Train the Teacher: Crossing boundaries with online English

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Mainland parents’ quest for quality online learning is insatiable. With many companies entering the market, Hong Kong-based Train the Teacher sets its sights on becoming a major player in this high-speed industry. theDesk met the team to find out how they are developing a reputation for excellence in online English language teaching across mainland China.

Working across boundaries

If you’re in the English language teaching business in Hong Kong, the chances are you’ve heard of or trained with Train the Teacher. Established in the early 2000s, the company runs the Trinity certificate contracts for teacher training programme in the city.

They recently expanded to Shanghai where they are running their first Trinity course. From their private office at theDesk, the team have now launched their premium online language programme for children aged 5 to 12.

“It started through a partnership with two large Chinese companies,” explains Managing Director, Frank. “The partners realised that for online delivery they need teachers who are well trained, and with a high degree of ability regarding their presence and their pedagogy. Our reputation as a company means we’re able to bring that.”

A unique approach to quality

“We offer a unique approach,” Frank explains. “We build in a degree of flexibility for teachers which they don’t ordinarily get. We’re not dealing with teaching as a simply a lesson plan. Our teachers respond to each activity in an aware and personalised way. Our methodology makes sure the experience remains about the learner. We balance this with a systemised set of objectives because clear outcomes are important to parents.”

“As a company, we want to move beyond English as a language that only white folk use. In the real world, around 70% of the people they communicate with will be people who learned English as a second or foreign language.”

Train the Teacher’s course prepares children to take the Trinity GESE exams. Gone are the days when parents only cared about was lists of grammar and vocabulary. Now, effective communication is the name of the game. “We wrote six course books for the GESE exams. We also deliver training for Cambridge TESOL and the British Council. Our awareness of exam systems is strong. We think a lot about how learning needs to take place in these contexts,” Frank explains.

Learning by doing

The current project stems from hard experience. “At the beginning of 2017, a partner asked us to prepare an online training course. It was tough,” Frank says, “The partner pulled out shortly before we were due to start.”

This provided an opportunity to get things right. “We went through a major review. We defined what needed improving. On the back of that, a partner invited us to take part in this extensive collaboration. They’ve provided significant investment to enable us to cover the mainland. The partners believe that our capacity to deliver reliable teachers and pedagogy is what parents want.”

For children, learning a language online presents challenges. Frank believes the trick is to consider the learner’s context and experience. “The paradox is that while there is physical distance if you manage it well, the experience can be very intimate. What can be seen as distant and static becomes highly personal,” he says.

Working at theDesk

Train the Teacher chose theDesk to run their online language school business. “There is a richness to the experience. You don’t find that in traditional business centres,” Frank says.

“We know that the information we need as a company is here. There are excellent resources and people you can talk to about what you want to do, and how to do it. Co-working is a lot better than living in your own ecosystem. Our company has its own capacities. But what we gain from other people in the space is enormous.”

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The digital ecosystem

Working in the mainland means operating within the Great Firewall. “Unless you have a partner with a China-based platform, then you’re cooked,” Frank laughs. “You can start up but not with any reliability.

“We discovered that with a wonderful product we were involved in. Web access was impeded because of links to YouTube and Google. We realise we have to work completely within the Chinese digital ecosystem. We can’t import directly.”

“It’s easy to make money through quick and dirty delivery. But because it’s education for small children, it’s more valuable than a quick sale.”

Building a winning team

With hundreds of kids already enrolled, the current focus is developing team capacity. “As a team, our perspective is to focus strongly on our collective culture. We recognise that everyone has their own ship. Whatever we do, individuals need their particular needs and interests met. It’s what we believe as a company.”

“Right now, we’re looking for teachers with ambition. We need reliable teachers who spend time thinking about methodology. We’re interested in people who are invested in teaching as a career. And particularly, people who want to excel in the online learning space.”

Read more: Read more: The ‘co’ in co-working: theDesk’s inclusive communities

The recruitment process is rigorous. Necessarily so, since parents are trusting the company to provide high-quality, consistent learning opportunities. “We issue our staff a ‘qualified resume’,” Frank explains.

“We check references, academic qualifications and, if necessary, offer a language competency test. We even watch videos from prospective teachers. Importantly, we run criminal records checks and conduct a personality profile test. It’s our duty to do this.

Through this process, Frank ensures that he recruits the best educational practitioners, with the personal qualities that parents look for.

The road ahead

With a successful launch now in the bag, Online Training Manager Jillian explains how they plan to move to the next stage.

“We’re determined not to rush things, much to the consternation of our partners,” explains Online Training Manager Jillian. “Sales staff get in touch and say we have 200 kids who want to start next week and another 100 who want to start in a month. We hear them but what we say is that we need to establish a strong team regarding our culture, cohesion and overall approach.”

“In my experience, a strength of working in China is that culturally people are extraordinarily open to good ideas, which they can take and make their own.”

Jillian is aware of how some market players view the current online bonanza. “It’s easy to make money through quick and dirty delivery. But because it’s education for small children, it’s more valuable than a quick sale,” she reflects.

“We must make learning authentic, effective and with measurable outcomes. The online market is scorching at the moment. We want to produce an experience that is special,”  Jillian explains.

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