Thursday, 30 May 2019

So, you want to do online teaching?

The viability of teaching English online

Introduction & Background

Many mainstream school teachers, in South Africa, in particular, want to, or more correctly, have to supplement their teaching income with extra jobs, just to keep the pot cooking. Online teaching is a home-based job that appeals to many as it provides a lot of freedom with regards to scheduling classes, and the fact that there are no expensive input costs, such as transport. One can sit in the comfort of one’s own home and access online classrooms to teach English to students all over the world, whilst earning that little bit of extra cash to help out.

In my case however, it’s my main job. As a white Afrikaans male, in a post-Apartheid political system characterised by ‘fair’ discrimination, such as BEE and Affirmative Action, it has been my experience over the last 25 years that in South Africa, I’m either unemployed or severely under-employed. I came across the TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) industry in 2003, when after another year of being unemployed, I sought to work overseas.

The reason I was moved to write this post, was due to the fact that I belong to a Teachers Facebook group here in SA with approximately 29 000 members where teaching jobs are posted or where teachers want to know about Education legislation in SA that affects them or just ask for classroom teaching advice. Now and again there is an inquiry from a mainstream school teacher about online teaching. I posted some advice, which triggered a multitude of inquiries. If you are interested in the concept of online teaching, I will share here with you some of my experiences and provide info on how to set it up.

Online teaching

TEFL – (Teaching English as Foreign Language)

I accepted my first TEFL job in 2003 in Taiwan, and has never looked back since then. At that time I only held a law degree, and I only completed my TEFL certificate during my first job in Taiwan. That was the beginning of my TEFL career, and since then I have taught EFL/ESP/EAP in Taiwan, China, Sudan, Oman, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. When my wife and I returned from Saudi Arabia in 2015, nothing much has changed politically or economically in South Africa. With unemployment rife at 50% and AA and BEE policies as stringent as ever, I found it impossible to find any kind of employment in South Africa, even though I held 3 degrees at honours level, a host of ETDP qualifications, and loads of international teaching experience.

In 2017 I decided to ‘up’ my TEFL qualifications for the international market, after being advised to do so by a British recruiter. I held a mere 100-hour online TEFL certificate, that even though it opened many doors, not even my degrees could open, became outdated and insufficient for the better TEFL jobs. The EFL industry required a minimum of a 120-hour TEFL certification. I came across a TQUK accredited level 5 certificate in TEFL by the TEFL Academy worth a 168 hours and I enrolled for it. It was online, so you could access all the learning materials online. 

After each module, there was a test, but the course also included 3 written assignments where one had to apply all the course material in preparing actual lessons. It did not include any observed classroom teaching, which was the only lack. The most prestigious TEFL course is the Cambridge CELTA, a one-month full-time intensive face to face course, which is offered by International House in only 3 locations in South Africa, namely Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban. The cost is approximately ZAR 15 000 (1025 US$) excluding accommodation, but well worth it, as this little certificate will open doors to great EFL positions across the world.

Teaching ESL

How did it begin?

One of the modules in the TQUK TEFL certificate course I did in 2017, introduced online teaching. At that time I was driving many kilometres with an old Mercedes Benz to the homes of students doing tutoring for some face-to-face tutoring companies. I lost most of the time nearly half of my tutoring fee to petrol costs. I started to do some research on the viability of online teaching and was astonished to see how strong this industry has become. The internet is now nearly in every home across the world, and relatively cheap. It also cuts travel time and costs for both students and teachers, making English lessons more affordable.

I started my job search and in early 2018 I applied for my first online teaching job with EducationFirst. Education First outsourced online teaching to South Africa, since they could get cheaper labour in South Africa. They established a huge online teaching centre in Bryanston, Johannesburg where South African teachers would sit in this huge call centre and teach students from China, Taiwan, Japan, South America, Europe, and Russia. Later, it seems the staff could not handle the call volume and they expanded by appointing home-based EFL/ESL online teachers working from home. I was one of approximately a hundred home-based teachers to work from home and teach English online.

After my initial interview, I was given access to an online training course that provides full training on how to use the platform and how to conduct the lesson. It also provided the lesson structure one should follow and tips and tricks on how to make it interesting to students. I then started to teach students from all over the world, either doing 20-minute sessions (for ZAR 40) or 40-minute sessions (for ZAR 90). The call centre managed the scheduling and during each session I had a different student (Unlike Skyeng, to be discussed later). This was hardly a lucrative affair; on average I earned ZAR 4000 per month. 

