Teaching English Abroad: Private Classes

Chapter Three: Teaching Is A Business

Teaching is a service that involves varying amounts of capital in its performance. If your institute is offering a great computer lab with wonderful software, a video lounge and multimedia equipment, comfortable classrooms, break rooms, educational materials and support, then it might be hard to compete against such facilities. The truth is that most of the schools you will come across, spend their time attracting and signing new students and teachers, spending very little time or money on the above mentioned aspects of education.

Typically schools will hand you a worn out text book, point you towards a room and say “go teach”. About 50% of the time the tapes won’t work, the CDs won’t play, and the dry erase marker is dried up. I learned fairly quickly that the teaching takes place between the student and the teacher in spite of the efforts of the administration, not with the aid of the bosses. As soon as I started teaching, I began hearing about teachers pursuing private classes. Many teachers will supplement their earnings by picking up private students, and the opportunities will present themselves as a natural extension of your teaching efforts.

Most institutes and all teachers understand that this will happen, but some companies will frown upon the practice as it may directly detract from their bottom line. In the large institutes which offer classroom instruction, where the administrators are just employees like you, it will be no problem for you to offer private classes to your students, you can hand out your card, put up a notice on the bulletin board. At the other end of the scale, the small firm, that sends you out to a private class, will be very upset if you offer to teach a class “cutting out the middle-man”. Many will have you sign some sort of agreement concerning these practices, I think I may have signed some, but I never bother to read such documents. I learned in law school that if you don’t read the contract you can at least say “I didn’t know that wasn’t allowed”, at least that takes away the element of malice and bad intentions.

I have approached the topic of “stealing clients” in a variety of ways, depending upon my sense of fairness, general feeling about the institute, and my own sense of security in my job. With one firm I refused a student’s request to teach privately. I had taken on another student with that arrangement prior and I felt a little guilty about it. In another company, I actively sought to take students away as I sensed my time was short, and I was being squeezed by the boss, though it didn’t work to my advantage, and was a mess in the end. The truth is that the institutes really do their job, and that getting the students, collecting the money, and selling the concept, really is the harder nut to crack. That being said, you will be handed private students from time to time, the neighbor who needs to speak English, his cousin studying for the TOEFL, relatives, and referrals from other students. Students have found me through my blog and through posts on forums. It would be silly to turn down a student who comes to you for private lessons. You will find many prospective students, many people want to speak English, and many will give and take phone numbers, with the intention of scheduling their first class. I put the odds at 1 in 10 that will actually begin lessons with you. Like any sale, it’s a numbers game, and if you understand this going in, you will avoid the frustration I felt, calling, scheduling and re-scheduling, pursuing clients that just weren’t clients. Of course, you should make the call, send the e-mail, offer the time, but, when they don’t return your call, or blow off the scheduled first class, take it as a sign that you don’t have that client.

You will start to collect private students, one at a time, sometimes a group of 2 or 3, you can meet at your place or theirs. If you meet at their house you may find that you arrive, and they’re not there, or they’re on their way. If you meet at your place, you clean up a little, prepare a place to teach, look at the clock, and about half the time they don’t show up. When it’s at their home it’s easier to justify charging them for your time. Get your money for the month up front. If they want to pay after the lessons, there’s a good chance you’ll end up with the short end of that stick. Explain that you need to set your schedule month by month, and the up front payment sets the schedule. You should charge more than you’d get from the institute, but they won’t want to pay more than they would pay the school directly, you’ll get a sense of it. Some clients are really cheap, and some with specialized needs and a nice expense account can pay very well.

Private students are a nice supplement to a regular teaching job, but they are very fickle in their commitment to class. They will cancel and discontinue, and “get back to you”. It soon becomes clear that the business of teaching is really selling, closing, and collecting. I don’t think that good teachers are good salesmen, I think it might be a contradiction, in my case it is for sure. I have been told that I’m a very good teacher, no one has ever accused me of being a good salesman.

I have found some very good regular students. When working in Santo Domingo it took me about 3 years to build up to the point where half of my income was through my own private students. Private students also become good friends after a time and are an excellent way to connect to local residents. I’m now in the process of developing my student base here in Piriapolis, Uruguay. It hasn’t been a year yet, and that first year is very slow going. It takes time to build up, make the connections, and develop a reputation.

Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5

~Ken Mandel

4 Comments on “Teaching English Abroad: Private Classes

  1. Hello. I have been teaching privately for a year. I used to work for a language school and many things you said here are very true, like, agreement not to take their clients. This isn’t fair because students pay a lot for a lesson and teachers get maybe 30% of that while they do the main work.

  2. Ken, thank you for doing this series of teaching English. I have thought about it many times and its great to learn more about what teaching English would actually be like, not just read promotions. Thank you for the information and guidance.

  3. Ken, I’m a retired, accredited BC teacher who recently completed a 305-hr. TESOL Diploma, now doing part-time ESL in Vancouver, BC. I’m planning to relocate to Montevideo next October. I’d like to work there part-time to supplement my modest pension income and better integrate into the community. Would probably continue teaching adults but possibly school-age as well – even elementary, hoping to be able to employ communicative, rather than strictly academic, approaches. Have an M.Ed. in adult ed. and experience (not ESL) teaching elementary, secondary and college. Would university be a possibility for me? Do they have compulsory retirement at 65 or might I still be employable? I’ll be able to get residency on the basis of my pension income – but want to teach! Any suggestions would be welcome.

  4. Pingback: Teaching English Abroad: My Experience So Far | WhisperTrail