Freelance ELT Writer & Consultant
I have known Billie since 2017 and I’ve had the pleasure to work with her both inside and outside the school environment. I’m very grateful to Billie: she has encouraged and supported me in pursuing my ELT writing career. As we co-write our new book, I realise that there’s so much I can learn from Billie’s ideas and knowledge, drawn from her extensive teaching and writing experience. Creating engaging and effective learning/teaching materials, Billie is a writing superstar, but don’t take my word for it: check out her portfolio!
How would you summarise your EFL teaching experience?
I’ve been teaching around the world for the last 8 years, and have had experience teaching all age ranges and classes from 1:1 from my home in Valencia, Spain, to 20 classes of up to 70 students per week in China! So, I’d say it’s been varied and has allowed me to build confidence in not only myself but my teaching, in so many different locations and classroom situations. I think by being in so many different teaching situations, it helped me realise just how passionate I am about ELT and how this is something I want to develop in for many years to come! When I came back to the UK in 2017, I began teaching in Cambridge, so teaching English in England was another experience altogether! I eventually began doing my DELTA, started teacher training face to face and online, and doing some consulting/reporting work for one of the ‘big 5’ publishers. That has led me to today, where I now work full-time as a freelance writer and consultant.
What advice would you give to a newly qualified teacher wanting to teach in China?
Don’t think about it, just go! I think the thought of teaching abroad, particularly in such a different culture and environment such as China seems more daunting than it actually is. Of course, do your research about what type of teaching experience you want (China has top tier cities such as Beijing, Guangzhou and Shenzhen that pay a lot more and have a more ‘Western style of living’ than a second or third tier city, which might be more of a culture shock), and make sure you’ve done your homework on the company itself and found reviews from past teachers. There are a lot of phoney companies that make promises that never actually come to fruition, so just make sure everything is legitimate and you feel happy before you go. Also, take some souvenirs from your country to use in class or give out to local families as you’ll be sure to be invited to many, many houses for dinner!
Classroom management can sometimes be tricky even with small groups of students. How did you deal with very large classes?
In China, the classes were so large and I really didn’t have any training or wasn’t really made aware of this before I went. I worked for a Chinese agency, so they didn’t know just how different the Western class sizes were compared to China. So, essentially I went into it blind! After the first few sessions of standing on a ‘stage’ at the front of the class with a microphone, I realised the best way to tackle getting the attention of students who can just about see me over their mountains of books piled high (!!) is to just speak about topical things they’re interested in, and introduce some of my culture to then allow them to introduce me to theirs and tell me all about it in English. For example, I often played songs from British artists (Robbie Williams was making a comeback at the time...) so would show music videos that showed London for example, then the class would show me some of their pop songs and explain the lyrics to me in English. Often, we did classes on location, so we’d have a bbq in the playground or have badminton and basketball tournaments, and I’d have the students teach me the rules in English and give me tips from the sidelines. Practical English always worked better, as they use rote learning in China so get no actual opportunity to use their oral English. Adapting class games to suit the large class size is also key. Back to the board can get a bit...riotous, for example.
Nowadays you’re focusing on ELT content and materials writing. How did you get into it?
Ever since I started teaching, even during my CELTA, I always created my own materials. I always found that you could tailor the classes more, which allowed you to connect with your students in a different way, as the lessons are personalised and students can express themselves more. So, this continued on, and I had mountains upon mountains of material I didn’t really know what to do with. I made an online exam course website as a way to put some of the materials I’d written online. Soon after, a colleague (Monica) and I came up with an innovative way to teach phrasal verbs (something which most students struggle with!) and we got addicted to writing it! (Look out for it - soon to be published in September 2020!) I took a sick day (first ever!) from teaching in Cambridge, and spent the day writing with her, when I got an email from a contact at Pearson, and a writer had just dropped out of a project writing photocopiable activities and teacher’s notes. So, I did a sample and I got the job! I loved being creative, then seeing my work in actual print for the first time! Things picked up from there, and I began writing a lot of students and teachers materials for Pearson. I also started doing a lot of digital projects, such as writing for apps. This is something I really enjoy and have continued to do. From there, I began networking at conferences (IATEFL, MAWSIG IATEFL events, Freelancers AwayDay) and joining sites such as ELT publishing Professionals. I asked the founders for advice on how to get out there more, and they’ve honestly changed my life! I went from full-time teaching to having my own writing company in a year and writing for companies I’ve always dreamed of working for, such as National Geographic. It will always be strange to see your name in print though, whether it be on the front or inside the book!
Any advice for budding ELT writers?
Network as much as you can, and ask for advice or guidance! Find someone you look up to, and ask them for the honest truth (good and bad) about working as a freelance writer. I was lucky enough to consult on a project with one of my ELT idols early on, and it turned out that the book we consulted on together was for one of the big names in ELT and I couldn’t believe I was in the same room as the legend himself, and giving feedback to him! So I took the opportunity to learn as much from both of them as I could. Don’t be afraid to be new to writing – everyone has to start somewhere! Learn the publishing process as much as you can, and don’t be afraid to promote yourself (as horrible and scary as it might be!). Update your LinkedIn page, join networking groups, and position yourself in one or two lanes so you can be the ‘go-to’ in this area once you start completing projects for a publisher.
Your webinars have been a success. What’s your secret to an engaging webinar?
I think engaging the audience is key. Ask questions, respond to the audiences’ answers, and don’t be afraid to improvise. I remember my very first webinar I’d written a whole script and I could hear the nervousness in my voice – especially when I panicked when I went off script! But, my formula is to make the presentation and write thorough notes in advance, then come back to them nearer the time and rehearse your timings (more or less – usually it’s longer than you expect). Don’t rush when you speak, and respond to comments or questions by using people’s names if you can. When you’re presenting, try to hide the chat box unless you have to look at it or it’ll easily throw you off, especially if you have 1000 people in the room!