However, I gained lots of experience and grew in self-confidence. The lesson slides in the online platform were provided for the teacher, so prep time was minimal. From the beginning I made it clear that I want to focus on teaching adults and that I prefer teaching students one-on-one, so one’s profile indicates your preferences, and the sessions you conduct suits your preferences.

Most online teaching companies in the world cater specifically for children only (usually ages 5 – 16). Few companies it seems cater for adults only, and I would say a lot of companies cater for both. If you want to teach children you can look at earning on average between 20 - 35 USD per hour. Teaching adults is a lot less lucrative at, on average paying 7 – 15 USD per hour. At the start of my TEFL career I taught primary aged and Kindergarten kids in China and Taiwan, using songs, realia, TPR…..jumping up and down to entertain. Later on, my TEFL career shifted to teaching ESP (English for Specific Purposes) and EAP (English for Academic Purposes) to adults and students….and at 45, I have less energy to employ these various techniques in an online classroom. 

So I prefer adults and adult conversational topics, as it also engages my interests and energises me. But to each his own. We all have different gifts and abilities and there are teachers who really enjoy teaching kids, using props and other lesson materials that engages kids. That is a matter of preference. The fact is that if you are willing and eager to teach kids online, you are looking at a higher income potential per hour.

Having fun

Teaching for a Chinese company

Three months later, in May of 2018, I applied for another position with Hujiang, a Chinese-owned and run online teaching centre, based in Shanghai. Hujiang had an initial interview with me and selected me to do a demo. I was provided one of their 25 minute lessons on their platform to prepare beforehand. Initially, I failed the first demo due to the fact that I was unable to do the whole lesson within the 25 minutes. All Hujiang lessons include a warmer, the actual lesson, and 2 role plays. One really has to hurry up to get through the lesson content in 25 minutes, and there are no allowances for contingencies like tech issues, or a student struggling to express him or herself. I was then advised to try again and redo the demo, with strong emphasis on time management. I passed my second demo, after which I was provided with training online on how to use their platform (CC Talk) and online classroom with all its functionalities.

The online training is also very helpful and teaches you strategies and techniques on how to effectively do online teaching. Topics that are included in the training are time management, error correction, giving feedback and lesson structure. Once you pass the course, you provide them with times that you are available to teach. Most companies require a minimum of 12 hours per week that you need to make yourself available for. Since it was a Chinese company, specialising in teaching adults one-on-one, the peak hours were 6 – 11 pm BJT (Beijing Time) Beijing is GMT +8. South Africa is GMT +2, which means you have to deduct 6 hours in SA. That meant that if I wanted to be available to teach from 6 – 11 pm BJT, I would have to be available between 12 – 5 pm in SA. Usually, most schools, also require that the hours you made yourself available for, that a large amount of those hours be during peak hours. I now teach for Skyeng, a Russian company, which uses Moscow Time, which is GMT +3, and much closer to SA time, so with regards to scheduling a good option for South Africans.

With Hujiang I made 15 USD per hour, but there is a catch. Each lesson is 25 minutes and counts as half an hour. After each lesson, you are to fill in a grading report which can take anything from 15 – 25 minutes to do. So if you teach 25 minutes and do grading for another 25 minutes, your hour is up, but you have technically only earned 7.5 USD for the 25 minutes teaching time. It meant that I scheduled only one 25 minute session per hour in order to give me time to complete the grading in the second part of the hour. I used a cheat sheet, compiled from thousands of comments I could get my hands on with regards to 4 areas: Pronunciation, Grammar, Vocabulary, and Fluency. 

There was also a space where you had to make recommendations. If one had to type it, it could even take longer. I used this cheat sheet to copy and paste comments into these areas, so I could do grading in 7-10 minutes, altering a few details here or there or personalising it to that specific student. The reality was however, that if you wanted to provide proper feedback to a student in his grading report, it was not really possible to do two 25 minute lessons in one hour as there would be insufficient time for the grading. At certain times I did, but then I had to do grading at the end of my teaching for that day.

Hujiang also prescribed that you do grading for a particular lesson within 4 hours after giving it, so it was better to do it after completing a lesson. I designed a grade notes template, which I printed out and used to make notes of a student and the lesson whilst teaching that student. I realised that many teachers were not as thorough with the grading as I attempted to be and I guess that many managed to do two 25 minute sessions per hour. The reality for me was that I was earning 7.5 USD per hour, which limited my income potential to approximately ZAR 8 000 (550 USD per month).

