Derek Callan in conversation with Matt Firth
Setting up online, creating content and teaching under lockdown
ETAS Journal Editors’ Choice Volume 37, Number 2 (Spring/Summer 2020), pp.19-21
I chose this interview that our editor Matt Firth did with Derek Callan because it might very well interest many of you out there right now. Derek Callan is a teacher and coach who has a robust and successful online presence. In the interview he talks about how he achieved his online ESL status and about:
- setting up a professional website;
- coming up with a brand;
- putting out a newsletter;
- tailoring lessons to the needs of busy executives;
- getting training in teaching online;
- and making video conferencing fun and worthwhile.
If you’re looking for tips on how to be an effective online teacher – or if you’re considering switching entirely to teaching online – do grab the Spring/Summer 2020 issue of the ETAS Journal. You won’t regret it!
Derek Callan in conversation with Matt Firth
Setting up online, creating content and teaching under lockdown
Originally from Dublin, Derek has been living in Austria for over 20 years. He started his career as a coach in 2004 and, since then, has taught over 10,000 units at in-company level and completed his CELTA, Cert IBET and an MA in English Education. Derek has also worked as an external lecturer at the MCI (Management Center Innsbruck) since 2013. He started his YouTube channel in February 2019, and has uploaded more than 70 short lessons since. Derek plans to launch his first online course in autumn 2020.
In this fascinating insight into the transition from jobbing EFL teacher to professional online coach, Derek Callan shares his thoughts on creating high-quality online content and how to handle the move from face-to-face teaching to teaching online.
Matt Firth: Derek, I wanted my first interview to be with you as I’m certain many in EFL – both new to the profession and those considering going it alone – will be inspired by what you’ve achieved over the past few years. Let’s start with a little about yourself.
Derek Callan: Well, I’m originally from Dublin and have been living in Austria for over 20 years. I started my EFL career in 2004 after receiving a week of intensive training in the Berlitz method. That was the only training I had in EFL before being thrown in at the deep end and giving a lot of in-company work teaching Business English. I took my CELTA in 2007, followed by a Masters in English Education the Cert IBET. And in 2012 I decided to stop working for language schools and to try to acquire my own clients. I launched my first website. That got my name out there and brought me enough clients to continue independently.
Matt Firth: Your first website?
Derek Callan: That’s right. Last year, in early spring, I launched my second website. The idea behind this one is to attract a wider, more international audience and to make people aware of my YouTube channel. So that’s what I’m focusing on at the moment.
Matt Firth: What are the differences between the two? I think this would be of interest to our readers now that so many of us have been forced to become more tech-savvy.
Derek Callan: The main idea for the first website was to promote my services here in Tyrol. The aim was to attract customers and to present myself.
Matt Firth: To establish yourself locally?
Derek Callan: Exactly. And to that end, it’s in both English and German. And it’s worked very well. I still continue to get regular inquiries through that website, which is great. The second website is an international website. So it’s only in English. And at the moment there’s not a lot to it. But the plan is that over the next few years I’ll be adding a range of both self-study courses and courses tailor-made to smaller groups of people who are dotted all around the world. At the moment, the website is just basically about Derek. You can see links to my YouTube, but in the future, hopefully, it will become a bigger website where people can go and actually buy courses or contact me about taking part in actual small group courses online.
Matt Firth: Freelancers are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of having a website. But there are a lot of freelancer websites out there that quite frankly do not give a good impression of the teacher in question. Your website, derekcallan.com, looks extremely professional. Did you have any help with the design?
Derek Callan: Yes. I decided to hire someone to help me with the design and the branding. I wanted it to look extremely professional with a good corporate design. Because I want to stand out, I decided it was definitely worth hiring a professional. I’m looking at it as a long term investment. And I’ve been able to use the branding across all of my social media, Facebook, YouTube, and so on.
Matt Firth: And so how did you come up with your particular brand?
Derek Callan: Well, that’s really interesting. I worked with a branding expert. He first established who the people were that I wanted to attract – my future customers. Then we put together a mission statement, again thinking about the target group. This all influences the way you describe yourself. Then you think about the colors and the logo. It was a really interesting process. And I was lucky enough to have this guy who was really, really great.
Matt Firth: you make very good use of white space. There’s not too much text. And this is something I always train my clients to consider when drafting memoranda of law and other legal texts. And you have a snappy phrase at the bottom in bold: Short lessons for busy people. Can you tell us something about that?
