Too Cool for School? The Pitfalls and Promise of Independent Online ESL Teaching

Too Cool for School? The Pitfalls and Promise of Independent Online ESL Teaching

Graham Dixon
by Graham Dixon 3,291 views |

For new online ESL teachers, there are basically two choices when it comes to deciding how you’ll work: you can join an online school and work for them, or you can market yourself and teach independently.

There are obvious pros and cons to each, but for new online teachers (especially those without an existing client base, or with little or no classroom teaching experience) working for a school will probably be best, even just for the first few months, while you gather experience, build materials and connections (see below), and learn some of the craft of teaching.

If you’re more experienced, and feel as though you might be ready to ‘go it alone’, consider these comparisons as an initial guide:

Aspect School Work Independent Work
Hourly wage $5-18/hr (approx) for new hires. May rise, but probably not by much. You set your own rate. $15-25 is typical, with $25--50 possible if you have a good reputation.
Management Regular emails and/or phone calls with your manager. Entirely your own. Big emphasis on personal organization.
Training Likely provided, but probably quite basic. Entirely up to you. Big emphasis on a willingness to develop your skills.
Students Given to you by the school. Chosen by you from those who contact you. Limited only by the size and scope of your marketing.
Emphasis Hopefully a balance between quality and quantity; every school is different. Entirely up to you, but quality must come first if you are to enhance your reputation.
Schedule Fixed by the school and may include unsociable hours. Fixed by you and your students.
Content It varies. Some schools have rigorous syllabi with lots of created content. Others will give you a basic outline, or even less. Decided and created by you, using your own methodology and a growing library of teaching materials. It’s a lot of work, but very rewarding.
Assessments Probably a ‘ladder’ system with rewards, stars, etc. If you believe they’re beneficial, you may design your own.
Growth Potential Some schools are very ambitious and will seek to fill your schedule. But the rate and style of that growth is out of your hands. Theoretically limitless, depending only on how much time and effort you’re prepared to invest.

3 Pitfalls and Promise of Independent Online ESL Teaching

  1. 1

    Making the Switch

    Most successful, independent, online ESL teachers began work at an online school, built up a large contact list of potential students, and then decided when the time was right to go it alone, based on their experience, confidence, contacts list and an honest appraisal of their situation. It’s rather useless to be reveling in the joys of independence while your client base shrinks to zero because you’ve needlessly divorced yourself from your primary source of students. Be a bold but not incautious judge of your own professional position; discuss it with family and friends, moot the idea in forums or on your blog, and gather some opinions from other teachers you trust.

  2. 2

    Finding the Right School

    Finding a school is easy, but figuring out the best fit for you might take time and research. Begin with some Internet searches (including websites like ESLbase, which hosts a long list of online schools) and condense the list until you’re looking at a large handful of places.

    It’s probably time to admit that, noble though their aims might be, many online ESL schools are not well run, and are seen by their managers as a money-making machine which just happens to work in the field of education, rather than as an education provider which tries to stay in profit. There are plenty of bricks-and-mortar schools who operate in the same way, viewing the learning process rather cynically, treating students like customers (which they are, but surely a different type from the client base of a clothes store or a fast food restaurant), and cutting both costs and corners in an endless search for a healthier bottom line.

    Learn about the schools before applying; read their websites and reviews of their services, search out blogs by current or former teachers (whom you may choose to contact for a direct comment on their experience with the school), and as the interview process progresses, use your judgment as to if this feels like a professional organization which will protect its students’ interests and properly support you. A good early hint is the nature of their communications; unsigned, hurried emails from non-corporate addresses (Hotmail, Yahoo) are a very poor sign, for instance. Throw a few buzz words into your emails (communicative methodology, controlled and free practice, student-centered learning) to see if the management picks up on them. Do your homework and ask plenty of questions; their willingness to help you find a good fit is itself a strong sign that the school is right for you.

  3. 3

    How to Command a High Rate for Your Teaching

    Not only are there plenty of other online teachers out there, many of them will work for $5/hr, because they teach a huge volume during day-long sessions or, more likely, they live in places where earning $30 a day enables a reasonable lifestyle. Most North American, Australasian and European teachers will need several times that figure, even if they’re teaching 30-40 hours a week (as most do). So, how can you persuade students to part with the right amount of money?

    1. Think about your target clients. Which demographic are your aiming to work with, and where in the world are they? Can they afford the kind of rates you need to have the lifestyle you want?

    2. Offer a free lesson. This will feel like good value for money (because it is!) and, provided you’re well planned and prepared, should confirm the student as one of your clients.

    3. Maintain good communications. Confirmation emails are good, and increase the chances that the student will show up (and therefore pay the full amount). Friendly, ‘catching-up’ emails are both good business practice, and a nice social touch, adding an element of friendship to a developing teacher-student relationship. It’s easy to take these too far, so keep things relatively formal.

    4. Stay organized. Consider using Google Calendar to stay organized. You might also think about offering lessons at unsociable hours, to capture the Asian evening and early-morning market; the latter, especially in Japan, is larger than you might think.

    5. Keep the Quality High. You’re in a customer service business, and the customer is never wrong. Keep them happy, keep them coming back, and maximize the chances that they’ll say nice things about you to their friends, on their Facebook page, and to their siblings and extended family.

If you’ve worked in traditional classroom environments throughout your career, switching to online teaching can be intimidating.

Working for a school helps in this transition, but a lot of teachers find they aren’t comfortable with the management or aims of such organizations, and yearn for more freedom to create their own syllabi, for example, or more scope to express themselves as professionals. Independent online teaching is a huge challenge, and you’ll need to be organized, stay focused, be ready to ask for help, and make use of all the resources at your disposal. The rewards of independence are difficult to understate, and many teachers find that the lifestyle, hard-won though it is, ends up being exactly what they’ve been looking for.

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