With Hujiang, unlike Education First and Skyeng, only the audio and not the video, in the virtual classroom, was used to communicate with the student, that meant no requirements with regards to your background or any dress code prescriptions; you merely spoke with the student as you would on a phone. I think this worked well for the Chinese students, where a natural shyness is part of their culture. This is, however, the exception. The big majority of companies require a video feed in addition to the audio, so that the student can see you, which is essential when you teach children or very low-level students with TPR, Realia, gestures, etc. to convey instructions and word meaning (vocabulary). 

Each company has slightly different background requirements. In general, most companies require a white or light blue clear background, like a wall. There should be no bright light behind you as teacher as the webcam would darken you as teacher and blind or irritate the student. Instead, the light should be to the back of a laptop or desktop, facing the teacher. It’s advisable the teacher sits in front of an open window with natural light pouring onto his or her face. Obviously, different strategies apply when you teach at night. The main idea is that the teacher is well lit and that there is no distraction in the background, or a busy background that breaks the student’s concentration. 

Online teachers who teach children, have whiteboards behind them and loads of props or realia to entertain kids. They probably want their background to look like a children’s classroom with appropriate posters. This is however not my specialty, as I focus on adults. Each company has a virtual classroom with pre-prepared level specific slides and whiteboard functionalities within the virtual classroom, where teachers who teach adults can share info or materials with the student.

Chinese students

Full time vs part time

There are those that do online teaching full time, teaching approximately 40 hours per week (including weekends) with an income potential of anything between 1500 – 3000 USD per month. That is of course if you don’t have another full-time job. In the South African context, as a mainstream school teacher, trying to supplement your very small salary, you can realistically do 15 hours per week, probably sacrificing your Saturday (Weekends are peak times at all online teaching companies), looking at a 500 – 600 USD (ZAR 7500 – R8 800) additionally per month. There are so many variables, however. It takes a while to establish yourself and your popularity as a teacher, so nobody starts off with teaching 40 hours per week.

I started off with Skyeng 6 weeks ago, and I’m now only on 14 hours per week. The teachers with 40 hours per week had to build that student base and it took them 6 months. You will have to start with the amount they provide and build on it. Hujiang, as well as Skyeng, for which I currently teach, take your info, your pic, a self-intro video/audio, your teaching philosophy and they create a profile for you on their teacher database. Students then have access to this profile and if they like what they see, book a lesson with you.

There are also certain times of the year when it is low season, for example, the summer months in Russia (May to July), when students go on holiday. This affects bookings and income. On Skyeng for example, each teacher has a teacher page (in Skyeng terminology a ‘Private cabinet’) that contains your schedule and KPI (Performance index). This measures your performance. Things that negatively affects your performance include lesson cancellations or negative feedback from your student. If you get rewards/compliments from your students like ‘productive lesson’ or ‘interesting conversation’, your KPI score goes up and you are likely to get more students quicker.

E-learning versus traditional teaching

Teaching for a Russian Company

I had a break from online teaching when I went to Iraq as a program manager for an ELT program based at an oilfield. Upon my return, I merely looked at sites such as, where online teaching jobs are posted and applied for positions again. I started about two and a half months ago with the process of applying, being interviewed, doing a demo, doing the training and starting to earn. My latest company I do online teaching for, is a Moscow-based company, called Skyeng. It is the biggest online teaching school in Eastern Europe with more than 6000 teachers from across the world, most being home-based teachers working from home, many doing it full time due to a worldwide economic recession.

There are many South Africans working for Skyeng. South Africans are classified as native speakers, part of the ‘big five’ (or big six) of countries that provide English native speakers, namely the UK, US, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. If you look at most TEFL jobs being advertised, whether it is actual teaching at a location or online teaching, South Africans are on the list, but usually mentioned last, as there is, of course, a big debate whether many of us who also speak Afrikaans and are bi-lingual can actually be classified as native speakers.

Well let me say this to the ‘English speaking’ snobs of the so-called first world, I have an IELTS band score in Academic English of 8 out of 9 and I think many Brits and Americans are in fact hesitant to go assess their English proficiency as they are worried their level might be lower than they would like to believe. Second language, or in the case of South Africa, bi-lingual speakers, are in fact the best Grammar teachers, with the most neutral accents. I think there are many ‘native’ speakers in any case who only catch every third or fourth word our Irish and Scottish friends utter, not to speak of the students they are teaching….probably thinking they are speaking Greek or something.

