Phil Wade Interviews: Shanthi Cumaraswamy Streat

Phil Wade Interviews: Shanthi Cumaraswamy Streat

Shanthi Cumaraswamy Streat is an independent Business English Trainer with a background in finance. Through her business English with a Twist, she teaches professionals 1-1 offline through her home stay full immersion courses in the UK and online through her specialist online programs on business skills.

She has developed her online presence by delivering regular online content through her blog, English with a Twist, YouTube videos and live lessons through her Facebook Page. She can be contacted via her website: http://englishwithatwist.com/

You house and teach English learners in your home. Logistically, how does it work?

With my full immersion courses, I both host and teach my clients. They stay with my husband and me and join in all our meals – breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Breakfast is at 8am and we start work at 9am and finish either at 12 or 1pm depending on how many hours they’ve signed up for.

After lunch, the afternoon is free for them to explore the area, revise the morning lessons or as often is the case or catch up with office work.

We have a TV room where I encourage my clients who enjoy watching films and TV series to choose a DVD and watch it with English subtitles. My clients are all professionals and this time to simply sit and watch a film is a real luxury and they simply love it.

They join us in the early evening and have dinner with us and may stay and watch some TV with us.

How do your students progress compared to attending a group class in a school?

Well, for starters they have 1-1 coaching and that in itself, means they have my full attention on their particular needs. They have no option but to speak with me and after the formal lessons they can only engage in conversation with us in English.

This means they are truly immersing themselves in the language and culture. There’s no temptation to speak in their own language and being in a 1-1 class they have to respond to me. In terms of fluency practice, they make significant progress. Their listening skills also improve where they’re surrounded solely by English speakers.

You teach real business people, so how do you create lessons that fit that market?

I didn’t realise there were other kinds of business people other than real ones!

On a serious note, my clients are my guide when it comes to creating my lessons. I spend almost all the first day of their course going through a detailed needs analysis with them to establish exactly what their short term objectives are, what areas of business skills they need to focus on, their areas of weaknesses and establishing how they work and learn in their professional lives. The last point gives me plenty of information on how best to design their course.

I have tried carrying out the analysis before their arrival but it has never worked. My clients are busy people and very rarely have time to complete it before arriving and actually, I prefer to do it with them. That way I can look them in the eye and see what makes them tick and how to approach their learning with them.

Remember, my clients are with me on average 2 weeks. Therefore, the learning has to be focused so that they feel they’ve achieved something after a short period of time. I take a lot of time making sure they focus on short term objectives.

You worked in business for 20 years so you really know your stuff. What is your opinion on the idea some people have that anyone can teach BE and you don’t need a business degree or business experience?

I don’t have a strong opinion on this topic. I’ve met some excellent BE teachers who don’t have previous business experience who are very well respected in the ELT industry and by their clients.

I know that my clients appreciate my business experience because I can totally relate to them in terms of the pressures of the market, the fear of being made redundant, the life-changing decisions companies can make that can affect you as an employee. I know that because I’ve lived through them. I know how fickle the corporate world can be.

I know what it’s like to be up against a deadline that could be a deal-breaker, the fear that the year-end is approaching and you haven’t achieved your sales target, the cut-throat world of some businesses, where profit is everything to the exclusion of client relations, staff morale and so on.

Does that make me a better teacher than someone who hasn’t experienced that? I honestly don’t know.

I think that experience does help when it comes to empathy but if we’re talking about teaching ability, I’m not sure. With the exception of ESPs like Legal, Medical and perhaps Aviation English, I think what’s more important is your willingness to accept that you’re going to learn far more from your client and to be an excellent listener.

I think what’s more important is developing mentoring and coaching skills. More often than not, that’s what professional clients seek as well as language teaching.

This is something I am seriously thinking of doing.

You have a very professional and clear website that really, in my opinion, reflects who you are and what you do. How easy or hard was it to create a platform to present yourself, your services and to drive sales?

Extremely challenging and it still is. Things keep changing all the time. I’ve had to learn so much about online content marketing -for example, how to write good copy, how to write a cover email that will be opened and hopefully read, SEO, keywords, segmentation, how to create an excellent sales page that will drive your sales, how to use social media and the list goes on….

I am on this huge learning curve. In addition to reading and listening to ELT material, I’ve got subscriptions to many content marketing blogs and podcasts and I’ve invested in a number of marketing courses.

Great fun but boy, does my brain hurt sometimes!

You use the ‘English with a twist’ concept. For you, what is your ‘twist’ that makes your approach different?

Thank you for the compliment.

