Interview with Chris Bullsmith, Learning CoachPosted: September 12, 2013
Where are you from and where do you live?
I was born in a small city in the west coast of New Zealand. I grew up mostly in New Zealand and the UK. I have also lived in Asia for many years but I am currently living in Christchurch, New Zealand.
And how would you describe your role as a Coach?
My role is to help students achieve their goals. It can be by reminding them to do their lessons when I notice that they haven’t studied for a while, or by giving them tips and advice on how to organize their studies, or answering questions, helping them to understand some concepts from the lesson that they may be struggling with, etc.
And what is usually the kind of interaction that you have with the students?
It is a real mixture. We email all the students who haven’t yet achieved their course objectives once a week. Mainly because it is very easy to forget about online classes when you don’t have a very regular contact with the course. In a classroom, you have some peer pressure, people chasing you and classmates texting you, but with an online course it is easy to put it off because you are too busy with other things. So its really important to keep the course and their objectives fresh in their minds until a little study becomes part of their weekly or daily schedule.
Some people reply every week. Some people reply with very long emails and this is part of their weekly practice procedure, they tell me something about what they are studying, using the language that they have just learned which is really great. Other people don’t reply that much, sometimes because they are busier, or less confident, or they already write a lot of English emails at work and don’t feel the need for practice. But they will still contact me at some point during their course if they need help, or to ask for more details when I give some advice they think is particularly relevant or useful to them. Sometimes they write just to say “Thank you”. So, yes, I get a wide range of emails, from one line to six pages, some with photos …
Yes… if you email someone every week, for 6 months, you end up creating some sort of connection. I still remember some students really well and still receive emails from them years after their course has finished.
What do you normally talk about to the students?
Most of my emails are very clear, nothing complicated, because our students are at a range of levels and are often really busy. It is usually “Hello, how was your day? If you have any problems please feel free to contact me…” or “I have some suggestions for your study this week”. However, many of our students are in really interesting jobs — economists, lawyers, pharmacists, engineers, and so on. I have had some very interesting discussions where I end up learning something new as well, which is great … all while helping them find ways to talk about their jobs and interests.
How do you know that a student is struggling and how do you help them?
The system tells me which students I should email on that day. I can see who has logged in, how many hours they have studied in the last week and whether they are ahead or behind their course objective. So its generally quite easy to see who is struggling. And of course people are often happy to tell me if they are struggling: every week I say hello, chat a little about what I’m doing recently, and so when I say “…And if you have any problems, please contact me any time.”, they do!
Some people just need help with scheduling, a few suggestions of when to study, how to study, what to study, and so on. Often just being told something like “I know you are busy, but even in 10 minutes you can do something, try to make it a habit while you drink your morning coffee” helps. That little encouragement on a regular basis makes a difference.
Do you see the result of that?
Yes, definitely. The results are visible in study patterns and progress toward objectives. And I also get a lot of really nice feedback. People saying: “Thank you for your reminder, I had almost forgotten, I was so busy”, or “You really kept me on track”, or even sometimes “I feel really guilty when I don’t study because your emails are so friendly”… It’s not my intention to make them feel guilty, but if it works, I’ll take it! The job for me is to build a kind of relationship so that people feel comfortable asking me questions but also are willing to take my advice when I say “Look, you should study…”. It may be difficult sometimes to build that kind of relationship over email, but if you’re friendly, talk about your day to day life, send some photos, be genuine and sociable and really don’t think of it as work, people seem to sense it and respond.
Do you think they respond to you because they feel that it is honest? And they can see that it’s not just a machine sending automated emails?
That’s right, I think people know. I often receive emails from students only after the second week of their course, because when I send an email on their first week introducing myself and telling them that they can ask me any questions at any time, they do think I am a machine. Usually on the second week they see that the email has something personal or some current subject, for example: “Have you noticed the situation in Syria getting worse? Do you think USA should interfere or not?”. Then I suddenly get some emails saying “I am sorry I didn’t reply to your email last week, I thought you were a machine” [laugh].
That’s a great response because it gives me the chance to reply to their email to say “Well, I’m real, and I’m here to help!” and perhaps talk a little about their goals or hobbies etc. At least then they know I’m not a robot …
I think that a connection with someone who lives overseas is very valuable for students. For some people I am the only person who they can practice their English with, so it’s a very good opportunity for them to build the confidence that they need to communicate with other English speakers. For some others it is not as important, because maybe their boss is foreigner, their clients are English speakers and that’s exactly why they are studying anyway, so they already have someone to practice with.
What are the joys of coaching?
Seeing results is very satisfying. As I said, I get a quite a lot of emails from people saying “Thank you, I couldn’t have done it without you…” and so on.
One recent email said something like “Thank you so much. I have been a member of various English conversation schools and courses for 16 years but this is the first time I have actually finished a course”. Of course I can’t take all the credit, the student made the effort, it is an online course so it is easier in terms of schedule, our team here works really hard to make good content … but being part of that was nice.
Do you think it replaces the teacher-student relationship that you would normally have in a classroom?
The teacher-student relationship in part, yes, also the student-student relationship. It’s the social aspect of the class. For many students I don’t directly teach them much, but I am the person saying “Hey, how was your week?”, which makes them think “Oh yeah, I should do my homework”, which is usually the function that your classmates would have.
I think the main thing for a coach is to motivate the students. When students decide to take that course, it is a big investment of their time, and it can be hard, but we need to keep reminding them why they started the course in the first place and help them keep focused on their goals. So coaching is really all about motivation.