Derek Callan: Absolutely. That’s a great question. I’ve noticed over the years that a lot of the people that I teach face to face, especially people from senior management level and then up to executive level, seem to have less and less time. And I got inquiries from a lot of people wanting one to one classes. And I can only be in one place at one time. So I realized that there are lots of very, very busy people out there who don’t have a lot of time to invest in English, but who really do need that investment. They need to learn new vocabulary. They need to become more confident. What these people need are short lessons. No matter how busy, an executive should still be able to invest 3 x 20 minutes a week in actually trying to learn and improve their English. So that’s where the phrase originated. Short lessons for busy people.
Matt Firth: I find your newsletter extremely useful and recommend it to both teaching colleagues and students. How did that come about?
Derek Callan: Well, I decided that if I wanted to sell courses online I needed to have an email list. And a good way to build one is to produce a newsletter that you’re sending out regularly and that people are enjoying. Content is the key. I put up a new YouTube lesson every week, but I decided rather than to send out a weekly newsletter, which I think could get a bit annoying, to go twice monthly. And that’s been great. I’ve been consistent – I haven’t missed one newsletter. And I have an open rate of about 50 percent, which I’m pleased with. So each newsletter contains links to two new YouTube lessons, there’s a short section with vocabulary that I think would be useful to people. Then there’s a words from the news section and an everyday English phrase. There’s also a five-minute audio recording, kind of like a podcast. And that’s actually something that people open a lot. It does take time – about four hours every couple of weeks on top of the time it takes to create the YouTube content. The idea is to remind people that I’m out there and to try and provide them with something that I hope will genuinely be helpful and is easy to consume. People are very busy. 10 to 15 minutes of free content every two weeks is about right. I don’t want to bombard people.
Matt Firth: And you also use a fair amount of social media?
Derek Callan: I started a Twitter account with the new named branding. But I’ve found Twitter for me to be very hard to work with compared to platform like Facebook, Instagram, and obviously YouTube. Those three started to gain traction very early on. My advice would be to put more effort into one or two rather than to try and be everywhere. And it’s also a time factor. Instagram has been especially good. It’s where I have the most followers – almost 8000 – and the most engagement.
Matt Firth: How do you see the website developing over the next few years?
Derek Callan: I’m testing the waters with my first self-study course, which should be ready by the end of the year. And I hope that over the next five years I’ll be able to generate an income in three main ways. First, I hope to have a range of very high value self-study courses that are selling well. Teaching small groups online is another option I’d like to explore. The third idea is to have a paid membership option for my website with exclusive content added on a monthly basis. I hope to generate this additional stream of income from my online content. I’ve realized that in order to have a decent income as a self-employed teacher you need to teach a silly amount of hours. I’ve done this for long enough and it’s just not sustainable. And as far as those three sources of income are concerned, I think it’ll be a question of just getting the balance right. It’ll be interesting to see which of those will be the most successful. I’d like the website to become one of the go-to places for people who really need to improve their Business English. I should be up there at the top of the searches when it comes to online Business English. That’s what I would love to achieve.
Matt Firth: So there are a lot of teachers out there and there’s lots of content available on the web. What would you say your USP is? How do you stand out?
Derek Callan: With the amount of experience of in-company training I have, I know what people need. And my focus is on providing authentic language. I had some experience of the running of a business before moving into EFL, and this has helped a great deal. I think one of the main things is my people skills. I get on very well with people.
Matt Firth: You’re a very likeable bloke.
Derek Callan: Thanks! And clients say the same thing. I think they appreciate that fact. There’s a major focus on speaking with many of them. It’s a question of figuring out exactly what they need and trying to give them that. I’ve had several clients for over seven or eight years, and they just keep coming back to me because they like me and say they get a lot out of my communicative style of teaching. And they say this in the comments they leave online.
Matt Firth: Some of your students will have taken courses at university but still feel they need more help. Why is this?
Derek Callan: I don’t think there’s enough focus on functional, practical English skills in many of these courses. It’s not just about writing business reports, although many courses don’t even include those. There’s often not enough of the general everyday communication that they’ll need when they go into the world of work. There are some great coursebooks out there. These can be good. They often have great activities and a lot of good, useful vocabulary. But there’s not enough focus on real, authentic role playing and using the language that learners will encounter in the workplace.
