Beeblio Discusses The Tools Used and Challenges Faced Within The ESL Community with Independent Online Teacher Jennifer Lebedev
Jennifer, you have been involved in the English teaching community for a while now, more specifically in online learning. Can you share with our audience when you started teaching English, and how did you decide to use the Internet as a medium to help the ESL community?
I started out as a classroom teacher. I taught English in Moscow, Russia. Back then, there was no access to any online resources. Even when I moved back to the U.S. and taught at a private language school, my use of the Internet was limited. I remember going to the Boston Public Library to browse materials I could pull into my teaching: books, documentaries, and the like.
In 2005, I chose to focus on a book contract, and soon enough I was a mother of two with no easy path back into full-time classroom teaching. I began to experiment on YouTube simply because I missed teaching, and I wanted to see who I could reach with my video lessons. The response was positive and interest grew. I began to understand that a new path was taking shape: online teaching.
What is your background and credentials? (Schooling, how long have you been in the field etc.)
I was originally certified to teach Russian as a foreign language at the secondary level in the state of Pennsylvania. I graduated magna cum laude from Bryn Mawr College and received departmental honors. I then went on to complete my graduate studies through Middlebury College. I spent an academic year in Moscow, and that is where I began to teach English as a foreign language.
I decided to stay on in Russia and switch to EFL/ESL. After several years, I returned to the U.S. and completed the required coursework to be certified in ESL. My professional development has continued through TESOL, Inc. I have attended the annual convention and presented numerous times. My ESL journey has now spanned about twenty-five years.
Was English your primary language? If no, which language was and what tools did you use to learn the English language?
I am a native English speaker. I studied Russian as a foreign language. I also have limited knowledge of French and Japanese. I even took Portuguese lessons for a few months. Having some understanding of those other languages helps me identify the challenges that learners face. All my early language studies were without the use of digital media. The internet simply was not an option at the time. Only now can I benefit from the availability of online resources. I have been meeting with a Russian tutor over the past year to brush up on my Russian.
What challenges do you and your pupils face in the classroom or during learning? And how do you overcome them?
I mainly work with adult learners, and our biggest challenge is time management. Adult learners must juggle many responsibilities, including work and family. I enjoy private instruction because I can tailor lessons to an individual’s needs, and we can adjust the workload according to personal circumstances, which can vary from week to week or month to month.
Specifically, what are some of the challenges that teaching online presents vs teaching in a class setting?
Some have the impression that making a meaningful connection online is not possible. I would argue that I have even more of an opportunity to connect with my students, especially when I teach one-on-one. However, even in a group setting, the key ingredient is trust. Once I succeed in establishing a positive learning environment, learners open up and meaningful exchanges take place. I have come to care very much for people I have never met and never will meet face-to-face. I know about their personal and professional struggles. I know their interests, their family dynamics, and some of their cherished memories. They have shared these with me in the context of meaningful learning. Because of a good working relationship, language progress takes places. I teach the whole learner and care about their personal and professional growth.
I have not been in the traditional classroom for a while now, but I know that many classrooms have modernized. Honestly, I would need a bit of time to get up to speed with smartboards and learning management systems. In contrast, I am extremely comfortable with all the online tools I need to produce content and teach in real-time from my phone or my PC.
What tools have you been using to teach English and how do you like them?
I currently use Zoom and Skype for private and group lessons, which are usually scheduled through Calendly. I livestream through my phone or on my PC through OBS software. It took more effort to figure out OBS, but I am comfortable with it now. As for video editing, I have been using Camtasia Studio since 2007. I do not have a very sophisticated editing style. I have maintained a simple, clear approach in my videos.
What are you most proud of, after these years of creating and distributing content that reach millions of users?
I am proud of the fact that I have been able to stay professionally active as a mother of two despite the many challenges that life has thrown my way. I have learned to accept the ongoing struggle to be visible and relevant in the growing crowd of online teachers, and I am determined to hold on to my methodology, my teaching style, and my principles, even if these things make me less popular.
