English is the lingua Franca of the world. Businesses and organizations around the world need to be able to communicate with each other to function properly and show profits. The world revolves around money and money in turn revolves around successful business communication. That common business language is English and that is the reason why the TEFL industry is one of the biggest industries in the world. Over many years the face-to-face mode of instruction was the most personal and practical mode, but with the advent of the internet, online teaching has grown very fast, particularly over the last 5 years where hundreds of online schools have shot up like mushrooms.
In 2020, we saw physical education institutes having to close their doors due to COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, a further incentive for all the online schools to increase their student numbers. Now more than ever, online education is the way forward, until things return back to normal. But even when things go back to normal the whole education landscape might have been altered irreparably and more and more the online mode of education will replace the physical one. More and more teachers are discovering the benefits of online education, and it might be difficult to sway them to return to the old system, once they have discovered the benefits of online education, especially with respect to the bad salaries teachers get paid in the public school system.
As a freelance online English (EFL) teacher, I have learned some things over the last 2 years and 8 months I would like to share with you. For most who are doing this as a hobby or extra income, this article might not be of interest, but for those who have to earn a living from online teaching, it might help. In this article I want to address two issues: Firstly, the different modes or types of online teaching, and secondly, the interpersonal skills needed to become one, stay one, and to become successful by growing your Teacherpreneural business.
Modes of online
I have been teaching English online for the past 2 years and 8 months and have done more than 2000 lessons with adult students across the world. I started out with Education First for a meager 6 USD per hour more than 2 years ago, then teaching for a Chinese company called Hujiang where I technically got 7.5 USD per hour (They said 15 USD per hour, but you get 7.5 USD per 25 minutes lesson and it takes you another half-hour to complete the grading) and lastly for a Russian company named Skyeng where I have nearly tripled that original hourly rate to 17 USD per hour.
There are basically 3 types of online teaching. Firstly, you can work as a freelancer for one or more schools on a contractual basis. In this case, they provide everything, including the platform, training on how to use that platform and what methodology they prefer, lesson materials, scheduling, marketing, customer service, tech support, and financial services. As a teacher all you need to do is prep for the lesson, which is in most cases very little time, pitch up for the lesson on time, teach the student according to school preferred methodologies, and in return get an agreed-upon hourly rate. There are hundreds of these online schools that a teacher can work for.
Secondly, there is an option to register and create a profile, as a freelance teacher, on a semi-independent basis at an online marketplace/platform such as Verbal planet, i-talki, and a very new one I recently joined called anytutor37. Here the online market place provides you with an opportunity to create a profile and then function within that marketplace as your own business entity to teach students. The company provides you with a profile, scheduling capacity, and tech support, but does not provide any lesson materials, nor marketing. I will dig a little deeper into this when I share my teaching experience with i-talki. Not to be given lesson materials or resources, is however not the end of the world, as there are companies, such as Off2class that one can pay to provide you with access to fully professionally developed ESL materials for all levels (Beginner to Advanced) and all areas of ESL (General English, Business English, IELTS & TOEFL Exam prep, Listening, Reading, Speaking activities, Grammar, and Functional language). For minimal fees, one does not necessarily need to re-invent the wheel, especially as time in our industry, as in many others, is the most precious commodity. One gets paid for a teaching hour and not a prep hour, so obviously, prep time needs to be kept to the minimum.
Thirdly, you may opt to go fully independent, teaching separate from any online school or online market platform where you have to compete with other teachers for either an hourly rate or a limited amount of students. The internet is your oyster, you can market where you want to teach the students you prefer, and ask the rate you wish, without any limitations. Only it is not as easy as it seems or sounds….
1. Working as a freelancer for an online ESL school
If you work for an online school they will take about 50% plus a chunk of what you can earn. At my current school students pay more than 30 USD per hour for a native speaking English teacher. I only get a little over 50% of that. In all fairness, the school has to pay for marketing, managers, tech support….and ultimately their stockholders and the owner would also like to see a fair amount of that. Thus, if you do work as a freelance online English teacher for an online school your income potential is rather limited. That is if you prefer to teach adults only. For some reason or the other, which I struggle to grasp, your income potential teaching ESL/English online for a school that caters to children, is somewhat higher, and many native teachers teaching children between 5 and 16 earn anything between 18 and 35 USD per hour, depending on the school.
