s the first piece of advice: Remember that it’s still teaching.  

As in teaching English, affect is incredibly important when teaching online. The catch is that you will not be able to “read the room” like you normally would in person. You need to hone your intuition and, more importantly, find ways to collect feedback and data on how participants are feeling. You have to try to pick up on hints of how people are feeling based on what they write and how they interact with you and others. Journals can be a good way to see this.  

The biggest difference I notice between teaching and training online versus offline is that it’s much harder and takes much longer to repair confusing instructions. In class you can easily see what’s wrong and then step in. This process might take much longer online, so be sure to have everything in order and try to be as clear as possible about assignments and steps. Of course, the use of models and rubrics can be very helpful in this regard.  

Try to see things from a student’s perspective. Revisit assignments and units with fresh eyes and do the activities yourself. Some learning management systems have a “student view” option so you can see things as your students would. Use this idea of student view both literally and figuratively when you can. Another way to see things from a student’s perspective is to take as many online courses as you can. You can kill two birds with one stone by experiencing online classes as a participant and learning the content. 

I mentioned affect above and something else I’d like you to keep in mind related to affect is how studying online can be a scary thing for some folks. What might seem normal and easy to you could be tricky and thus time-consuming and frustrating for others. It’s hard enough to contend with the content so you want to remember to make things as easy as possible for course participants. Don’t waste their time! Don’t make them learn a great new tool that will only be beneficial for one activity. Remember that your class is just one of the many things they have going on. Make sure that all the important information can be found easily. When considering how to make the online component easier for participants, screenshots and patience are your friends. 

Speaking of patience, we both know that this is not always your strong suit. A great part about teaching online (especially asynchronously, as you will do for the most part) is that you’ll almost always have a chance to put some distance between yourself and the course. If a participant says something that strikes you as rude, you can sleep on it before responding. Also, please remember that tone can be confusing when things are in writing (especially for those not so accustomed to such communication), so do try to give people the benefit of the doubt. That is, try to consider seemingly rude responses in the most positive light possible.  

An important piece of advice (and another tightrope to walk) is related to the idea of being present. You will want to make sure that participants know you are active and involved but you will also want to leave room and oxygen for conversations to develop without you. A neat trick is to acknowledge a question and share a quick response while leaving room for the group to jump in. You can come back to it later as needed. Writing up summaries of discussions is a great way to make your presence felt. Through these you can highlight learning and shed light on confusions while making connections between what participants said and the course material.  

A final piece of advice is to feel free to make personal connections with participants and let your personality show. Don’t be afraid to make corny jokes. Be yourself and don’t feel constricted by the medium. If you get sick of typing, you can make a recording or even set up a synchronous meeting.  

I am not sure if everything here will make sense to you as you read it now in 2010, but hopefully it will give you some things to think about and keep in mind. Best of luck in the journey! I am cheering for you.  


Mike in 2019  

PS – Find out what a PLN is and get one of them as soon as possible. You will hear about iTDi soon. Be sure to check out what they are up to.  

PPS – I know you are not on Twitter yet, so I am not sure if you are familiar with the term humblebrag. I’d like to share something a participant wrote about you in 2018. She wrote, “I used to think that the role of the teacher in online learning is less significant than in the traditional classroom. Not only did Mike manage to make me change this idea but also convinced me into thinking that only the teacher can make online learning effective. It was his insightful guidance, patience and positive way of thinking that made me understand many things about teaching.” Can you believe it was written about you/me/us? 

My Priorities Teaching in an ELF World 

Michael Griffin

My Priorities Teaching in an ELF World 
by Michael Griffin.


“Well, personally I only teach correct English.” 

“I’m not gonna teach some sort of bastardized English.”

“Why would I dumb things down for my students?”

“My students expect me to teach them English and not some made-up and impoverished language.”

“It’s insulting to students to assume they can’t learn proper English!” 

Do these sound familiar? The above are some of the statements I’ve heard related to ELF (English as a lingua franca) from a variety of teachers. I’ve heard quotes like this from teachers chatting casually in pubs to teachers speaking at conferences. I’ve heard similar lines from inexperienced teachers just starting out in the field and from published experts alike.  

While it might be interesting, I won’t use my amateur psychology skills to analyze those who might utter the above quotes. Nor will I use my beginner sleuthing ability to create a passable theory about the origins of such thinking. I’ll also spare you my basic historical explanation of the term lingua franca.  I’ll even overlook sticky questions over what “correct” and “proper” mean in this context. In this brief post I’d just like to share how I view ELF and how this view tends to shape my English language teaching. 

