The Different Paths We Walk: An ESL Story

James Heywood of Adelaide, Australia
James Heywood of Adelaide, Australia

Today there are many professional paths for us ESL teachers to take. Some of us walk more than one path at the same time. People have asked about the reasons for the choices I have made, the nature of my online work, and the challenges I face in my different roles. When I meet other educators and content creators in our field, I am just as curious about them.

Because teaching experiences can be so diverse and because hearing different viewpoints is always a healthy experience, I have invited a new colleague of mine from Adelaide, Australia to share his ESL story. James Heywood is a teacher and the co-founder of TurksLearnEnglish and Off2Class. After years of working in language institutes and private schools, he made the move to online teaching. He has taught students of all ages in one-on-one and group settings. Enjoy reading his responses to my questions.

[The thoughts and opinions expressed in the interview are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Pearson.]


  1. When did you first start teaching English?

I first commenced teaching English full-time in late 2005. Prior to that I had been working in the corporate sector, though I had tutored students in French, Spanish and English essay composition over a number of years. Essentially, it was time for a career change and teaching offered the possibility to use my increasingly dormant language and linguistic skills learnt at University.

  1. When and why did you start teaching online?

I took the leap in January 2013, left my full-time position at a middle school in Istanbul and was soon teaching approximately 35 online lessons weekly via videoconferencing to students aged between 6 and 55. Students I had been teaching privately were mostly computer literate, so the move to online lessons was not onerous.  The majority of my present students attend one-to-one lessons, though I still teach several lessons with multiple students. For younger students the lessons serve primarily as reinforcement of their school curriculum and an opportunity to improve grammar, while older students focus on developing fluency, naturalness and vocabulary.

  1. What skills were you able to transfer to online teaching? What other skills did you have to acquire or develop?

Most skills required in the traditional classroom are easily transferable to the online education environment. It is just as easy to elicit information, demonstrate and check concepts, drill, provide correction and maintain motivation and discipline when the student views you via a laptop or tablet, as it is when you collaborate in the same physical space. My strong time management skills have been a valuable asset to online teaching.

Naturally, my computer literacy has progressed immensely over the last year as I have become familiar with more websites, programs and apps to use in the online classroom. In the past twelve months I have taught almost 1,000 hours via videoconferencing software so I now consider myself a highly experienced user of certain programs! However, I am not constantly learning about new programs and apps. I discovered a handful that worked for me and my students and I have stuck with them, preferring to master a few rather than trawl the Internet for the latest-in-everything. Well, at least for now…

Finally, teaching online means managing all of your admin duties. This has been the biggest learning experience for me! You become your own Student Services, Payroll and Human Resource Department.

  1. You create and share teaching materials on Those are for private online lessons. How do you find lesson planning for online classes different from lesson planning for the traditional classroom?

The reality is that lesson preparation for online lessons is significantly different from the traditional classroom. In the traditional classroom, teachers must plan for differentiated learning and for delivery to a large number of students. Peer-to-peer activities, group projects and standardized tests are all in vogue. Planning can be immensely enjoyable for such lessons; however, I feel it is rare that a teacher can ever deliver the same lesson more than once a year. Many times, a lesson plan is never reused. And to me, that always felt like a waste of effort.

For online teaching, my goal has been to create solid, enjoyable and rewarding lessons that could be utilized again and again. Make it once and make it correctly. Lesson content should contain all the vibrant color and imagery that a 21st century student demands; however, there must be a clear format and consistent approach that runs throughout all my online lessons. Consistency aids an online teacher to convey a strong sense of professionalism and can set them apart. There is myriad of content available on the web for teachers, yet the quality varies so greatly that the time spent searching can outweigh the time required to create the lesson from scratch.

Naturally, lesson planning still takes up a large portion of my time. In spite of that, I am pleased that over the year I have been able to use some of my lessons more than 20 times. Naturally, I adapt how I use the content with every student, but the content itself has remained the same.

  1. You also work with Turks through your other site. Do you speak Turkish? What is your position on using the students’ L1 in your instruction and your interaction with learners?

I understand Turkish well and I speak the language enough to communicate on all subjects, though my grammar is far from perfect.

I believe strongly in using L1 in the ESL environment, especially so with young learners. My teaching style means I attempt to incorporate humor and maintain a relaxed learning environment. Shared culture, such as expressions, geographical places, names of people and even food are simply the best way to personalize the learning experience and maintain a student’s interest and motivation.

I avoid direct translations. However, L1 can serve as a way to maintain the flow of a lesson. After teaching in a Turkish school, it has become a trademark of my teaching to use expressions that children and teachers used throughout the school. It makes a young student feel at ease and L1 is without a doubt my only way to deal with the rare occurrences of bad behavior in an online environment. It’s much easier to inject humour by using L1 to deflate any frustration or boredom during the lesson.

  1. You wrote on your LinkedIn profile: “The education sector is undergoing wild, frenetic and necessary disruption.” Can you elaborate on that?

I think most educators would agree that education delivery has changed dramatically in the last decade. Chalk boards are disappearing as Smartboards fill classrooms. Students may have a laptop or iPad. I have a feeling that handwriting may disappear altogether as it becomes more valid for students to learn touch-typing. School libraries have fewer shelves and greater numbers of e-books. Good teachers are now computer literate and avidly use technology in the classroom. For ESL, this is especially true because of the sheer number of people involved in the industry. The ABC’s of learning have remained the same, but its delivery to the student has changed irrevocably.

This disruption to education is a wonderful event. Just about every industry you can imagine has undergone disruption because of the Internet. Travel agencies have but disappeared and publishing is an unrecognizable industry. How we access music and film is still undergoing a painful metamorphosis. Education will change as well.





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