With Skyeng I’m earning at the moment 12 USD per 50 minutes session. All their materials are pre-prepared on their platform. One merely signs in on your ‘Private cabinet’ and then have access to your schedule and all the materials in their virtual classroom. As stated before, my students are working adults so they are free after work and during weekends (Mon-Friday 5 – 11 pm Moscow Time) which in South Africa translates to 4-10 pm. This means that my days are open to doing other things. At the moment I’m enrolled for a PGCE to qualify myself as a licensed teacher. So I can study during my off-hours. I have opened up 25 hours on my schedule, but as stated before I have only 14 lessons per week booked. This amount has been increasing every week since I started and I expect to be on 25 hours within the next couple of months. This will enable me to fund my studies, whilst at the same time covering our basic needs, such as groceries, toiletries, and medical expenses.

With Skyeng, unlike Hujiang and EF, I get regular students, so there is an opportunity to build rapport and track that student’s progression. I find this a better approach than having to teach a different student each lesson. One gets to know each student individually and start to cater to their specific needs, one is also able to view their progress and improvement and gets satisfaction from that. With Skyeng there is furthermore no time-consuming grading afterward; one merely has to mark that the lesson took place.

Teaching online could be relaxing and fun

Online tutoring vs Online ESL Teaching

One must then distinguish between online tutoring and ESL online teaching. Many teachers would like to do tutoring after hours for an extra income. The older teacher prefers face-to-face tutoring, travelling to the student/learner’s home and tutoring him or her face-to-face. Been there done that… mentioned before, high fuel costs cut your fee in half. Now, a lot of online tutoring companies are springing up, or face-to-face tutoring companies are expanding their services to now also include an online component. In this case school subjects, where English is also included, but as a school subject with a Literature component, are being tutored to kids online. So, teachers can now tutor SA school subjects to kids across South Africa online. 

ESL online teaching, on the other hand, is aimed at students in countries where English is not a native or L1 language and due to English being the Lingua Franca of the International Business world, students in these countries, out of necessity to compete, feel pressured to learn English. This is the ESL/EFL industry worldwide which up to 10-15 years ago was being conducted mostly through face-to-face teaching. That meant a Native English teacher from one of the big six countries had to get on a plane, leave his or her family and go to some Third world country, live there and teach there, physically working and living in that location, for prolonged periods of time.....been there, done that too.

With the advent of the internet and e-learning, this whole exercise can now be conducted online. This means I can teach my Russian students and at the end of my lesson put down my earphones and still have a braai with my family here in sunny SA. To many that sound absolutely appealing; the best of both worlds. So to return to my point, mainstream South African educators, as they like to be called, can now teach their classes during the day and without leaving their employment, their families, their country, can still make a difference in the lives of others by teaching them English, whilst earning that much-needed cash, in order to survive.

Online tutoring

So your next question is: What do I need to do this?

Here is the Henry list

  1. If you are not yet TEFL certified but have a degree, many schools will take you, but I would advise you get the TEFL. I have two as stated above. I would recommend the TQUK level 5 - 168-hour cert in TEFL with the TEFL Academy.
  2. A laptop or desktop (Not a smartphone or tablet….there are some schools like Palfish who uses this tech, but not many). At least 2GB Ram and I would say your PC should not be older than 5-7 years.
  3. Fibre internet or LTE Fixed wireless that ensures at least a 10 Mbps download and 2 Mbps upload speed. I use 2 service providers, namely Telkom and Afrihost. If one is slow or giving problems I switch to the other. With load shedding issues in SA, it’s wise to get a charge box with your LTE Router which is good for 4-5 hours. In this case, it’s also probably better to use a laptop with a battery capacity of more than 2 hours. If you are a South African, you will know what I mean.
  4. Proper headset. I use a Logitech headset used by people working in call centres. For ZAR 500 – 600, you can purchase it at PC stores like Incredible Connections.
  5. Webcam – If your laptop does not have a built-in or working webcam or if you are using a desktop, you need to purchase an additional USB plug and play webcam.
  6. General computer and internet, email and website literacy.  You need a general PC literacy and need to know how to troubleshoot basic tech issues.
  7. PayPal account – Overseas Online Teaching Companies pay you via PayPal. Some companies use an alternative to PayPal, namely Payoneer (In this case you don’t need an FNB account, as a different system applies). You need to set up this PayPal account and connect it to your FNB account. Open an FNB account; It’s the only bank account in SA you can link your PayPal account to. The company pays your bi-monthly (most companies make a payment every 2 weeks) pay into your PayPal account. You then have to access Forex payments on your FNB online banking profile to first declare the money and then to withdraw it into your FNB account where you can access it in SA Rand. This process takes 2-4 days.
  8. Skype account – You need to open up a Skype account. This is an important tool of communication with the company itself, as well as with students and fellow teachers. Most companies will add you to a teacher support group/forum on Skype. You will also most probably conduct your initial interviews and demo’s via Skype, so make sure you know how to use it. There are many YouTube tutorials on learning to use Skype. Also download and install the Skype app on your smartphone.
  9. Smartphone - I would say your smartphone enables you to manage your communication and scheduling whilst you are not in front of your laptop, so good to have a good smartphone to manage your little ‘online business’ from. Remember, you would be working for yourself now in many respects and you need to manage your venture. You can have the exact same apps and functionalities on your smartphone than on your PC, so see it as a valuable extra tool.
  10. WhatsApp and/or WeChat – This is another important tool of communication with the company, students and fellow online teachers. Download the apps on your phone, make sure how to use it and use it to communicate scheduling changes, queries, etc. Most Chinese companies, like Hujiang uses WeChat instead of Skype as its main tool of communication.
  11. E-mail address – This is essential for corporate and formal communication with the company. Skyeng, my current Russian company, even opened a corporate email address for me, with their corporate branding and identity with which I must communicate with them and students.
  12. Typing speed – You need to be able to type at least 30 wpm, in my opinion. I never had typing at school and I don’t type 90 wpm, but I would suggest you should not waste time looking for letters on your keyboard. You need this speed to type words/sentences/corrections/feedback in the virtual classroom itself or for grading purposes. There are online typing tutors that may help you to increase your speed if you are a novice, but I assume, unless you are 80, as a teacher, you have already spent some time in front of a PC, doing basic things. You need a general PC literacy and need to know how to troubleshoot basic tech issues.
  13. Problem-solving skills.
  14. Time management skills.
  15. Social interaction skills.
  16. Patience & Walking the extra mile.
  17. Ability to build rapport!!!
What do you need?

