Are you wondering what it would be like to be a freelance TEFL teacher? Then you’re in the right place. Freelance TEFL teacher and i-to-i graduate Catherine went live on i-to-i’s Facebook page to talk about her experience of setting up and running her own online TEFL business. Watch the full webinar or read on for edited extracts, including Catherine’s tips for building your freelance TEFL business and where to find materials for your online English lessons.
Getting started as an online TEFL teacher (before you freelance)
I did my Level 5 TEFL qualification in 2019 while I was working. As I don’t have a degree or a teaching background, I wanted to get a good TEFL qualification first, which is why I did the i-to-i TEFL Diploma. I was going to start an in-classroom TEFL job in China at the start of 2020 but, with Covid, everything changed. I had to start from scratch and decided to teach online.
I started working with PalFish, which is a Chinese company that teaches children on an app. It was a great place for my first job as it gives you all the lesson material and there’s really good online support. I’m not going to necessarily recommend PalFish right now as the pay rates have been slashed due to the changes in China but do take a look if you want to get experience, or earn a bit on the side. They’ve just started taking on teachers again, as they’re trying to expand to other countries.
I also worked with Oxinity which is a Spanish platform that’s expanding across Europe. You can teach children, adults and teens. If you don’t have experience, Oxinity is a good platform, as they want someone who is passionate and keen rather than somebody who has teaching experience. They give you a week’s training where you attend webinars, see how lessons work, and see the materials and then there’s lots of ongoing webinars and information. At the beginning they give you students but, after a while, you have to bring your own students to the platform. For me, it was a great place to build up my experience and get used to attracting students before I started freelancing.
Building my freelance TEFL business
When I started teaching online, I had zero experience and zero hours. It took me about four or five months to get to full time hours. You won’t go from zero to full time hours in an instant, you will need to put the work in. I started with PalFish and Oxinity and then found some evening classes with Spanish students. Now my main source of work is through LinkedIn. I hadn’t used LinkedIn a lot before but it seems to have really worked. Make sure your profile is up to date so people can see your TEFL qualifications and what type of work you’re available for.
LoveTEFL Jobs is also a great place to look for jobs online and I’ve even found a few students through Gumtree. You can put up a free Gumtree advert or pay a bit more to link to your website and boost your advert. Once you’ve got your qualifications and some experience, it’s definitely worth offering as much as you can. On my website I have classes for business English, conversation, listening, speaking, writing, reading and IELTS. Try to reach as many different audiences as you can. It boosts your profile and gives you more chance of getting students.
If you want to freelance, you do need to market yourself. I started with my Instagram page, sharing information like grammar and language tips and then set up a small website last year. It was really great but it didn’t have a lot of functionality. I relaunched it at the end of August this year and now you can book lessons, you can pay online and you can see my availability, so it’s a lot more interactive.
I also did a lot of blogging about TEFL and language and grammar when I started out. It gets your name out there and helps students see what you’re about. I’ve also done some Google promos, so my website will pop up in searches. You can do the same in Instagram if you set your account as a business account. It depends how much you want to spend. At the minute, I’m not spending that much on marketing because I don’t have loads of availability.
My teaching schedule
I teach 25 to 30 hours a week as a freelancer, sometimes 30+ hours. 25 to 30 hours might not sound a lot of teaching hours but I also have to plan lessons, mark homework, check emails, check bookings, all that kind of thing. There isn’t a lot of downtime.
Wednesday is my busiest day. I start at 8am and I finish at 9pm. I’m not working for all that time but I teach about nine hours during the day. On other days, I start at 10ish and I’ll then be on and off until about nine at night. On Fridays, I normally teach until 3pm and then do admin until about 6pm. I was teaching six or seven days a week but now I do admin on Saturday mornings and try to keep the rest of my weekend free.
My earliest lesson is 8am and that’s early enough for me. If you’re a night owl, you could get up in the middle of the night and teach students on the other side of the world but you don’t have to. You can work the hours that you want – that’s the benefit of being a freelancer.