2. Having a profile as a freelancer on an online ESL market place or platform
In this mode of teaching online, a freelance teacher is able to register an online profile on an online market places such as Verbalplanet, i-talki, or anytutor37 (There are several others, and a Google search will reveal them). In this scenario, the teacher creates an online profile with his biographical info, his profile picture, his teaching methodology and an introduction video that can set him or her apart from other teachers. He or she then opens the time slots that he or she is available and students can then search for different teachers on the platform and if he or she would like to book a lesson, he or she just follows the steps. Here the teacher can determine his own hourly rate but must keep in mind that he competes with thousands of other teachers worldwide, so he needs to ask an hourly rate that is affordable and that will make students want to book with him.
In the beginning especially, the teacher should ask low rates to build up a reputation. The more lessons the teacher conducts the higher he or she may move up in the search results. At the start it is thus important to accrue as many completed lessons that may be credited to your account, thus forcing one to lower your hourly rates and also offering trial lessons for 1-4USD per 30 mins trial lesson, just to get your number of completed lessons up as quickly as possible. The faster the teacher completes lessons the higher his ranking in search results.
Those who want to enter the market with very high lesson rates, even though they might deserve those rates, fail to climb rankings in search results and may get stuck there, failing to properly off the ground. It is thus a business the teacher has to build slowly from the ground, initially charging cheaper competitive rates, but later on, once well-established and with a proper sustainable and reliable client base, may charge the rates and fees he or she wishes.
The teacher literally has his own little one-man-band teaching business within the open market place and works semi-independently for himself. The term being used lately is that of a Teacherpreneur. However, there are costs involved. These open market places, such as i-talki, will take 15% of his earnings, and there are other commissions and fees one has to pay, such as PayPal that takes a commission when the teacher wants to withdraw his earnings via PayPal into his bank account.
The teacher may also want to make use of an online platform that has ready-made, professionally developed lesson materials, such as Off2Class and depending on the number of students he or she has, will need to pay a monthly subscription fee as an additional cost. These costs add up and may diminish earnings somewhat, which will compel teachers that consider this form of online teaching to increase their rates as to make provision for these overheads, which may, in turn, price them out of the market competitively. This type of online teaching thus requires some patience and humility on the part of a teacher that wants to function semi-independently.
3. Fully independent: No platforms or commissions
This sounds great, doesn’t it? You don’t need to work for a company neither do you have to share some of your earnings with an online open marketplace. Despite the obvious benefits such as independence, unlimited fees, and rates and determining one’s own rules, terms and conditions; what are the disadvantages or rather the challenges of setting up this own teaching business where the teacher is the CEO, the teacher, the bookkeeper, the admin assistant, and the chief cook and bottle washer? Well, the question itself says everything: You have to be and do everything. You will need some IT skills such as creating and managing your own website and Social Media presence, as well as either having or quickly learning how to effectively market yourself online via Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc. Furthermore, you need to set up an e-commerce store or online store, using a service such as Ecwid, and fully integrate that into your website, because you want students to pay you for your services. That means setting up PayPal or Payoneer and linking that with your bank account so that you can withdraw your earnings into your bank account. You won’t have a tech support team or IT developer expert behind you to sort our issues, you will need to do it yourself unless you have funds to afford services like that. There is no online school or open market place to organize your scheduling on your behalf or help you with tech issues, you and only you will need to communicate with the student and do the scheduling. I think you get the picture, if something needs to be done, you’re it, and the buck stops with you. Then again, if you do have the courage and the skills and resourcefulness, and mostly the drive to set it up and wait a bit, hourly rates for teachers like these can be anything between 30 and 100 USD, and a 10 000 USD monthly income, usually reserved for lawyers, doctors, pilots, and engineers, may be yours for the taking.
Not to mention all the benefits of working remotely from the comfort of your own home. No traffic jams, no ‘office-wear’ expenses, spending your off-hours with your family, essentially not being overworked and underpaid by a governmental education department (This applies throughout the world, but more so in my native South Africa) and not having to face the “crocodile” every day, with the added Coronavirus epidemic, that brings most school teachers to their knees and to tears everyday….just so that they can make more debt to pay off their other debt. Online teaching has increased in its popularity now more than ever, because apart from some disadvantages that are few and insignificant, it allows for teachers to not only be appreciated in words (Which in some countries does not even apply), but to be fairly and financially rewarded, so that they too can taste the good things in life.