Teaching online for a service provider vs teaching independently

You can either work for a company or school or you can be an independent online teacher. If you work for a school, you abide by their rules, structures, hourly rates, etc. The company, in this case, does all the marketing and match you as teacher in their database with students that suit your profile. The company supply the online virtual platform and classroom with pre-prepared structured lessons and do the scheduling on your behalf. They provide you with training, resources, and support. They pay you a fixed rate per hour after they probably deduct their share from what they receive from each of your students. This is a very secure and safe way to start as an online teacher, as you can be certain to expect a certain amount, depending on the number of hours you made yourself available for and how many hours you teach. If you teach 15 one hour lessons per week at 10 USD per lesson, you are certain to receive 150 USD per week and approximately 600 USD per month. You get this fixed rate and that is the ceiling.

Many experienced teachers, however, decide, after working for companies, that they would like to function independently. They want to have input or a choice as to what they teach and how they teach. They also prefer to determine their own rate. There are companies like Verbal planet and Italki, where online teachers can register a profile. Potential students can view your profile and can then approach you to teach them. Teachers can determine their own rates. The company takes its share and that’s how it makes its money, but they don’t offer you anything else like a virtual classroom with resources. You have to either create or purchase your own resources. Many teachers then use Skype as their teaching platform and create their own materials, determining their own rates. I’ve seen teachers asking up to 70 USD per hour. If you want to purchase your own virtual classroom with pre-prepared lessons, professionally developed by experts, Off2Class is a wonderful platform and resource provider.

The Dilemma: Working for others or for yourself?


Well, this was certainly a mouth full, and yet not the end of it. I suggest doing your own research. Join Facebook groups where online teachers give advice. Consider the cost, together with the potential earning potential. Consider if you have the right personality for this. Many people will feel uncomfortable interacting with others online; some will be naturals. I for one still prefer face-to-face interaction, but in my case, I have limited alternatives. One does, however, get used to it. If the technical side to it is freaking you out, then familiarise yourself with all the tools you will need to use. Consider starting small with 1 lesson per day, so that you won’t feel overwhelmed.

This is a fast growing billion dollars global industry, which has the potential to earn you that much needed extra cash in the South African context as a school teacher. Make sure you set things in place, and then start to apply for online teaching jobs that suit your personality and preferences. Research every company carefully, there are, as in every industry, companies out there that will pay very little and/or control you and suppress your teaching style. If you have a degree and TEFL certificate, there are well-paid jobs out there. It may take time and effort, but online EFL/ESL teaching has the potential to make your Rand stretch a bit further.

Learning can take place anywhere

Here is a list of some of the more well-known Online Teaching Companies to look at for online teaching jobs:

  1. Cambly
  2. 51 Talk
  3. TutorABC
  4. DaDaAbc
  5. Skimatalk
  6. i-tutorgroup
  7. Lingoda
  8. VIPkids

This list is not exhaustive, but will put you on the right track. Do your own Google search.

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