I don’t think of ELF as a language, new or impoverished or otherwise. I think of it as a fact. To me it means these days English is the preferred language of communication around the globe. Even those who would not consider themselves proponents of ELF would have a hard time disagreeing with the notion that English language students are likely to use English with others who do not use English as a first languageI suspect and hope that’s a pretty uncontroversial statement. If we start here, perhaps some of the ideas and practices we’ve previously assumed to be self-evident can be re-evaluated. If we think the end goal for our students is not always to sound like or impress “native speakers”, it might change some of our teaching practices or at least our priorities.

Image credit  

For me ELF is not about overtly teaching sentences like “She go to the gym every Thursday” (as I have heard suggested), but rather considering this to be a minor mistake and choosing to focus on other things. I believe that a big part of teaching is about setting priorities. So, when I consider ELF in terms of correcting students it’s often about making a choice to look the other way on certain types of mistakes and errors. I think of ELF as a justification, and in fact impetus, to re-assess the importance of what I teach and what I correct. If we hear something in class that doesn’t sound quite right but is unlikely to prevent a listener from understanding, we can choose to ignore it.  I assume many teachers are already doing this anyway without considering ELF.  To my mind, the reality of ELF can just help us as we set our priorities. We might ask ourselves, “Does this really impede intelligibility?” We might consider the degree to which we are emphasizing or even over-emphasizing “native speaker norms.” We might step back and consider if our expectations for students are reasonable or practical or even helpful and needed.  

Another area where I feel that thinking about ELF helps me or causes me to re-prioritize is with the language of idioms and slang. If I step back and consider that my students are going to be speaking with interlocutors other than “native speakers”, it becomes easier for me to de-prioritize unnecessary and rare idioms and slang. I find that even asking myself “Are students likely to need or want this idiom for international communication?” and “Will those my students speak with be likely to know this idiom?” can help my decision-making process. When I  ask myself these questions I often choose to focus elsewhere.  

As we de-prioritize certain things, we will also probably want to prioritize others. The first thing that comes to mind in this regard is clarification strategies. This might mean helping students to be certain they have heard correctly (“B as in boy?”), as well as practice with things like paraphrasing and seeking clarification on more complicated points and opinions. In my mind, this shift calls for more collaborative work where there is not exactly one correct answer but students have to come to a joint understanding (and perhaps conclusion) on something.  

I believe considering some of the questions I’ve laid out above will enable us to be more attuned to our students’ needs and might help us prioritize what is most useful and helpful to our students. I think when we consider ELF a lens through which to view our teaching it can help us make better decisions.  

I’d like to state that the above is just my personal take on how ELF influences my own teaching. While I hope it’s helpful for you, your mileage may vary. Also, your students might have specific reasons for using English and might want to sound as close to “native speakers” as possible. They might be obsessed with idioms and slang and expect you to provide a bottomless supply of idioms. Your students might have work or personal reasons that cause them to desire sounding as native-like as possible. I am not suggesting as teachers we ignore these needs and wants. I’m just suggesting that English students in the future speaking with other L2 users of English is the reality for most.  

I’d also suggest that acknowledging ELF and using it as a lens for examining our teaching doesn’t necessarily mean we have to make a drastic change in our teaching. For me it’s just something else to think about as I plan lessons and courses and make decisions in the flow of class. It’s something that helps me to set priorities and evaluate my choices.  

In this post I have barely scratched the surface on the implications of ELF for teachers of English.  If you are interested in learning more about ELF and these implications for your own classroom, I might recommend taking Katy Simpson’s upcoming course on this.  

Exploring local culture beyond festivals and food

Michael Griffin
Michael Griffin
By Michael Griffin

At the Seoul KOTESOL conference in 2014 Sandra Lee McKay said something along the lines of, “The main reason students learn English is to explain aspects of their culture to people from other cultures.” The audience nodded in approval but my friend sitting next to me scoffed and suggested under her breath there are more common and powerful reasons for learning English (especially in Korea), starting perhaps with parental and societal pressure.

Around the same time as that conference I had a chat with a student of mine (a grad student in an interpretation and translation program), who was distraught about her recent work experience in the field as an interpreter. The interpreting was fine for her and she felt comfortable with it. What troubled her was all the questions her clients asked her about Korea and Korean culture when not in the meeting room. She felt like she wasn’t familiar enough with aspects of Korean culture that non-Koreans might be interested in and curious about. She thought she lacked the knowledge, experience, and understanding to help explain such things to her clients.

Both the above examples influenced my thinking about explaining one’s own culture and the importance of working on this in class. To be very honest, I found my student’s experience more compelling than McKay’s assertion and I decided to include a bit more focus on cultural and intercultural aspects in my classes. In various classes (where I happen to have both Korean and non-Korean students) I started collecting a list of cultural aspects that might be interesting or surprising to non-Koreans. This list ranges from neon crosses above churches, to scissors for cooking to sauna protocol and can be found on my personal blog. After I had a substantial collection of cultural aspects, I decided to use it in class and what follows is a rough sketch of how I’ve used the list and the idea to focus on explaining aspects of Korean culture in my classes.