If you’re teaching a lot of European students, it’s worth noting that July and August can be really quiet. I have a lot of students in Spain and everything shuts down for a month in August, so nobody wants any English lessons then.
Getting paid as an freelance English teacher
My rates were a bit lower when I started because I didn’t have a lot of experience and I was building my client base. I put my prices up when I relaunched my website this year and I might increase them more in January. I think it’s better to start off at a slightly lower rate if you’re new but, once you’ve got six months to a year’s experience, your students should know that it’s worth them paying you a bit more to keep you as a teacher.
People just think you’re teaching for half an hour or an hour but it’s also the prep work, marking homework, paying for online storage, paying for your website costs, online security, subscriptions and marketing. Even if you’re only spending a little bit here and there, over the year it adds up – so don’t undersell yourself. I’m not a millionaire but I earn enough to get by and have a good life.
If you’ve got private students, always make sure that they pay up front and that you’ve got a cancellation policy. If a student cancels but gives you enough notice so you can rearrange the lesson, then it’s no problem. If someone cancels on the day then you should keep the payment because you could have booked another lesson. It’s not fair for you to lose out.
I get paid directly by a couple of companies and I also use the Wise payment platform for my freelance work, which is great for international payments. I don’t want to give out my bank details to people I don’t know so I use Wise to receive payments from my students in Europe and Japan. It has really low fees and great interest rates and it’s very secure, so I do think it’s a good app.
Using online teaching platforms
Teaching platforms can seem a bit daunting when you’re starting out as a TEFL teacher but once you’ve used them a couple of times, you’ll be fine.
PalFish has its own app, which is really easy to use. You just log in and you can see the slides, you can see the lesson plans, you can see your students. Oxinity has its own platform as well, which you’ll be trained to use. You log in and teach through the website. With my private students, I use Zoom, Teams and Skype. Some teachers also use Google Hangouts.
It’s always a good idea to have a practice if you’re asked to use a platform that you’ve not used before to make sure you know how to do things like screenshare and breakout rooms. I asked my parents and friends to log onto a call, so I could practise. However, once you’ve got the hang of it, they’re all really easy to use so don’t let the technology put you off at all.
What I teach in my online TEFL lessons
I teach a really wide range of students. PalFish has pre-set courses, so I can be teaching anything from basic sounds and numbers through to topics like geography, science or space. A lot of my evening students want to do the Cambridge exams, so we have a very structured programme covering reading, writing and listening. With the exam classes, there is a lot more homework because it’s important that they can do the writing and grammar.
In my conversation classes, we do weekly topics about the news and also cover different subjects, like climate change, TV, film, travel, music and sport to give students a wide range of vocabulary. We also share phrasal verbs and idioms with them to extend their vocabulary. With business lessons, I do all sorts of business topics: finance, real estate, law, HR, accountancy. It’s really good because you can learn things as well. I then cover all aspects of grammar. It’s trying to do a mix of everything for everyone.
I normally offer a free 30-minute introduction lesson, so I can find out a student’s level, what they want to learn and also what their interests are so I can plan lessons around things that they’re interested in. Some students will ask for business English classes but actually, when you speak to them, they also want conversational English. I don’t charge for the introduction session but I do cap it at around 20 to 30 minutes for free.
Where to find teaching materials
When you’re a freelancer you have to plan all your own lessons. Even if you’re given the lesson materials by a company, you still need to prep it beforehand to make sure you know what you’re teaching and you’re confident if any questions come up.
I use a number of websites to help with lesson planning. Some of them are free but this year I’ve also signed up to a few premium subscriptions as it’s good to have access to more information and lesson plans. Linguahouse is great. They provide loads of different lesson plans that cover all the levels and have lots of free stuff. TEFL Lessons are really good for grammar materials and they do a lot of posters. Again, you can get some free material but some require a subscription. There is a site called Englishwsheets which is really great for kids. It has loads of flash cards and games for checking and learning vocabulary. I’ve also recently started using onestopenglish. They’re really good for business English classes. If you’re just starting out, the British Council is a really good base as well. They have material for listening, reading, speaking, and writing, and activities which you can download.