The key here however is that it takes time to get skilled in all the various aspects of setting it up; it takes courage, patience, and perseverance. However, It can be done! In the opinion of the writer and from his own personal experience, I think it prudent, responsible and manageable to start off by working for an online school that pays you a fixed hourly rate, until you come to grips with the industry, the methodologies, the trends, until you gain experience on how to teach online. I was a face-to-face teacher for 17 years and it is a different way of doing things. You no longer stand in front of a whiteboard or blackboard with students in chairs in front of you, you are now in front of a screen in a digital classroom and you need to change your teaching style somewhat, you need to learn to use the tools and digital whiteboard to teach digitally.
You gain experience only by sitting in your “online” chair and learning to use all the tools effectively, by making mistakes, lots of mistakes and laughing at yourself, apologizing to your students a lot for many things that are sometimes beyond your control…..there are so many variables, so many things that can go wrong, like tech issues, connection issues, if you live in South Africa, power failures and load-shedding, students with personal issues, etc. For more than one day, especially during the worldwide lockdown period, I had to counsel my students, who were panicking….some students have lost their jobs, others were home-bound and getting depressed. Not only are you responsible for their English language learning, you sometimes need to listen, to encourage, be Dr. Phil on the air for them. Students are not machines or case numbers, they are real people with real needs, who sometimes just wanna chat about life because they are afraid and uncertain as to what the future may bring. In these surreal situations, your framework of referencing needs to extend beyond just teaching English, it must include the emotional and mental welfare of your student. That means, you yourself must have acquired these skills from the “University of life”.
If you are willing to go semi-independent or fully independent, your income potential becomes unlimited (There are teachers out there working for themselves earning anything between 30-100 USD per hour). At the moment I do teach semi-independently with i-talki where teachers can set their own rates, but the downfall is that you have to do your own marketing to attract students. I-talki merely provides teachers with an online market platform within which they can operate as their own online teaching business entity. Teachers may ask what they like, but in order to be competitive and attract students, you can’t price yourself out of the market. You have to slowly build your online teaching business over time, logging as many lessons as you can for cheaper competitive prices until you have conducted enough lessons to show up in the search results. It seems only those with the most lessons show up on the first page of the search results when potential students are looking for language teachers. It is thus a catch-22 situation. You don’t want to undersell your value, but it seems according to research that students only trust and book teachers who have conducted many lessons, and they won’t fall over their feet to book teachers with few or fewer lessons than those who have conducted hundreds or even thousands of lessons. It is thus very difficult to get your foot in the door. In the last 5 months since I have joined i-talki I have only conducted 80 lessons with 2 regular Russian students, a Croatian student, and a couple of one-off ‘walk-ins’. I get less approximately 14.50 USD per 45 minutes lesson, which is less than what I get at my current full-time employer. I-talki also takes a 15% service fee for providing an online market platform, scheduling, general marketing, customer service support, and for ensuring payment, which is all fair enough. It does however mean that in order to get approximately 14.50 USD you have to charge the student approximately 16.50 USD.
During the lockdown, when my Russian company could not provide the ideal amount of lessons which I had per week during the pre-lockdown period, i-talki provided a supplemental income that came in very handy, so I was happy with getting less, but at least getting something rather than nothing. One does however need to patiently build your i-talki profile and presence until you have reached that golden amount of lessons that will ensure that algorithms start to promote your profile on the main page. There are thousands of English teachers on i-talki and you only start to get noticed when you have conducted many hundreds of lessons at least. That is of course unless you are able to attract your own students to your i-talki profile through various social media ad campaigns that you have to vigorously drive yourself.