Matt Firth: I’d absolutely agree with that. But I think this is changing. I gave a talk on ESP to Swiss university teachers earlier this year, and one participant made the point that making the move from a broadly academic approach to focusing on employability skills is – for many tertiary level English teachers – a matter of survival. If we don’t teach students those skills, they’ll stop coming to class and go elsewhere. I think that teachers are starting to realize this, and coursebook writers are now addressing this in the new generation of coursebooks.
Derek Callan: I’d agree. But the kind of model I’ve established is much more flexible. I can tailor my teaching and materials to the particular client, or group of clients. And people appreciate this. People appreciate content that has been specifically designed for their work context. That’s certainly true of my clients here in Tyrol.
Matt Firth: I think that all of these considerations will be very useful for other teachers wanting to establish themselves in ESP. We’ve already spoken about the importance of a well-designed, attractive website. Are there any other online tools teachers should be aware of?
Derek Callan: The first place to go is Russell Stannard’s website: https://www.teachertrainingvideos.com. He has a great set of teacher training videos where teachers can learn an awful lot about working with technology. One thing in particular that I have taken from Russell is using screen capture and screen recording software for giving feedback on written work. I’ve also taken several online training courses with The Consultants–E (https://www.theconsultants-e.com).
Matt Firth: Yes. I’ve taken a few with them. The first was on Moodle. I’m taking their course in e-moderation in September. And, of course, we took the Cert. IBET together.
Derek Callan: That’s right. I’d do the same course again tomorrow just to refresh things. It was brilliant. They created a great community atmosphere for the people on the course, and I gained lots of practical tips from both the trainers and the participants. How did you find it?
Matt Firth: Before taking the online Cert. IBET I was a bit dubious as to how successful a fully online course could be. And I think that before lockdown many teachers felt the same way about their own teaching. But now we’ve all seen that it’s not only possible to teach this way, in many instances it’s our only option. This lack of choice isn’t ideal, but it’s where we are. And I think that most of us have adapted well. Back in February I took a couple of very useful short courses on using Zoom run by Sabrina Lucidi (https://teachingintheclouds.teachable.com/). There were about 35 of us either already in lockdown, about to enter it, or otherwise likely to have their classes moved online. A key message that came across was that ‘good enough’ is good enough – certainly at the start. The students know that we’re not experts in ICT, but I think they appreciate that we’re all trying to do the best we can. My aim for the first Zoom session I ran was to be able to address the whole class, check that everyone’s tech was working, and to use breakout rooms and chat successfully. There were a couple of instances when I couldn’t find the right button or menu item. I just asked the students to help out, and each time they were able to get things back on track. But I suppose that does take a certain amount of confidence.
Derek Callan: That’s right. And it’s one thing having the time to plan an online course, quite another finding yourself suddenly having to teach online. There are a few key things to consider. You need to think very carefully about the content, how you set the course up, and how to make it a very safe and comfortable place for the participants. You also need to have a good variety of activities to avoid things getting repetitive. But at the same time, I’d be cautious about using too many different tools. Find a good selection of tools that you’re comfortable using and that are going to be engaging to the learners.
Matt Firth: Which tools do you tend to use the most?
Derek Callan: Apart from just the actual the video conferencing tools like Skype and Zoom, I find Google Docs very helpful. Both you and the students can use it as a kind of interactive whiteboard, and I find it works better than the one built into Zoom. I use it for noting down things that come up during an online lesson which I think are important and would like to share with the learners. It’s also a great way for students to be able to share ideas and to collaborate together on their various tasks.
Matt Firth: Since the death of Wikispaces I’ve used Google Docs a lot for collaborative writing.
Derek Callan: I don’t do that with the people I teach online as there’s not much of a focus on writing – it’s more about conversation and vocabulary development. But I find Google Docs is really good because it’s a place where the learner can go afterwards and find everything in one document. It’s a great place just to store vocabulary and other information for the learners. So that’s really helpful. Another thing that I’ve started using recently is Kahoot! It’s a great way to add a bit of fun, and the platform is very user-friendly. The Apple Clips app is very useful for creating videos. It also transcribes what you say, which is very handy. I also use Quizlet a lot. There are so many tools out there, but there’s really no need to use them all. It’s really a question of what works best for you.
Matt Firth: Derek, I think that’s a good place to close. Thanks so much for taking the time to share your experiences of developing an online teaching business and your thoughts teaching under lockdown. I’m sure that many of us will feel both reassured and inspired by what you’ve told us.