Teaching Abroad – In The Know (No.18): Of Course, of Course, but which Course?

The more prepared one is, the brighter the future looks (Photo Credit: Thomas Dowling, 2014)

My first degrees were in history. It is often quipped that hindsight is the gift (or curse) of the historian. I’d certainly go along with that, but I think the musing is apt for anything whereby lived experience is an important facet in future development. 

Enter my ESL reflections.

I do like to think that I prepared well for those previous jobs abroad, and indeed many other aspects of my personal life, but I certainly failed for my first teaching post abroad. In hindsight I was woefully unprepared for the rigours of the classroom that lay ahead and many of the skills required in order to execute the job well, or at least better than I initially did. 

That’s not to say I bumbled through the first contract without improving or learning how to do the job; I learned enough to be well-thought of by my students, peers, and employer. Yet, I would spare you these shoals of despair by pointing out some lighthouses of guidance.

In my view, there are only two divisions of courses (purveyors of such fine wares may disagree, but I am, as ever, writing from my perspective): teaching and skills-based courses.

Again, in my mind, teaching courses can be divided into two camps: on-site and online (there may well be better, more official terms, but I’ll stick with these). Today, we’ll be talking about the latter type, online courses.

I’ll admit: I’m writing with a certainly brevity and economy this afternoon, so I’ll get straight to it with a basic, no-frills, pros and cons approach.

Online Teaching Courses

These types of courses aim to teach you the basic mechanics of how to do the job. Evidently, the longer the course that you enrol on, the more you will learn and the better prepared you’ll be.

The Pros

  1. Cost. Often, online courses are by far cheaper than on-site or campus based learning. This is a particularly good option if you are a little strapped for cash—perhaps your a recent university graduate—and what something solid to show your new employer (or one you hope to secure a job wish) that you are committed to learning the ropes and developing. Truthfully, any course that you are not forced to do when it comes to teaching is going to earn you credit and gives you volumes of extra confidence, knowledge, and ideas.
  2. Pace. Online courses usual enable you to work at your own pace. This is evidently a good situation if you either have just a weekend to get ready before you fly, or if you like to work through things over a longer period, or if you still have a busy schedule to get through before you head to that destination of yours.
  3. Feedback. In the seven years that I’ve taught ESL, I’ve undertaken and completed many courses (of varying types, duration, and cost). In my humble opinion, the feedback I received from online tutors was far superior to that of on-site equivalents. The only exception to this was ITI’s CELTA course (which we will come onto in a few weeks’ time). Never underestimate good, quality feedback.

The Cons

  1. ‘Learning environment’. Perhaps the biggest negative is the lack of a traditional learning environment – no classroom. Yes, this isn’t old school. For some people, they ‘need’ a classroom to learn. What they really mean is that they prefer a classroom. I do as well, in the same way I prefer a book to my Kindle, but sometimes what we prefer is not always the most practical or convenient. An online course is so much more convenient (assuming you have wifi or Internet access at home, there’s no commute either). In the modern world, I think convenience trumps a traditional classroom these days.
  2. Self-Discipline. Most people who know me probably would describe me as an eternal student, while others who really know me will refer to me as an academic or a scholar. But sometimes even I find it hard to discipline myself on an online course or when I’m away from campus. It is, in some respects, easier to go to class if you must be there 9.00am everyday or hand in your assignment no later than 2pm Friday afternoon than forcing yourself to put in an hour a day working through a course with no one ensuring your compliance. For an online course then, self-discipline is an important quality to have when working though things that you no longer have to do. Not everyone is good or even willing to do this. You’ve done your degree, right? You may feel like you don’t need to study anymore. I would understand this attitude. However, I would say that as a teacher, you are always learning (and improving), as well as working on your own for long stretches. Self-discipline is therefore an important and critical element for a teacher, and in this sense, an online course may well be a good way to start endearing this characteristic if its not as sharp as perhaps it should be. Turn a weakness into a strength.
  3. Limited Camaraderie. While I am very studious, I do like a laugh. I like to joke in class with my peers when the teacher isn’t looking (even in my thirties, sorry to say), and I enjoy building rapport with new people. Obviously, this is much harder or in some cases non-existent online. Yet, as social media has blossomed, a more ‘traditional (online)’ student experience is possible in ways that it really wasn’t when I first got into ESL in 2010. Point being, a lack of a physical space doesn’t have to limited the creation of new friendships, study groups, and hang outs during your course.
  4. Teaching Practice. This is easily the biggest, and arguably, the only real negative with online courses compared to on-site learning. Teaching, as I’m sure you’ve fathomed, is an important part of teaching (der!), but it’s very hard to get that practice through an online course. (I would guess that some may offer this through Skype/video calling, but I am not aware of any that do.) To be brunt: there really is no substitute for real teaching practice that is assessed through constructive feedback.