For those teachers that want to go fully independent, not sharing any of their income with online market platforms such as i-talki, the road to success is even harder. An independent teacher has to create his or her own website and market that via Social Media sites. There are no guarantees but if successful, the income potential could be up to 100 USD per hour lesson. There are experts like James Liu who offer workshops to teachers who want to go fully independent. They offer step-by-step lessons and instructions on how to set up your own independent online teaching business and how to market it appropriately, to become a fully independent entrepreneur. Well, I’m not there yet. Even though I have my own fully functional website, called TEFLMAXONLINE, where students can book lessons from, I neither have the time, nor money to market myself at the moment. It is however something that I’m working towards.
So what are the things that makes a person suitable and good at online teaching?
Apart from all the things mentioned above on how to become a successful teacherpreneur, such as being tech-savvy and having the drive and motivation to sit in a chair for 5 hours plus a day and engage with all sorts of people from over the world with different language and social skill barriers; you need to possess certain inter-personal skills. Interpersonal skills are the skills required to effectively communicate, interact, and work with individuals and groups. Those with good interpersonal skills are strong verbal and non-verbal communicators and are often considered to be “good with people”. (Corporate finance Institute, 2015:online). These skills include: Awareness (of yourself and others), Caring about other people and comforting people when they need it, Empathy for others, Encouraging and inspiring people to do their best, Inspiring and motivating others to active greatness, Respect for everyone, no matter who they are, Sensitivity toward the preferences and wishes of others Clear communication skills, Conflict management and resolution skills, Diplomacy (handling affairs without hostility), Flexibility in thinking and operating style, Humour and light-heartedness, Listening well, Networking and building relationships, Non-verbal cues and body language, Patience when dealing with others, Socializing skills, Being good at building trust, and Tolerance and respect.
It is important to build rapport over a period of time. My students, some of whom have done more than 100 lessons with me, are not merely a number or a client. I show interest in their private and personal lives, lending an ear when there challenges in their lives and giving encouragement when needed. I share my life, my challenges, adventures, emotions with them in turn and give them an opportunity to have inputs into my life, so they also feel part of that. This builds mutual respect and trust, and that, in turn, brings about and establishes long-term partnerships and even in some cases friendship. In a later post, I will go into more detail about the necessary interpersonal skills needed by a teacher, but if I have to highlight the 3 most important skills an online teacher should possess, I will have to say that they are: Firstly, being able to build trust and rapport by respecting others and being aware of different cultures, secondly, being a good listener (Some platforms encourage this in their KPI’s by requiring the teacher to limit Teacher Talk Time (TTT) and increasing Student Talk Time (STT)), and lastly, humor and light-heartedness. I try to make my students laugh as much as possible, but that is my unique style.
It is important to harness your own personality strengths, cultivating your own unique style and utilizing that in your lessons, to encourage recurring and returning students who like your particular style of teaching and who are benefitting from that, to keep on coming back for more, not just because you might be this amazing Grammar expert or excellent teacher, but because you care about them as a person and an individual. This does not mean that you will ‘click’ with everyone and that everyone who starts with you will stay to the end, but where possible the right type of student fit for your personality will remain with you long term. And that is what you want, a sustainable livelihood by building a good reputation that will spread by word of mouth to increase your clientele and continue to make your little Teacherpreneurial business grow.
For many, due to COVID 19 and consequent lockdown and other restrictions, regular jobs or regular face to face teaching jobs are no longer available or possible. Online teaching is a way to earn a livelihood remotely. Apart from the qualifications (At least a 3 year Bachelor’s degree and a TEFL certificate) and inter-personal skills (mentioned above) necessary, one needs to have the courage to make the transition from working face-to-face with people to engaging with them online and remotely. This transition is very easy for younger people as they grew up in this tech-savvy age, but it can pose some challenges for older people like me. These are however not insurmountable, as long as one has an attitude and aptitude for learning new things. It took me a while, but now after nearly 3 years of conducting online lessons, I can see my efforts come to fruition.
Online teaching has become increasingly more popular for both teachers and students. Due to the Geo-political landscape over the last 8 months many skilled people across the world have lost their jobs and livelihoods. Teaching English online in particular is a way for many of these professionals to put food on the table each month. However, before you consider doing this consider whether you have what it takes to be an online teacher, not only with regards to qualifications but also with regards to personality and skills. It is a very competitive industry now quickly getting over-saturated with people trying to earn a living. Make sure that you count not only the rewards of becoming an online teacher but that you also calculate the cost and efforts you may need to invest.