We know you are dedicated to the ESL community. What is the main difference between teaching English to native speakers, and teaching ESL?
Native speakers usually have less awareness of how their language works. Only through teaching English have I learned complex grammar, acquired more vocabulary, and become a better public speaker and a more effective writer. More important, I can actually explain the process to learners and help them to develop their skills. If you teach your native language to others, it helps to draw from your own personal language learning experiences. You need to remember what struggles your learners are going through in the second language.
What would you like to see change in the ESL community? And how can others participate?
Thankfully, there is growing awareness of native speakerism and the prejudice that has existed in our industry. As a result, more appreciation and respect is being given to the many non-native English-speaking teachers who are very competent. Teachers should be judged on their competency and professionalism. Period.
Can you tell us what goes into producing a new educational video? Briefly walk us through the process from the conception to the publication.
I listen to my learners and my audience. I observe their success and their struggles. All of this informs my teaching. I create single video lessons to answer a question or target a specific aspect of language. I create a series with a larger goal, for example, to build familiarity, accuracy, and confidence with intonation. I develop a script, but during filming I may make changes. Filming is only part of a day, but editing takes place over a stretch of days. Many hours go into editing and producing a video. Even then, I may not catch all my mistakes. Uploading a video also takes time, especially when it comes to writing the captions. Then there are the video details, thumbnail, and promotion. In short, a lot of time an effort goes into a single video lesson. The exciting part is publishing the video and seeing the response. Reading and replying to comments also takes time, but I feel that this interaction is important: it is part of my commitment to being a part of the learning experience. I aim to be a teacher who is accessible and accountable.
What do you think is most important for a student out there looking for ways to learn English: the use of educational apps, or the use of educational videos?
Students should be selective about resources. There are many out there, so limit your use to a few good ones. You can integrate a number of resources into your studies. Develop regular study habits. Take breaks and do not binge watch video lessons. Give yourself time to digest, reflect, and review. Follow teachers who are good models and who can resolve your doubts. Look for ways to extend your studies. Each online teacher has additional platforms. Explore them and use the ones that help you meet your goals.
What other advice would you give to anyone trying to learn English, or any language?
Learners, be patient. Learning is a process. There are no shortcuts. Have confidence in your ability to learn. Find support in other learners. You do not have to practice all the time with a teacher. Native speakers are not the only answer. You can also find ways to practice on your own: keeping a diary, writing a short story, reading aloud, singing songs, watching movies, learning a script, studying with flashcards, and speaking aloud – yes, to yourself! Be dedicated but be realistic. Set goals and form a plan to achieve them. Hold yourself accountable. Also, be your own cheerleader. Find out what motivates you and remember to give yourself a pat on the back now and then.
Now, we have to ask because of what we do. What is, in your opinion, the most important aspect of learning a language? Is it grammar, vocabulary or something else?
Language is a whole. You cannot isolate grammar. It is connected to vocabulary and all four skill areas: reading, writing, listening, and speaking. You cannot focus on conversation without some study of grammar, and reading can inform your speaking. Regular writing develops self-expression, which naturally helps you articulate your ideas in conversation. Pronunciation is also not an isolated skill. It should be part of vocabulary building, and it is used in conjunction with grammar. My point is that there is no one skill that deserves all your attention. Be a whole language learner. Develop all your skills so that you can be versatile in self-expression and competent in communication.
As you might be aware, our company is a new player in the space of language learning. We just launched our web application and are in the process of launching our mobile app in the coming weeks. As a language educator, what are some of the features or characteristics that you want to see in an application that teaches language skills?
Technology today can be a great aid. Apps can help students set goals, create a study schedule, and track progress. Educational apps can make self-study fun and productive if there is quality content and strong methodology. Ideally, students will learn to balance self-study with meaningful interaction. They can learn to be independent and still tap into live instruction when it is accessible.