Online Skill-based Courses

What I am referring to here are grammar courses. Teaching courses will often tell you how to teach grammar in a fun and engaging way, but they will almost certainly not teach you grammar. For that, you’ll need a separate course. I will say that in my experience (and especially as you will have to teach grammar as an English teacher – there’s no getting away from it even if the thought gives you cold sweats right now), you will almost certainly acquire and learn much of the stuff you don’t know by the end of your first year simply by learning it to be able to teach it to your students. Nevertheless, you may wish to jump start or simply brush up on your grammar knowledge before you head into the job. This is perfectly understandable, and I would strongly advise at least undergoing a basic course of some description.

When it comes to grammar courses, I’m only really aware of online iterations for the very reason that teaching courses don’t provide instruction on knowledge. I suppose one could enrol for a short grammar or English course with a local college, but this is research you’ll have to do.


  1. Time. Predictably, much of what I said above is also true of online grammar courses. In my case, the biggest positive about an online grammar course was time. My grammar was horrendously weak before I started teaching. I knew the basics, of course, roughly gathered through full immersion and practice (as most people learn their native language), but my technical skills were rather more limited, and my ability to explain grammar rules were virtually non-existent. This is obviously a major issue for an English teacher whereby English grammar will probably constitute the main lesson plan of something like 1 in every 3 or 4 lessons. An online course (Norwood English in this case) enabled me to work through the provided learning materials and practice at my own time. And to be entirely honest, I needed to go through it slowly. 
  2. Internet as Resource. I don’t know about you, dear reader, but even after years of experience and several courses, there were times when I was planning a lesson for a particular grammar point and the explanation in the Teacher’s Guide and/or the exercises in the student’s Activity/Workbook made no sense. This may happen to you on a grammar course, too, let alone when you get to Korea or Saudi or wherever else. In this cases, remember that the Internet is your friend (assuming where you are going has a reliable Internet connection; I’ve been to schools where this wasn’t the case). There will be an explanation somewhere on the web that breaks down that complicated grammar point so that you can understand it yourself sufficiently enough to teach it to your students at a later time.


  1. Boredom. For new or inexperienced teachers, or indeed those with little desire to put time and effort into preparing grammar classes, grammar is an immensely dull proposition to teach – and most of your students will feel the same way. This does not have to be the class, which I will come back to in Part II of Teaching Abroad – In The Know. Yet, learning grammar is pretty laborious, longwinded, and dry. Grammar is learned through rules and practice which are not usually fun, but this does give you a very valuable insight into how your students will feel IF you teach grammar in the same arcane manner. Sometimes there are just boring, gruelling slogs in the ESL world, and often learning grammar and thinking up ways of making it fun and interesting for your students is one of those times.

Evidently, I’ve been speaking in generics here, so next week we’ll start to look at some of the courses of our friends and partners to give you a more precise idea of what the content of these courses contain, why they are so useful, and why you should part with hard cash to enrol.

What to take away from today’s blog? Whatever course you embark upon, it will almost certainly add value and confidence before you start your teaching job. You’ll have a better understanding of what the profession entails, you’ll start to learn the skills that are needed, and just as importantly, you’ll begin thinking more creatively when it comes to designing lesson plans, regardless of the content. From my personal experience, I wish I had invested in a solid teaching course before I left for Korea – it would have made life so much easier. 

That’s all for now.

EditorialThomas Dowling has worked in the ESL industry for over 7 years, having lived and worked in South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Italy, Spain, Turkey, Myanmar, Kuwait, and the UK. His work experience has included an international school, a university, private academies, and summer camps. Currently, Thomas is a full-time PhD Student studying Environmental Security at the University of Leicester. He has previously studied degrees in Ancient History (BA; MA: Bristol), and International Security Studies (MA: Leicester). In 2014, he earned his CELTA qualification (ITI: Istanbul, Turkey), complementing previous TEFL certificates acquired in England. Thomas is also the Co-Founder of The Digital Traveller, focusing upon content and content management. Thomas presently lives in Daegu, South Korea, with his wife, Jack Russell Terrier, and newborn baby, Zeno.

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