There are also websites with conversation questions on lots of different topics, like climate change and politics, which are really helpful. You can use online materials from industry as well. I have a student who works in real estate, so I’ll go online and look for articles on that and then build lesson plans looking at the vocabulary and some concept checking and discussion questions to keep it really interactive and focused on what they want to learn.
The great thing with lesson plans is you can use them again and adapt them to your students. Just make sure you check the material you find in advance as there can sometimes be mistakes or spelling errors in it.
Developing as a teacher
I think training is important, to keep fresh and keep improving for your students benefit. I did my TEFL qualification in 2019 and I keep doing continuous training. I do a lot of Cambridge webinars, as I teach students preparing for the Cambridge exams. They’re all online and give you lots of ideas and materials and show different ways of learning and teaching. I’m also signed up to do a wellbeing course for children with i-to-i, so I will get that finished in the next couple of weeks.
I also did an IELTS course with i-to-i earlier in the year, which was really good. I’m really glad that I did the qualification because I’ve had quite a few people wanting to do IELTS. It’s very structured – you need to know what you’re doing. The students want to do IELTS for a very specific reason, like they want to get into university or for a visa, so it’s a lot more strict than a Cambridge exam.
Positives and challenges of being a freelance TEFL teacher
There are loads of positives about freelancing as a TEFL teacher. Obviously, you’re your own boss, which is amazing. I work from home and I can choose the hours I want to work. When you start out, you work all hours because you want to get students in. Now I’m at the point that I want to keep my weekends free and have time to do my own thing.
You meet loads of great students from all over the world. I’ve got students in Spain, in France, in Japan, in South America. I find out about local festivals, what the latest Covid situation is. I also find the students are really motivated. I generally teach adults and they’re either paying themselves or their company is paying, so they want to be there. Half the battle with learning is to get your students motivated and wanting to learn. My students choose to do this. They want to be learning, so that makes it a lot easier.
Another positive is that, even though you’re teaching English, you can teach different aspects of English. You might be teaching science, business, accounts, HR, depending on what the student wants to learn, so you’re learning stuff as well, which is good.
The tougher side of freelancing is that you never switch off. That is probably the main thing. It’s your business, your income, your life, so you want to put everything in. Even though I only teach 20 to 25 hours, I do another 10, 15 hours a week lesson planning, scheduling, keeping on top of everything, trying to find Instagram content. That is why I make sure I have all my admin done by Saturday lunchtime. Saturday afternoon and Sunday is my time to switch off and not work. I do have a couple of gaps in the week and so I try to have a bit of downtime in between admin as well. Trying to find a good balance of teaching, admin and time for you is really important.
My top tips for online freelance TEFL teachers
Here are my tips if you’re starting out as a freelance online TEFL teacher:
- Good, stable internet is really important.
- If you’re teaching children, use lots of props and flashcards to keep the kids engaged.
- It’s better to over-plan than to under-plan: if a student isn’t enjoying an activity or they go through all the material quicker than you think, it’s good to have extra material available that you can use.
- Plan in breaks, even if it’s just 10 or 15 minutes every couple of hours.
- Always make sure you’ve got a drink and some snacks. I have a little snack drawer next to me so I can have a quick boost between lessons.
If you want to get into TEFL, I really recommend it. I love it so much. It’s really, really fun. I really love my students. They’re all motivated, they all want to learn. It’s not like when you’re in a school and students don’t want to talk. They want to learn and be engaged.
The support network is great. When I did my qualification with i-to-i we had a WhatsApp group, there is the Facebook group and the i-to-i team is always on hand to help with any questions and support. It’s a really great community online.
You can be your own boss. The world’s your oyster. You can teach anywhere in the world. I teach children in China. I teach people in Europe. I teach people in the UK, who are non-native speakers. I teach people in Japan. I have taught a few people in South America. You can literally teach anywhere you want.
If you want to get online and be a TEFL teacher, I definitely recommend it!