• Lance

So Emotional

I have a confession to make: I teach ESL classes online from my home.


I usually wear my pajamas, throw on a polo right before my first class, and am finished after a few hours of teaching. If you’re like me, you’re intrigued, or quite possibly already teaching ESL classes yourself. Let me give you some context.


I first discovered that online ESL teaching was a thing when I was looking for part time jobs that I could work should I decide to bite the bullet and start massage school back in February of this year. I was less than impressed by the part-time work that I was finding in Austin mainly due to the pay.


“This is 2019 for God’s sake,” I thought to myself, “Can’t I get paid a decent amount of money for little work?” So, like any good millennial, I took to searching the inter webs for just that.


Turns out that the online ESL industry has been growing for the past few years tied largely in part to tapping into middle class demand in China. Technology is allowing these parents to have access to English tutoring online at a rate they can afford, and there is very much a demand from Chinese parents to have their students tutored by native English speakers.


Naturally, I found the largest one that had the best name recognition - even my part time work needed to be impressive which makes me roll my eyes today - and looked into what the requirements were to be a teacher.


To my surprise, they were minimal:

  1. A four year degree, CHECK

  2. Resident of US or Canada, CHECK

  3. Working computer with camera and wifi access, CHECK thanks to my boyfriend since my personal computer takes about 10 minutes to turn on.

  4. Previous experience working with children, CHECK(ish)

I had (almost) all of those requirements! So I borrowed my boyfriend’s computer and applied.


Cut to today, where I’ve been teaching online for about 10 months now and have another confession to make: I really like it.


I like it so much so that I have continued to teach even after graduating from massage school and starting my massage practice. I enjoy working with the students first and foremost. The classes are one on one and the students can range from 4-13 years in age so the classes can really vary depending on who I am teaching for any given session.


All of the material is provided by the company so my job is really just walking through it with my students. I do this with songs, props, and colorful rewards systems. I use funny voices, and faces, and at best my classes look like an episode of Blue’s Clue’s or Dora the Explorer.


I have found that I really enjoy working with children. I love their enthusiasm and authentic reactions to things that happen during class. I have made some strong connections with students who have become regulars and have a few who have been taking classes with me since my first couple of weeks of teaching. I truly enjoy seeing their faces each week.

At the beginning of each class, I usually ask the student “How are you,” with hand gestures.

Typically, the students respond with “I am happy,” or “I am fine,” and I truly believe that they feel those feelings most of the time. I’d sure hope they are happy at the beginning of class at least!


That said, I am very aware of the fact that these are the “right” answers and that society, no matter the nationality, is already exerting pressure on them to answer correctly. Hell, I even perpetuate that pressure by making a smile with my fingers across my face during the “are” of “How are you?” when I ask the question.


Most students say the “right” answer even when it is obvious that they are not feeling that way, but a few don’t. I honestly didn’t know what to do the first couple of times I had an unhappy student at the beginning of class. Do I just press for an answer and not acknowledge the child’s feelings because it is easier? Will the language barrier even allow for anything else? Quite a pickle for this aspiring authenticity advocate let me tell you.


One of the first students who wouldn’t say that he was “happy” or “fine” at the beginning of class was named Steven. I had only started teaching Steven for about a week but felt like our sessions were going well considering previous teachers had left comments on his profile like “has trouble sitting still” and “couldn’t complete the lesson.” This particular morning (evening for Steven due to the time difference), I could tell something was off.


“Steven, how ARE you?” I asked pantomiming a smile across my face to dead silence. Steven just stared down into a bowl of noodles at a table somewhat cluttered with papers. Steven usually ate dinner during our classes because they would fall between 7-8pm China time and he most likely had some type of lesson after school in addition to his English tutoring. I had also noticed during our few classes that Steven’s apartment seemed a little more ‘lived in’ than other students and that Steven’s family might be on the lower end of middle class compared to other families who could afford this type service. His parents were young and seemed to be busy with the hustle of making a living and providing for their family. These observations along with the comments about not being able to focus or sit still really endeared me to both Steven and his family because I identified with them.


