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How to Start Your Freelance ESL Teaching Career

Written by on July 20, 2016

Across the world, English is expanding while solidifying its unmovable status as the dominant language in most major areas: business, entertainment, academics, science, and so much more.

It is for this reason that there are approximately 1.5 billion learners of English around the world, and the number is set to grow.

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This means that there is a huge demand for English language instruction, especially with emerging markets around the world that have either had economic or political difficulties until the turn of the century.  These are seeing some of the highest demands for English teaching.

It is also a trend of the market that teachers teach based on yearly contracts with local private schools and universities, which means that there’s a healthy turnover.

So, with those two features—high demand and constant job openings—it’s no wonder that there are over 250,000 native English speakers working as ESL (English as a Second Language) teachers in more than 40,000 schools around the world.

With an increasing demand for English, it’s no surprise that there are over 250,000 native ESL teachers working in more than 40,000 schools worldwide.

But going from your native country in the USA, UK, South Africa, or the other English-speaking countries to another country comes with its own dangers, such as getting arrested in China or the many other horrors that can happen.

To avoid this, many are beginning freelance ESL teaching, which gives them freedom from sometimes strict and heartless ESL schools, higher earnings per student, and better opportunities for growth.

I taught English across Asia and Europe for more than 7 years, and today I’m going to show you how not only to get started in freelance teaching, but also how to make sure you succeed.

We’ll look at some of the positives and negatives of going solo in your ESL teaching career, how to start your freelancing in your chosen location, and how to find customers and succeed in your new field.

The Ups…

There are many advantages to this industry

Freelance ESL teaching and tutoring gives you a host of amazing advantages.

First of all, as you’re a freelancer, you’re your own boss! You’ll set your own schedules, set how much you want to work, and more importantly for teachers, who you want to work with—and no mean and demanding school directors to work for.

If you want to work only in the mornings and afternoons so you can have your evenings free—go for it. If you like to sleep in, schedule your work to start around 11am. If you want to have some free time in the middle of the day—which is most likely—just go for mornings and evenings.

Work a lot or work a little—it’s your choice.

Also, you’ll get nice holidays and vacations, so you don’t have to work through Christmas or Easter. Or, alternatively, you can work through those if you and your students want.

It’s all your choice.

Secondly, you can make quite a bit of money—comparatively.

Because you’re not working for some private school, all the money the student pays goes to you.

There are many advantages to becoming a freelance ESL teacher

Even better, you can set different rates for different students. If you find yourself getting a lot of students for a certain price, you can experiment and see how high you can go. You can work directly with companies or even other language schools as a private contractor.

The money, you have to understand, is comparatively high based on your location. If you compare it, for example, to US salaries, it will look small, but your local purchasing power will usually be quite nice.

Lastly, you can work from anywhere. Many freelance ESL teachers work from the comfort of their own homes, but you can work from a coffee shop (I sometimes ask the cashier to turn the music down a bit), a restaurant or café, the client’s office—anywhere. I’ve even had a few classes in parks when the weather was nice.

What this means is that you won’t suffer from the freelancer work-from-home antisocial syndrome. You can get out there, and seeing as your job is social, you won’t suffer from social isolation.

..and Downs

You should be aware of the disadvantages to this industry

On the other hand, there are some disadvantages.

First of all, if you don’t actively try to get your clients and do the managerial stuff, you won’t get money at all.

You’re a freelancer now, and with great autonomy comes great responsibility. You are the only one you can depend on to get your clients, set your rates, arrange meetings, expand, etc.

Sometimes this can be a bit overwhelming, especially in the beginning where you’ll wish you had a boss who’s set everything up for you.

Secondly, your income can be quite unstable, throughout. I’m not just talking about in the beginning, where you have clients in one month and then none for the next month. This happens.

I’m talking about the fact that, depending on your clients, you’ll have many forgotten, missed or cancelled classes. Many of my clients were business owners or upper-level management, and even though I charged them a high rate, they would have to cancel classes for this week, and then these next two weeks, and then, oh, they have vacation for the next 5 weeks.