That’s a good question. When I first started my blog, I chose to add the ‘twist’, because I wanted to write about a variety of topics in a natural, conversational way. I didn’t want to be like many other language blogs where they seemed to be very prescriptive. I couldn’t find any blogs where learners could see the language being used naturally with its natural flow of vocabulary.

I also wanted to incorporate different topics to encourage learners to explore the English language through their hobbies. So I write about literature (my hobby), sports, fashion, going to the hairdresser’s, introducing quotes from masters of English Literature and so on.

I’ve been blessed with some generous readers, one of whom recently told me what she loved about my blog:

“I think you’re excellent at choosing the right, fresh, helpful vocabulary and presenting it in a way that sticks.”

When I started out with my blog, that’s what I’d hoped I’d achieve and the fact that my readers see that makes me grateful and humble.

I saw a few of your language videos. This is something a few other indie teachers/writers have done. Is it for promotion, sharing, teaching or something else?

You’re referring to my Business Idioms Videos. I would say they’re all the above.

In late 2015, my brother suggested that I should niche down and rebrand myself. He said that if I was hoping to gain new clients through my blog, keeping it as general as it was, was never going to get me enquiries, let alone new clients. As an independent teacher based in the UK, the only way I am going to get clients is by marketing myself online.

He recommended a revamp and advised me to specialise in Business English. Although that’s what I thought I was doing, apparently my message wasn’t clear enough.

So the website and blog were over-hauled, I created a free e-guide for my readers and joined an email marketing service to market my readers better and more importantly, to build my email list.

I joined the world of online marketing in a much more meaningful way. One of the things I was advised to do was venture into the world of videos. I’d always shied away from the medium because I felt it was too time-consuming and frankly, I didn’t enjoy video editing.

After much resistance, I started my 1-minute videos on business idioms to leverage on the success of my idioms themed posts. The short duration was to capture the Instagram audience and short videos also meant no editing on my part!

The videos are to teach my audience, but they’re also to market my business and grow my audience. Videos are powerful and I have had good feedback from both teachers and learners.

I have now started live lessons through Facebook, which once again are a great way to reach a wider audience and teach at the same time. I started a series called ‘Wednesdays with English with a Twist’. The lessons are 30 minutes long. Facebook is heavily promoting live streaming, which means the reach is much higher than any other content you post on your page or profile.

The live lessons are also a wonderful way for learners around the world to see you and engage with you. They get to see your personality, your teaching style and if they like what they see….who knows…they might just buy….

Oh no, did I just say the ‘buy’ word? I know there are some teachers out there who frown upon those teachers who actively promote their business through social media. I don’t get that…. Not all teachers work for institutions. How on earth are independent teachers meant to earn money and build their business if they don’t market themselves?

Ooops, apologies for the digression.

The next stage of my business is to move away from being totally dependent on my 1-1 coaching programs whether they’re delivered through my full-immersion courses or online.

I want my 1-1 coaching to be the upsell and that’s why I am now working hard on creating online packages and programs that are accessible to more people. Not everyone can come to the UK and not everyone can afford my 1-1 online programs, so I need to find an alternative for my subscribers who would like more but at a more affordable price.

Furthermore, there are only so many teaching hours in a day. There was a time when I taught 8-hour days 6 days a week but we all know that in the long run it would be unsustainable. I want to find a way to work smarter and at the same time access more people.

So the next phase is working on creating online programs around specific skills that my readers want to work on.

I’m sure that lots of people want to know your secrets, so I’d just like to ask how and why you ventured into running your own English provision enterprise when you could have just worked in a language school like many people do?

Having been made redundant 3 times in my previous career in finance and after my illness, I vowed to myself that I would be in control of my destiny. I didn’t want anyone to determine my future for me.

I did start out working with language schools to gain experience but as you probably know, most language schools in the UK offer zero-contract hours to freelance teachers. This means that you’re at the mercy of the market of supply and demand. From one week to another you don’t know whether you’re working and when you are, let’s face it, the pay is pretty poor especially if you are not given many teaching hours in a given week.

I have to say that having spent 20 years in finance, discovering the average income of a freelance teacher was quite a culture shock! But that’s for another interview.

I was encouraged by my clients to go it alone and after a few years, I did just that. I am free to set my own fees and explore different teaching opportunities. Of course, it’s scary running your own show as my income does fluctuate but it’s no different to what I would have had with a language school.

With the online world and the willingness to learn new teaching methods, I truly believe that my world is now my oyster. I’ve learned far more since going it alone than I would have done if I had worked in language schools.

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