First up this morning was the Biology undergraduate from Beijing who worries far too much about the difference between the Past Perfect tense and its Past Simple counterpart.
Next came the salesman from Riyadh who - despite needing to practice the presentation he had to deliver, in English, to his Board later that day - spent half an hour explaining to me why Mo Salah was better than Lionel Messi.
Then there was the English tutor from Seoul who wanted to talk about Brexit for thirty minutes. Having long ago stopped following the news regarding my country’s decision to leave the European Union due to getting frustrated and angry with everyone involved in the process, I’m not sure I helped that much. But at least I got to explain the concept of ‘Constitutional Monarchy’ which is not something that happens everyday.
Last was my mechanical engineer from Istanbul who, flush with aspirations of relocating to the UK, wanted to ask me about house prices in London; were the prices he’d seen online actually real? Surely they must be an elaborate hoax?
It was a short burst today - just two hours. But in that one hundred and twenty minutes I went from a bustling dormitory in the Chinese capital, to a spartan, air-conditioned office in the heart of Saudi Arabia, to a heaving side-walk in South Korea, to a small, messy cubicle in a corner of a factory deep in Turkey.
Had I stayed online any longer I might have also talked to the Brazilian lawyer working in a tiny town on the outskirts of the Amazon, the Japanese fashion designer who is about to move from Tokyo to Amsterdam, and the middle-aged housewife from Madrid who wants to move to the UK and train to be an actress once her children have left home.
Variation comes as standard when you teach English online.
That variation was one of the hardest aspects to adjust to when I began. Especially on the platform I work on where students can either book a tutor in advance, or simply log-on when they like and then take their pick of the tutors online. If a student reserves a lesson with me, I have access to some information about them. It’s fairly limited - name; age; nationality; perhaps even their profession. It’s not much but it helps.
However, if I don’t have a reservation, and a student simply chooses me from the selection of other tutors available, I literally won’t know anything about the learner until I answer their call.
You very quickly become good at ‘breaking the ice’, and knowing what questions to ask at the beginning to elicit information that will ‘shape’ the session. I swiftly learnt that, despite the variety of learners, those questions tend to remain the same regardless of age, or nationality, and I became adept at dealing with those ‘cold calls’ (where I knew nothing about the student at the outset) pretty fast.
But, adjusting from one ‘head-space’ to another took me far longer.
Moving from an elderly, gregarious cleric in Saudi Arabia, to a shy ten-year old in Beijing, to a very excitable software developer in Kiev, to a monosyllabic tennis coach in Barcelona, all within two hours, was - not to put a too finer point on it - surreal in those early days. It’s now one of the reasons why I love the job - that idea that no two calls will be the same, that every call will give me a window into a world I am a complete stranger in.
However, for the first few months, continually finding yourself in a new world every thirty minutes was dizzying.
As you get more experienced, your ability to compartmentalize improves; once a session is done, you quickly consider what worked, and what didn’t, then it’s filed away in your mental filing cabinet, before the next lesson begins.
But that’s now.
When I started, it was hard to keep pace with where I was sometimes, and calls could - in my mind - blend into each other, which often led to some ridiculously ill-judged conversational gambits.
For example, whilst my Brazilian students are more than happy to talk about politics, and - like the British - have no problems with being critical of our political masters, I very quickly learned that it’s not wise to discuss such things with my students in China or Russia. Trust me - just don't go there.
Oh, yes - although finding yourself in a new world every half an hour is by turns bewildering and exhilarating, it’s also ripe with dangers, ones that you will invariably hurt you in those fledgling days.
But it’s not just the people themselves that differ so wildly, their individual reasons for learning the ‘global language’ also vary from person to person.
One of my younger students has told me - openly and directly - he dislikes English with a passion; he only studies it because his parents force him to. (I'm not entirely sure I fully believe him - for someone who's apparently being made to do something against his will, he's probably the most enthusiastic and happy student I've ever had.)
Another student is pretty ambivalent about the language; he's told me he neither enjoys or dislikes our sessions together, but - as he needs to pass an English aptitude test to join his country’s civil service - he simply sees it as a skill he must master in order to further his career. (Again, I'm not convinced of his professed lack of fervor. For someone so overtly uninterested in English, he does want to spend an unnatural amount of time talking about the poems of Ted Hughes, instead of actually practicing the actual exam he'll sit.)
Another one of my students has no reason to learn the language at all: he doesn’t need to attain a certain score in one of the myriad of ESOL tests; doesn’t use English in his professional life; and he rarely travels abroad - he does it because he simply loves English. Whereas some people play the piano or go to yoga classes, his downtime is spent studying the language of Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Dickens out of pure enjoyment.
Does a student’s reasons for studying English correlate to how difficult those lessons are to deliver? Academic research suggests it does - if a student’s ‘need’ and / or ‘pleasure’ for the language is strong, this should result in a learner that is committed, and - ultimately - more proficient. Accordingly, this should make my life easier. But it rarely does. It changes from day-to-day.
Sometimes the sessions with the students who are only there because of parental duress are often the easiest and most enjoyable; whilst the ones with the learners who love my own language more than I do (and I adore English, deeply), are demanding and practically joyless. However, the next day, that will all be reversed. And then reversed again the day after.
Why? Simply put, because all my students are people, not machines. Although their reasons for learning English might be fixed, the motivation they have regarding that reason fluctuates daily.
Sometimes the reason for this can be obvious.
