Being an Online Teacher

Embracing My Identity: The Independence and Dependence of Online Teaching


Identifying myself professionally sometimes mirrors my experience when I’m faced with forms asking for my ethnicity. Invariably I check off “other.” It seems to be the most convenient choice of words. There usually isn’t enough room to explain that I’m half Filipino, a quarter Polish, one-eighth Serbian, and one-eighth Hungarian. Why can’t I simply be “American”?

I also deliberate over the choice of labels when it comes to my professional life. I sometimes opt for the simplest title and call myself an English language teacher. Other times I’m more vague and claim to be an ESL specialist. I have to be careful not to be too general. For instance, if I tell people that I’m an independent contractor, they may begin to think I work in construction or home remodeling. When I’m given the chance to explain myself, I list my various roles: online teacher, materials writer, content creator, blogger, video maker, and consultant. It’s the length of a mid-week grocery list. Do you understand my dilemma when I must type up a business card?

Almost as interesting as my job title is my school affiliation. That customary line is missing on my business card, and it can’t be supplied (unless you allow me to use YouTube U., as one colleague suggested I do). The absence of a school name after my own may cause confusion for some. They might wonder where I work and who exactly I work with. Do I work in the isolation of my home? Do I miss not having direct contact with others? Just how professionally active can one be as an independent contractor?

The truth is two-fold. I am both limited to and liberated by the Internet. I sometimes miss traditional teaching, but mostly I’m grateful for the opportunity to explore outside classroom walls. In some ways I’ve never fully left the classroom. Particularly in my roles as video maker and blogger, I get to assist classroom teachers by providing materials and suggesting ideas. I’ve even been consulted to help develop lesson plans. Through correspondence, other teachers keep my sensitivity to classroom issues honed.

As for professional networking and support, I must say that I’ve never felt more a part of my field as I do at the present. Being an independent contractor allows me to choose who I collaborate with. This has led to an exciting mix of contacts. Different projects bring me into new circles, and through each one I grow in some way. I have more colleagues today than I ever did before I began working online. There’s no way I could have learned all that I have over the past few years without my interaction with other educators through e-mail, Skype calls, video conferences, and the like. I’m dependent on my colleagues for my independence.

“But what about the students?” you may question. “Don’t you miss that kind of interaction?” The same is true. In some ways I miss having a group physically in front of me, but in other ways I feel I am more effective through my online teaching and support. Students know that I’m accessible online, and they seek my help. I feel privileged to have gained their confidence, and just as I need my colleagues now more than ever, I also need my online following of ELLs, from the readers and viewers to the paying private students.  For without one to teach how could I call myself a teacher? And that’s what I am.