There are also some disadvantages to becoming a freelance ESL teacher

What this means is, (1) you won’t get money for that, and (2), you can’t go out and get another student for that time because your first student will only be gone for a month or so.

This instability of income is unpredictable, and I’ve discovered that it’s best not to depend on any future income because none of it is truly guaranteed.

And lastly, you have no colleagues. You have many students, and you’ll be able to discuss with them about any and everything, that’s great, but you’re seeing 2 or 3 or 4 of them a day and there’s no constant communication with one or two people.

You’ll start to miss actual colleagues, the 9-to-5 forced friendships which actually ended in real friendships.

Be prepared for it.

How to start your freelancing

Okay, now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s look at what the most important and fundamental aspects are to your new venture.

Do your research

First of all, you’ll need to know the area you’re working in.

If you’re teaching freelance ESL, it most probably means you’re not a local, or you’ve lived in an English-speaking country for a while and are now returning to this location.

Either way, you’ll need to (re)orient yourself to this location.

First, you’ll need to understand some basic things about the country—their language, their political system, their famous landmarks, their famous leaders, etc. It’s also a good idea to understand what their major industries are in case you’ll be working the business ESL angle.

A large part about teaching and class discussions is looking at some problems and ways to solve them.

One good way to prepare is to get familiar with their most popular news site or web portal and peruse from time to time to understand what’s important there and what scandals are developing. There are always scandals, by the way.

Get legal

In addition to the necessity of getting your research done, you’ll need to check your legal status.

I know many teachers—myself included—who worked full-time for one company, but because their hours were in blocks either in the mornings or evenings, they used the other times to schedule one or two private classes.

These worked out fine, but they weren’t actually legal, no matter how you look at it. Nonetheless, you can get away with it when you’re employed fully in the host country.

But when you hope to switch totally to freelance teaching, you’ll need to see what your options are for legally working freelance. Otherwise, you may face deportation and fines if you are caught working illegally in that country.

If you work illegally in the country where you’re teaching ESL, you may face deportation and fines if you are caught.

For example, I was working in Lithuania, and for non-EU citizens (a group which bizarrely includes Americans, Chinese, Canadians and Georgians in the same category) it’s quite labor-intensive just to get a residence permit, much less a permit to work freelance.

However, working illegally could have gotten me barred not just from the country, but from the entire Europe as well.

On the other hand, if you’re doing the teach-from-Skype thing, you can be in your home country and work with non-native speakers at the same time. However, you’ll still need to declare your income and check other requirements.

In the US, if you have more than the IRS-defined minimum income, you’ll need to declare your income and pay tax on that.

Doing it now and legally means avoiding any legal problems in the future.

Get your funds ready

Make sure you are prepared with adequate starting funds

This is important too: decide for yourself how much you‘ll need to survive, do your research (as above), and decide how many students you need at minimum to reach that level.

Then do the same thing again for how much you’d like to make, have your research at hand, and decide how much teaching you’d need to do to get to that level of income.

Again, you can charge higher rates, but if you’re starting out, go closer to the middle.

However, don’t look at the minimum fees for an English teacher. If you’re a native teacher, you’ll get paid (sometimes much) more than a local teacher.

Next, understand that the first few weeks (or months if it’s near summer) will be a bit dry, so you need to have income saved for that.

Freelance teaching is an inexpensive craft (public transportation/gas for your car, printer and ink, stationery, etc.) so it will mostly be what you’ll need for food and rent.

Don’t be scared to ask close friends and family for a small loan until you are able to subsist. We all have to start somewhere.

Make a website

Depending on what location you’re in, and perhaps whether you’re teaching through Skype, it can be a good idea to have a website where potential students can get information quickly.

You’re not a photographer or visual artist, so you don’t need to have a spectacular website with intense and explosive graphics.

You just needs the basics so that the potential student can answer these questions:

  • What kind of teaching do you do?
  • Why are you more special than others?
  • Where are you located?
  • Are you willing to teach in offices or meet somewhere else?
  • What are your usual rates?
  • How can I contact you?