After asking the question again and seeing what I thought might be the start of a few tears, I did the unthinkable: I reached for a few of my props that covered other emotions.


Steven are you ‘sad?’ I asked while holding up a sad face and making a crying motion with my hands. Silence.


Steven, are you ‘angry?’ I asked and pretended to rip up the prop after showing it to him with hopes that I might get a laugh. Silence


Steven, are you ‘scared?’ I was doing my best Kevin from Home Alone by putting my hands to my face. He was still silent, but it was clear that tears were starting down his face.


I looked to see if Mom was around, but it didn’t seem like she was in the room. Rather than move on, I decided to lean into it:


“Steven - sometimes we feel ‘happy’ and ‘fine’ (as I gestured and held up the props), and sometimes we feel ‘sad’ (held up the prop and make a crying face). We can feel all these feelings.’ Pause.


“When we feel ‘sad’ (prop again) it is ok to cry. See.” At this point, I had taken a drop of water from my cup and placed it on my face to look like a tear drop, but honestly I was about to have some natural tears that would have worked just fine.


At this point, Steven looked up long enough for us to make eye contact when I said “We can still learn while we are sad and it is OK to cry during class.”


I’m not sure how much of my message had gotten through, but he seemed to understand. “Are you ready for class?” I asked as he straightened up a little.


“I am ready,” he said.

As you might imagine, there are a few cultural differences and nuances between the US and China that I have noticed over the months while teaching my students. Almost all of them seem to be inconsequential and are more interesting than anything, but the pressure to perform that is placed on the students sometimes feels unnecessary.


While the company I work for seems to want to establish healthy boundaries for students, there are still songs in the prepared materials that talk about after school lessons, tutoring, homework, and going to bed after the sun goes down and then waking up before the sun comes up to do it all over again (to the tune of the ants go marching!) that don’t really seem to be helping with that goal. That said, The entire online ESL industry depends on parents expecting a lot of their children after all.


Pressure from parents has gotten so strong that the Chinese Ministry of Education recently passed legislation that outlawed children taking online classes after 9pm China time in hopes that they would be able to get a full night’s rest in addition to mandating that all online ESL teachers have some type of international ESL certification.


In reality, I’m not sure what the Chinese Ministry of Education’s motivation for passing these laws were. All I knew was that I didn’t have an international ESL certification which meant that they were making it tougher to achieve my goal of getting paid for minimal work. The nerve that they would require that I be qualified!


Luckily the company I work for partnered with the TESOL International Association to offer an online certification that I could get for roughly 10 hours of preparation. I would only be able to use it to teach with my specific company but I would take that since 10 hours sounded lot better than the 120+ hour in person option so I got right on it.

I actually learned a lot in the online training modules, but was most taken by the concept of differentiating between language acquisition and language learning. Language acquisition is a subconscious process of learning a language during which children are unaware of grammatical rules while language learning is the result of direct instruction in the rules of language.


There was a video included in the module (see below if you’re interested) that discussed how babies and infants are the only ones truly equipped with the ability for language acquisition and that with time, our brains stop working that way. The speaker in the video noted that she likes to think of babies as “citizens of the world” because they can discriminate sounds from all cultures and languages no matter what country is being tested or what language is being used.


She then explained that after the age of one, we are all turn into culture bound listeners who can only hear and decipher languages that we are familiar with. Basically, our brains create a framework based on the ‘statistics’ that we take in as infants that we then use to decipher language going forward. It was fascinating and here is the video if you’re interested in watching the full thing:



This concept of babies being ‘citizens of the world’ made me think back to my class with Steven. There was a definite language barrier and I absolutely could not have understood what was going on if he would have tried to explain things to me in Chinese, but I was able to pick up on a few of those unspoken signals about how he was feeling. The slumped posture, downward turned head, and the teary eyes all quickly clued me in on something being wrong.


