Natalia Milán teaches English to Uruguayan primary school children via remote videoconference. She describes what it’s like to teach English to a class from the other side of a video screen.
Learning English in Uruguay has been traditionally a privilege for those who can afford classes in private language institutes and those who attend private bilingual schools. In 2008, teaching English as a second language became mandatory by law. However, the public education system struggles to fulfil its obligation to teach English to every child from first to sixth grade, as there aren’t enough teachers.
I currently work as a remote English teacher for Plan Ceibal’s English programme for Uruguayan primary public schools, ‘Ceibal en Inglés’. I teach my classes from Plan Ceibal’s facilities in Montevideo, connecting with my students through video conference. The programme is optional and schools sign up individually. It targets public schools, where children are unlikely to access private English tutoring. So far, 97 schools have joined the project.
Clap, wave and move to make the children comfortable
I was quite nervous before my first lesson, having no previous experience teaching children. I knew this would be a great challenge and a learning experience for me, as well as for the children. I must rely on the classroom teacher’s collaboration to manage the class, and we work as a team. In addition to my remote class, the classroom teacher teaches two classes during the week. We use an online platform, where lesson plans and materials produced by the British Council are made available to both teachers.
I had never used videoconference equipment prior to this, and it was also the children’s first experience with this technology. At first, they seemed shy and apprehensive. They sat neatly in rows, in their white uniforms with blue bows, looking intensely into the camera.
The greatest challenge was overcoming the children´s reserved behaviour, and I quickly learned that I couldn´t take myself too seriously. They asked a lot of personal questions, and I just had to answer them. Also, I discovered that clapping, waving and moving around makes them feel more comfortable, so communicating enthusiasm through body language is very important. I also discovered that making 'funny noises' —that is, teaching phonetics— became a great icebreaker. When things go slowly, we quickly shift to reviewing pronunciation. We always get a good laugh.
Now, after a few remote classes, the children’s confidence is growing. They are not embarrassed to show their enthusiasm, and proudly show me their drawings. Their spoken English is improving at a rate which is a joy to witness.
Make sure the technology is reliable
Luckily, we haven´t experienced technical difficulties so far. The schools that participate in the project have been equipped with fibre optic broadband, which makes the videolink connection very reliable. Working in real time means I must have everything ready in my laptop when we watch videos and look at flashcards. We are still learning how to use our online platform, where both teachers and children log in with their usernames and have access to games, videos, online exercises and evaluations.
Keep the classroom teacher close
Having a good relationship with the classroom teacher is essential to the success of this project. We have weekly meetings, where we discuss the contents of the next lesson and consider what needs revision. I talk to some of the teachers via Skype, while in other cases, we co-ordinate the next lesson by e-mail.
I have met extraordinary teachers that always do what is in the children’s best interest. I am very much impressed by this, and the enthusiasm of both teachers and children is what makes this job worthwhile. I am thrilled to see how fast the children are learning!
Update, 16 October 2015: Through the Plan Ceibal en Inglés programme, which started three years ago, we are currently teaching 3,300 videoconference classes from Uruguay, Argentina, the Philippines, and the UK to children in Uruguay.