A good website answers the visitor’s questions before he answers it, or even before he realizes he needs that information. Here you just need basic information, the answers to the questions above, a picture, and some background information about you.

Of course, the fancier perhaps the better, but it doesn’t need to be particularly updated each three days.

Get qualified

I expect you’ll have at least one of these minimum requirements for qualifications: the bachelor’s degree.

If you’ve started working internationally, or have ever applied to some schools, you’ll know that an absolute minimum requirement to starting ESL teaching is to have graduated from a university in a native English country.

Most governments would not allow any teachers coming to their country for ESL education without this requirement.

It's important to have the right qualifications in order to get your students

There may be some locations that will allow you to teach without this qualification, but those are very rare and could be a huge scam.

The other qualification that is definitely worth investing in is some TEFL/TESL or CELTA certification. These help in two particular ways:

(1) it shows you as a knowledgeable teacher with the proper qualifications, which will set you heads above the other ESL teachers who may only have the bachelor’s degree

(2) it provides you with immensely useful and necessary training in how to deal with the development of kids, adults, and everything in-between, to create constructive lesson plans, and the all-important class management.

If you have the chance, you should definitely look into investing into those qualifications.

They will also allow you to charge more for your services, or alternatively open up more job opportunities if you ever decide to work for a company.

How to grow your business

Okay, now you’ve got your business in order, you need to actually go out there and start teaching, right?

Here we’ll look at not only how to get your first clients, but also how to expand your base so that you can have a more dependable salary.

Get your customers

As I mentioned before, the first few months will be dry, but there are things you can do to lessen that lull.

You can start the process of advertising yourself before you even get to the country. There are many online groups, forums, and social networking groups that are available for each country.

In many of them, there are students looking for teachers and you can begin to browse through them to find your first students.

Besides that, the most common method is to begin working with a company in that country and then start teaching students on the side.

Use these 4 simple ways to get your first ESL students

It may be a bit strange or awkward to begin marketing yourself as a freelance teacher, but you can do it—usually when the class is wrapping up—by mentioning that you also do private teaching with more flexible schedules.

Students, especially busy ones, are always eager to have more flexibility, and you will probably be able to offer a better rate than the school. You may not get these students, but they may know friends or family in need of a language teacher.

Another option, much less used and more old school, is to put up fliers and notifications in and around places where people would logically want or need English teaching. These are usually universities and high schools, but could also be international business areas (I.T. is a big one) or places of international interest (Starbucks, international markets, etc).

Set your rates—and adapt them

Now, to the more fun question: how much do you charge?

As I mentioned above, your rates depend on your location. You’re not going to be charging the same in San Jose or Harare as you are in Paris or Berlin. Their economies are different, their costs of living are different, and their need and English levels are different.

Therefore, really, seeing the comparable rates for your location are a part of your research.

Here’s an example of rates you should be charging in different parts of the world (low end for newbie, upper for experienced:

Country (City) Per hour Per hour (USD)
  China (Beijing)/Taiwan 150 – 300 RMB $23 – $45
  Japan 2500 –  4000 yen $25 – $40
  Thailand 400 – 1000 baht $11 – $28
  Germany (Berlin) €20 – €25 $22 – $27
  Lithuania (Vilnius) €10 – €15 $11 – $16
  Argentina (Buenos Aires) 180  – 225 pesos $12 – $15
  Kenya (Nairobi) 1000 – 2000 shillings $10 – $20

This is a good place to start, but you’ll find more accurate information in forums for your location.

What I want to go over here is that you’ll need to have different rates for different people, and then keep charging higher until you get to a certain sweet spot.

People who are employees, lower middle class or in other ways earn average salary should get your basic fee. Depending on the student, you can raise or lower your price. If, for example, you can arrange for more lessons per week, then it makes sense to charge a bit lower.

Business students, or those whose companies pay for lessons, are able to pay higher, so charge them higher.

If you are doing specialized courses, such as test prep or anything similar, you should charge higher fees.