  1. I started by sharing the heart-wrenching story of their predecessor who struggled with explaining aspects of Korean culture to her clients and explained this was the reason I chose to do this lesson. I might have overly dramatized the story in an attempt to turn it into a tear-jerker, as well as solid proof that the coming lesson was based on filling that need.
  2. I told students I’d collected a list of cultural aspects that previous classes (both Korean and non-Korean) had suggested were “unique aspects of Korean culture” and asked them to guess what might be on the list. Students’ interest seemed to be piqued and they were ready to make some guesses.
  3. I took individual guesses and wrote them on the board in two columns. One column was for items which appeared on the original list and one was for those that didn’t.
  4. After there were a few guesses on the board, I asked students to think of 3-5 of their own guesses for what would be on the list and then to share with a partner. This naturally led to some explanation of the aspects, as well as to discussions on why they thought it might be interesting.
  5. I collected more guesses and populated the two columns on the board.
  6. I asked students to look at each column in turn and discuss with a (new) partner what appeared on the board. Students were asked to consider the following questions:

What is that? 

What does it mean? 

Why might it be surprising/interesting/confusing? 

Why does it appear on this list? 

Do you think it is unique to Korea? 

7. While students were doing step 5, I quickly edited my original list of cultural aspects to make sure there were no duplicates between that list and the columns on the board.

8. I then set up a mini-role play where one student pretended to be non-Korean and their (new) partner explained items from the first column to the best of their ability. I encouraged those playing non-Koreans to be inquisitive and to ask as many questions as possible.

9.  After the round of questions and explanations there was a bit of error correction and a group discussion about good and better ways to explain things that were challenging. An option at this point is to give some examples of language (for example, vague language or language for sharing opinions) that might be useful as students explain things.

10. We repeated steps 6 and 8 (and then 9) with the aspects found on my original list. This was done in stages, so students had chances to explain and ask. They changed partners throughout and everyone had an equal chance to play the explainer.

11.  To wrap up, I took the opportunity to ask some questions to the whole group about certain aspects that seemed tricky to explain or seemed to have generated interest. I also gave students a chance to have me act as the explainer as they made sure I didn’t give any incorrect information.

I think the fact that the original list wasn’t created by me (or a mass produced textbook) helped generate interest and also gave students room to decide that certain aspects didn’t need to be discussed in detail. I told students to only ask their classmates about things they thought were worth asking about. I also encouraged those playing the non-Korean role to be very confused and ask lots of follow-up questions.

In the hope the role-play didn’t get uncomfortable or turn into the non-Korean trashing Korean culture and the Korean persona defending things, I tried to keep the focus on interesting or surprising aspects rather than on the negative. I tried to maintain an atmosphere of curiosity rather than judgment.

The above is, of course, just one simple idea and I am sure there are plenty of more sophisticated and nuanced ways to explore these issues. I’m hoping to learn more about Intercultural Communication in ELT through Christopher Graham’s upcoming iTDi course. I’d also love to see further suggestions, modifications or ideas related to the above in the comments to this post.

A teacher by any other name

Michael Griffinby Michael Griffin

This is a post mostly about me. One teacher plays a very prominent role here but she will remain nameless. Perhaps she would prefer the anonymity anyway. She is quite humble.

I’m not even sure when or how we met. I only know it was online. I’m guessing it was in 2012. Late 2012, probably. I know iTDi was somehow involved. If I recall correctly, she took the “English for Teachers” course at some point. She now regularly takes advanced iTDi courses. I don’t actually remember any of our initial interactions. It was as though, all of a sudden, she was there and she’d been there all along. I do remember having a great impression of her from the very start even though I don’t know exactly when that was.

Although I have never met this teacher in person I have been lucky enough to hear her speak in webinars as well as video and audio recordings. In these moments, her compassion could be clearly seen and heard. Her compassion and passion are also clear in her writing. Her blog is one of the few blogs I make sure there are no other tabs or windows open on my computer before reading because I want to savor every word.

Although I have never met her face-to-face I have bonded with other teachers sharing our respect and admiration for her both on and offline. My opinion of others changes when I learn they know, like and interact with her. Just three days ago I was meeting someone in person for the first time and he mentioned how welcoming, kind, knowledgeable, and helpful she is. She is a connector, whether she is in the room or not.

Although we have never met in “real life” we talk online on Twitter and Facebook. We don’t chat all that often but in our conversations seem to pick up right where we left off before things like sleep, work, and life got in in the way. A few times a quick clarification or question on Facebook turned into an hours-long conversation. On these occasions it was easy to lose track of time because of the interesting and honest conversations we had about teaching, development and our respective contexts.

