See How this Online Teacher Used YouTube to Attract Students
Jennifer Lebedev is one of the most experienced teachers we have interviewed on English Online Hub. She has been teaching English since 1996 and now runs English with Jennifer and Jennifer ESL on YouTube.
Can you give me a brief introduction of yourself and your background?
I discovered my love for teaching back in college. That’s when I started taking courses for a career in education. I’ve been teaching English since 1996. I started as a private language instructor in Moscow, and then I moved into teaching group classes for students of all ages. I was originally certified in the state of Pennsylvania to teach Russian as a foreign language, but later I shifted my focus to ESL. I did further training back in the U.S. My professional development has continued both through experience in the field as well as through the TESOL International Association.
You’ve been teaching English since 1996 and working online since 2005 2007 – why did you make the change from a traditional to a virtual classroom?
A writing contract came at the right time back in 2005. I loved the IEP I was working in as well as the opportunities I had as the ESL Program Administrator. But the aspiring materials writer in me couldn’t decline the invitation to co-author a textbook series for a major publisher. Also, I had just become a mother, and working from home fit my family needs. I finished the contract, had my second child, and then realized I missed teaching. It was 2007 and YouTube was just starting to catch on. I experimented with some videos and JenniferESL was born! I didn’t have expectations, only hopes that my work would be received well. I didn’t realize that posting online videos would also serve as a digital business card and portfolio. Being on YT led to things like my Pearson-sponsored ELT blog on WordPress. Other contracts followed and requests for live instruction came, too. I was intrigued by the challenge of transferring my traditional classroom skills to the online environment. I haven’t returned to classroom teaching because there are so many opportunities online for me to explore.
What was the hardest thing about that transition and what are some of the biggest changes to online education since you began?
There was no obvious path to follow, no road signs to guide my choices. Where am I headed and what activities should I focus on besides making videos and giving lessons on Skype? I wasn’t certain of the answers. I’ve experimented both as a teacher and as a content creator, often collaborating for short- and long-term projects.
As far as skills went, some things came naturally, like keeping my teaching style in front of the camera and creating exercises for private students. However, learning the technology has mostly been trial by error. Moreover, the technology is continually changing. Thankfully, I’ve been able to turn to colleagues for guidance with certain online tools. Today there are many more tools and resources, which is both good and overwhelming.
Do you have any advice for new teachers on how to get into online teaching? Should they work for a company or themselves first?
Do some research. Identify different kinds of online opportunities and focus on the ones that match your skills and needs. If you work independently, you’ll have more freedom, but that means you have to handle much of the business on your own, from marketing to billing. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Choose one initial platform that you’re comfortable with and start establishing an online presence with strong awareness of your brand. What do you stand for? How do you want others to see you? What is it that you bring to the table?
You might not even have to start with live instruction right away. Establish yourself on social media, like Facebook. Chances are you’ll start to gain a following and among your followers will be those who seek paid instruction. Then you can choose your teaching platform.
When it comes to social media, don’t overextend yourself. It may seem imperative that you have an account on every single social media platform out there, but you can have success as an online teacher without being tied to notifications and posts 24/7. I actually came on Facebooks and Twitter quite late in the game. I have a small but growing number of followers outside YT, and I use the additional social media to support and engage ELLs beyond my videos. I do think social media has value. It’s worth spending some time on posts and comments. Learners appreciate the interaction, and your exchanges with learners will keep you in tune with what people are looking for. You might, for instance, decide to create a paid course that addresses a particular need of your followers.
For more experienced teachers looking to move beyond the classroom, what are some good opportunities that exist for them if they want to continue to work online?
Look for opportunities to collaborate, from blog festivals to online conferences. You can often discover professional opportunities through your colleagues. Be open to online professional development because that will also put you into contact with other teachers. TESOL has a wonderful event at the start of every year, the Electronic Village Online. You can present and/or participate.
You have a significant following on YouTube – how did that start and can you offer any advice for those looking to do something similar?
I was fortunate to start when YT was in its early days and viewers were more forgiving of poor video and audio quality. I had so little video-making experience, but I was able to offer good content from Day 1. I haven’t done much marketing, so word-of-mouth has helped me a great deal. I’m very thankful for the support of other teachers, who often recommend my channel to their own students.
Today you have to start a YT channel with a good game plan. What’s your channel name and what’s your focus going to be? Get a handle on the basics of making decent videos. TESOL’s Video and Digital Media Interest Section offers support not only for members, but also for teachers at large. The VDMIS has started to post tutorials and information-sharing videos on YT. Here’s one that I contributed to.
Finally, collaborate, collaborate, collaborate. You’ll learn from others and you’ll gain more exposure.
Do you have any go-to sites for teaching resources or aids?
I list quite a few ELT resources on my website. On a day-to-day basis, I use online dictionaries. Sometimes I need to do a corpus search, and COCA is one site many teachers recommend. It’s also helpful to know some word frequency lists, (AWL, UWL, and GSL) as well as sites that perform a text analysis, like UsingEnglish.
Are there any students that stand out from your years of teaching? Why?
The chance to work one-on-one with a student is always a privilege. Each private student has made me a better teacher because I’ve had to tailor my knowledge and skills to meet their specific needs. I particularly enjoy working with advanced students because we often engage in discussion that is relevant to their work, so I find myself learning about new things, from business models to biology.
Observing how students learn has allowed me to evaluate myself as a language learner. Some of my own students have modeled behaviors I should have. They inspire me.
Finally, how do you view the future of online education? Will it overtake traditional methods or simply continue to support it?
I truly hope face-to-face instruction will never be replaced. The traditional classroom can offer a very positive experience where learners interact and support one another’s progress. However, not everyone can gain access to the classroom due to location or expense. That’s the beauty of online learning. Anyone with Internet access can receive instruction.
Of course, not all instruction can be provided for free. This is a challenge for teachers and content creators at the present. We need to make a living, and yet we often give our time for free because teachers are natural helpers. There needs to be a reasonable balance so that free resources will always exist, but paid instruction can allow for customization and a high degree of interaction and feedback. I believe free and paid instruction online can continue to develop side-by-side.
Online education will reach more and more learners in the coming years, and classroom teachers will develop their ability to integrate online tools and platforms. The two don’t have to compete. A delightful confirmation of that is having classroom teachers tell me how my online videos supplement their instruction and having students tell me that my videos have strengthened the knowledge they gained from the classroom.