Maybe we are culture bound language learners, but could we also be ‘citizens of the world’ in terms of reading emotions? Is it possible that our brains create a universal framework for emotions that can be applied across cultures and nationalities? Alternatively, is there a chance we shut ourselves off from feelings and emotions from cultures and people who are not like us?

I recently watched a film called Jojo Rabbit. It’s a somewhat (and by somewhat I mean VERY) controversial movie because it is a satire about a 10 year old boy named Jojo growing up in Nazi Germany who finds out that his mother is hiding a Jewish girl in their attic. The controversy compounded because the film is presented from Jojo’s perspective and he is very much a fanatic nationalist as evidenced by his imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler.



Honestly, the movie was an immediate “nope” from me after seeing the first teaser trailer because of the goofy Hitler, but after seeing the full trailer (above) and reading a synopsis I decided to give it a shot. While I don’t know that Taika Waititi (the writer and director of the film who also happened to play Hitler since it was a part no other actor wanted to touch) completely stuck the landing with what he was trying to get across, I took away some strong messages from the film.


As someone who grew up in small town conservative and religious Texas, the experience of having your world turned upside down when you realize that all those strongly held black and white beliefs might not be correct is something I can relate to. I can clearly remember believing Satan himself would rise from hell and claim the US to be his own if John Kerry had won the ’04 election over Bush. I couldn’t vote yet, but I was a teenager at the time. Yes, I will admit now that sounds a little brainwashy, and NO you are not allowed to call it that - just ask my boyfriend. ;)


I’m not saying that being an evangelical or conservative is the same as being a Nazi. I am however making the point that unchecked belief systems that rely on creating an “us vs them” dynamic can really fuck up a child’s worldview. These belief systems can create a framework that lead us to only see and acknowledge the experiences of those who are on ‘our side’ and shut out anyone who doesn’t fit that description.


In the film, Jojo slowly starts to challenge his beliefs that he developed by growing up in Germany at that time largely because he started to think of the Jewish girl in his attic as a human and not a ‘thing.’ He starts to realize that many of his values that were either told to him directly or interpreted by his understanding of society might not be the best and more importantly, were harmful to others.


I have to say that I find that message compelling as someone who now inhabits both ends of many spectrums that are not supposed to intermix:

  • I’m a gay man who is also a person of faith

  • I’m progressive who is very much a product of my rural upbringing (aka I’m country, y’all)

  • I’m a Democracy loving American who also teaches ESL to sweet baby angels in Communist China

I strongly believe that fundamental shift in my worldview over the years from when I was young has saved my life in so many ways, and I also believe that experience is what helps me fend off our natural tendency to think of the world with an 'us vs them' mindset. It is what helped break the original framework for deciphering emotions that my mind was producing that would only register empathy and compassion for others who looked, acted and thought like me.

I realize that one part-time ESL teacher with minimal qualifications probably won’t be able to make Chinese parents go easier on their children, but after that first class with Steven, I have decided that feelings and emotions would be one area where I invested a bit more time.


I looked up old videos of Mr. Rogers to remind myself how he used to talk about emotions with children in hopes to emulate that type of teaching in my classes.


It is funny to me that we praise Mr. Rogers for talking to children about feelings, emotions and mental health ‘like they were adults,’ when it doesn’t seem like adults talk about those things too much at all. We quickly learn the ‘right’ answers for social interactions and put on our masks to get through our days. We make assumptions about broad groups of people and create frameworks in our minds that help us to determine how to behave and who to value.


This is why I know that I get just as much if not more out of watching these Mr. Rogers videos before my classes than my students do. Sure they give me ideas on how to speak about feelings and mental health in class, but they also serve as a reminder to create space for others in my life and radically love and acknowledge people with different backgrounds and worldviews from my own.