There is no shame in this, it is only logical that different people will be able to pay different fees.

Don’t be scared to set different rates for different students, especially as the time goes on. The market is always changing, and your services may be worth more than you think.

I came to the point where I would state a fee and say that the price is negotiable. If students accepted this fee without hesitation, then I know that it was too low.  The next time I go a bit higher until I get that hesitation and possible negotiation.

Be prepared for that.

For example, if you have experience and are charging €20/hr in Berlin, keep going up by €1 increments for each new student until you get to, for example, €26/hr. Then negotiate down to €24 or €25. The student will feel as if he’s gotten something and you will be happier with the price as well.

That should be your new base price for your next student.

Remember, since you’re doing all this legally, you should keep accurate records for your yearly taxes. Although it’s fine to try to do it yourself–especially in the beginning when you have only a few students–you should really rely on outside help.

You can pay for accounting services, but another option is to use invoicing software. InvoiceBerry’s is particularly effective, flexible in pricing, and helps you track and manage your expenses and income.

Invoicing software such as InvoiceBerry will ease the invoicing and accounting procedures

Start networking and build your reputation

I have assumed this entire time that you are a good teacher. If you aren’t, then this guide won’t be able to help you very much.

If you are, then you’ll begin to benefit by the best marketing tool ever invented: word of mouth.

Word of mouth is the greatest tool for getting newer students. At some point, I was able to continue getting students without trying too much.

Once a year, around the time that high school students start preparing for SAT, TOEFL, IELTS, and GMAT, I get emails from new students referred to me by my old students.

Beyond that, you’ll have to start networking to get more students. This you can do by going to teacher conferences or British Council and other embassy events. This is good for meeting directors form language schools who may offer you one or a few classes.

But even better for direct access to your new potential students is to go to different meetups or group language exchanges. Here, people, usually locals, are hoping to practice with native English speakers and each other in their target language.

You would be in good company, as many of these speakers may want to be taught by you—if you are a personable, friendly, open person with great language skills.

These traits you develop over your career as an English teacher, but it’s best to be a positive, slightly talkative person who asks a lot of questions.

Your personality is your number 1 asset, so it’s best to use this to your advantage and let it market for you.

To sum up:

Becoming a freelance ESL teacher can be a lucrative and wonderful career, for the following reasons:

  • you are your own boss, so you decide everything about your career
  • you can make a good amount of money, relative to your location
  • you can work from anywhere and not be confined to your home

On the other hand, the following disadvantages should not be ignored:

  • you have all the responsibility for finding clients, advertising yourself, doing accounting, etc.
  • your income will be quite stable throughout your teaching career, a little bit more in the beginning and less when you really get into it, but unstable nonetheless
  • you’ll be missing the regular contact with everyday colleagues—even though you’re interacting with students every day, it can get a little lonely

Beyond that, there are some things you can do to ensure you succeed as a freelance language teacher. First of all, you’ll need the basics:

  • do your research—make sure you know the competition, the rates in the country, and some cultural/historical/political understandings
  • make sure you’re legal—whatever country you’re going to work in, you’ll need to declare your income and pay taxes
  • get your funds ready—check how much you need to live minimally or comfortably and how much you’ll have to work to get there. If you don’t have it, borrow shamelessly from friends and family
  • make a website that shows off your English skills, your face, you rates and other questions that potential students might have
  • get qualifications—although you most probably have a bachelor’s degree, you should consider getting a TEFL/TESL or CELTA certification

In order to grow your business, remember to:

  • get your customers through various means, such as advertising in advance, in-class advertising, or paper marketing
  • set competitive rates that reflect your experience—remember to do your research first, then find the level at which students are willing to pay for your services
  • build your reputation through being a good teacher, and then start going to events to network yourself

With these tips, your success as a freelance ESL teacher or tutor should be assured, and you can start making money and traveling around and discovering your new beautiful country!

Have we covered it all? Got any other tips and tricks for aspiring freelance ESL teachers? Let us know in the comments below!

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