For instance, at the turn of the year, it was only fair to expect the sessions with my Chinese students to be ... well, more ‘different’ than usual: Coronavirus had rendered most of them housebound for weeks, and - despite their confidence in how their government was managing the crisis - how could they also not be concerned, not just for their own safety, but for that of their loved ones as well? Given those hideous circumstances, it was understandable that normally verbose and committed students were reticent and lacking in drive.
However, at the other extreme, our sessions also gave my learners a chance to ‘leave’ (albeit only digitally) their homeland for a short time. It might seem strange to say, but, in addition to having some of the most emotionally-challenging lessons I’d ever had, I also had some of the silliest, daftest lessons at the height of the outbreak. A few students, ordinarily very sombre, just wanted ‘fun’, a release, a chance to think about something else. And, instead of ‘teaching’, I was very much ‘performing.’
I’m not particularly good at many things, but I can do ‘daft’ and ‘silly’ quite well. And the fact that I could give them that, as well as teaching them a bit of English along the way, was unquestionably a ‘win-win.’
But sometimes there's no international or even national situation in play: It can simply be dependent on the student’s mood, or what kind of day they’ve had, before I enter the picture. It’s taken me time, but I can now gauge that fairly accurately.
I might not specifically know that a learner has just had an awful day at work, or that they’ve recently got a bad grade from their university professor, or - minutes before logging on and chatting to me - they've had a blazing argument with a loved one, but I can tell when something isn’t right in their world. Especially with my ‘regulars.’ And judging their mood, and tailoring the session accordingly, is a skill that’s enabled me to keep control of lessons that would have otherwise aimlessly drifted off into the void of apathy and pointlessness.
Navigating a student’s mood or motivation on any given day is a challenge, but - again - that’s one of the reasons I love teaching English online. It’s an ever-changing world, with ever-changing rules: I’m certainly never bored.
But it’s not just the variation and unpredictability I thrive on.
As trite as it might sound, I love teaching English because I feel I’m making a difference. I really do.
Honestly, in my own small way, I do genuinely believe I’m doing something good.
Because we live in a divided world. Perhaps one that is even more divided than it’s ever been.
At least, it is outwardly so.
It’s a world where scientists can prove with alarming accuracy that our reliance on fossil fuels and our obsession with mass consumption is harming the climate of the world we live on. Yet, at the same time, the President of the one of the most powerful countries on the planet - and his devotees - believes the evidence for climate change is -at best - shaky.
It’s a world where half a country approves of that same President being impeached, whilst the other half - because of the selfsame impeachment - love him more than ever.
It’s a world where a teenage girl, who has spoken about the need to take environmental issues much, much more seriously, is by turns either vilified or deified.
It’s a world where governments can murder or jail journalists critical of their regimes, yet still have productive relationships with other - more supposedly democratic - countries because of the natural resources they have in plentiful supply. Those same people who exhort the importance of democracy and freedom seem to fall a bit quiet when money is involved.
It’s a world where a sportsman can earn an eye-watering fortune, yet the stadium in which he showcases his skills can be found in one of the poorest, most poverty-stricken regions in Europe.
And my own country? The schism between the ‘Remainers’ and the ‘Leavers’ is as great as its ever been…
I could go on and on…
But, every time I log on and converse with a non-native English speaker, I’m not only feeling as if I’m doing a bit - admittedly, only a very small bit - of bridging that divide, I’m also showing that those divisions are not as important as they appear.
For, the more I talk to people from different corners of the globe (metaphorically, that is: I suck at geography but I know the Earth doesn’t have literal corners), the more I see that all those divisions are fairly superficial. Despite our vast differences when it comes to religion, or age, or socioeconomic standings, or allegiance to a particular political party or sports team, my students and I have far more in common than separates us.
At heart, despite all the grand, ever-so important seeming schisms, what drives my students are the same things that drive me: when all is said and done, the things that matter most to them are their families, their friends, their hobbies, and having a job that will simultaneously pay the bills, satisfy them at least a little bit, and not put them in an early grave.
And, every time I teach, I get a chance to create a reality separate from the overly-divided we ordinarily exist in: A shared world in which we are far more alike than different. And certainly far more alike than those divisive labels we normally wear make us appear.
Relationship gurus say that communication is the key to any union. However, I would go further - communication is the key, full-stop. And, to communicate globally, that means using English.
Because, for now, English is the global language. That might change (but - given English’s ability to evolve and mutate, I wouldn’t bet against it still being the global language in one hundred years time. It's a resourceful blighter, and isn't going to give up top billing without a fight). And English also happens to be my language. And I love it for many, many reasons.
I love how it can be simple and stark one moment, yet the next impossibly oblique. I adore how - in order to evolve and remain current - it shamelessly pilfers words from other languages, yet also retains archaic idioms that most of us don't fully understand, but still happily pepper our conversations with. And I love how it enables me to pay the bills without having to leave the comfort of my own home.
But, most of all, I love it because it enables me to bridge those divides that separate us.
And, even if it’s only for a few hours every day, it allows me to ‘share’ what it's really like to be a human with another human. To show that it doesn’t matter whether we hail from Mecca or Rio, Cologne or Busan, Shanghai or Rome: we all have the same fears, and aspirations.
In a world that appears more divided than ever, I think anything that highlights our common humanity, that brings us together instead of pushing us apart, is something to be proud of.
And that’s the real joy of teaching English online.
If you’ve liked what you’ve read, please check out my other articles and stories on Vocal.
If you’ve really, really liked what you’ve read, please share with your friends on social media.