She has helped me see many things in different ways and I think she is a great model of how to communicate effectively and honestly with those we disagree with. I see her as a positive force and a non-selfish person in world where this is too rare. She has helped me to consider the reasons behind decisions made by myself and others even if the answers are not always pretty or flattering.

One of the most important things she has helped remind me of is the realities of many teachers around the world when it comes to money and time. As an example, flying off to the IATEFL or TESOL Conferences is not realistic for many teachers around the world. Similarly, having the latest fancy tools and gadgets for teaching is impossible for many teachers.  She has helped remind me of such realities. It is very easy to fall into certain bubbles and ignore much more important issues happening in the field. I appreciate her helping me see this more clearly.

In terms of teaching, her views on giving students choice and autonomy are things I consider throughout my teaching and planning. I cannot always implement as much student choice as I’d like to but it is something I keep in mind more often now. I feel more capable of finding small ways of doing so.

Rose Image for MichaelI am filled with gratitude when I think about her and all the other fantastic teachers I have met online. She is a wonderful model of passion, empathy, kindness, compassion, humility, and honesty so I sincerely thank her for that. She is also a great model of being onto others what we want others to be. I thank her for being a fellow learner, fellow traveler and fellow human.

If I were to share a private and personal message to her (publicly on this blog) I would say that there is hope and that good can still win. The world just needs more people like her sharing their light.

On learning with and from coworkers

mike_griffin_profileby Michael Griffin

In a recent blog post over on my blog I gave some advice to my younger teacher self. One area I mostly skipped and glossed over somehow was co-workers. I did write in the post, “on occasion you will meet people who grate on your very last nerve,” but I think this is relatively rare. In my fifteen years teaching EFL in Northeast Asia I can honestly say, with some notable exceptions, most of the people I have worked with have been helpful, kind, and easy enough to get along with. I can surely say there were lessons to be learned from all of them.


[“6-Pack-Chicken-Eggs” by Evan-Amos.]

 In my current teaching situation at a university in Seoul there are only two people at the university I am in regular contact with about teaching and education related matters. Maybe this is not so surprising. After all, teaching is sometimes known as the egg crate profession. While my current teaching context is somewhat isolated, I am lucky enough to have colleagues all around the world beamed in through the internet(s). My teaching life would be far less rich, fulfilling, happy, and productive without such connections.

When thinking about my teaching career up to now, I sometimes wish I’d been more prepared or willing to seize the moment and learn all the lessons I could from every single co-worker I encountered in my previous teaching contexts. I feel a tinge of regret over not making the most of the opportunities I was presented with. I taught with people from all over with a huge range of experiences, attitudes, beliefs, knowledge, and manner of teaching. Perhaps at times I was a bit too caught up in what I was doing and my own immediate concerns which caused me to miss out on the learning opportunities the cosmos placed right in front of me.

There are a few things I wish I’d done as a newer teacher when blessed with the opportunity to work with large groups of co-workers. The first is undoubtedly to observe other teachers as much as possible. I don’t necessarily mean observe in the official or formal sense (though I wish I did more of this as well), I mean simply seeing how other teachers did their jobs and watching teachers in class as much as possible. In one of my previous positions, all teachers were expected to observe other teachers 3-4 times when we first started teaching at the institution. But this expectation evaporated when we were no longer new teachers. There are still some teachers I wish I’d seen! I also wish I’d taken the requirement more seriously and had observed far more than the minimum required.

I spent lots of time chatting with co-workers in my previous jobs and lots of good times occurred. If I could do it all over again I’d probably exchange 10-15% of the conversations about sports, politics, the economy, the weather, and other topics not suitable for a family or professional blog for more talk about teaching. I feel like I learned so much just talking shop with other teachers after classes were finished for the day. It was incredibly helpful to learn about materials, methods and beliefs. Yet, I think I could have gotten even more out of the experience if I considered this to be professional development and not simply killing time and procrastinating and avoiding preparing for the next day’s lessons. Looking back, I wish I’d realized how valuable such conversations were and could be and took advantage of them.

I also wish I’d tried harder in staffroom conversations to focus more on what was actually happening in classes rather than simply superficial and immediate impressions. I wish I’d focused more on student learning and what made us as teachers believe this was happening rather than relying on our gut instincts or our previous years of experience as students.  If my memory serves, a lot of the conversations were like, “That lesson sucked, and wow they are really not into it today” or “That lesson rocked, what a great topic choice for that group.” I also wish I’d been better about uncovering and articulating beliefs about teaching and learning rather than sticking with the obvious and simple. In short, I wish I’d done better to foster and participate in more productive and reflective conversations when the topic was recent lessons and teaching.

I will stop here with the nostalgic regrets and I will hope there is something you can take from these thoughts, regardless of the size of your staffroom. The good news, if for whatever reason your coworkers are unable to give you the support and learning you need, iTDi is here to fill a lot of these needs in a collegial way. We look forward to connecting with you.