Starting out as an Online TEFL Teacher – Q&A with Tamsin

Q&A with Online TEFL teacher, Tamsin

Have you been wondering what life is like when you’re starting out as an online TEFL teacher? Then you’re in the right place! i-to-i TEFL graduate and online TEFL teacher Tamsin went live on Facebook to chat with Jordan (our very own TEFL jobs guru) about her experience of starting out as an online English teacher in South Africa, and to answer all your questions. Watch the full webinar here or read on for edited extracts (questions asked by Jordan and answered by Tamsin!)

Tamsin, how did your online TEFL journey start?

I was a pharmaceutical rep but I lost my work with Covid and I was at a crossroads in my life. I was a 40-year-old single mum and I had no future. I was really worried. A friend asked me what I’d always wanted to be. The answer was simple. I always wanted to be a teacher but I’d never taken it further because I didn’t have enough confidence in myself.

I researched teaching and came across i-to-i and that was the deal sealed! I decided to go online because that was the way the world was going. My daughter had lessons online. I became a sales representative online. Everything was online. It made sense!

What was your TEFL course like?

I did the Level 5 TEFL Diploma and it was challenging. There were so many times I had to phone i-to-i for support! It was challenging but it was good because it kept me thinking. I was never, ever bored and i-to-i was absolutely amazing with giving help. Assignment 2 was the hardest but then I changed the way I was learning and Assignment 3 was an absolute breeze!

I met so many amazing people on i-to-i’s students and graduates Facebook page including one of my closest friends. She started the i-to-i course a little before me and we helped each other when we needed a bit of motivation. She told me to get outside and go for a walk to help me focus.

It took me about five months to complete the course but I surfed, I went for walks, I did my meditation, and I had my friendships. You can definitely juggle the course with working.

How easy was it to find a job after you finished your TEFL course?

I completed my TEFL course and, before I even received my certificate, I applied to Preply which is a TEFL networking platform. It’s not about what passport you have or whether you have a degree. It’s about building up a reputation based on your teaching.

Within a day of applying to Preply, I got signed on. It was amazing! My original plan was to have teaching positions on various platforms. I’m actually so busy on Preply that I couldn’t teach on another platform, even if I wanted to! It happened so quickly.

Are there still online TEFL jobs after the new regulations in China?

[Jordan jumped in to answer this one for us, as Tamsin wasn’t sure!]

In August, China introduced new regulations that removed a lot of online opportunities. This completely disturbed the online TEFL market for a while. However, we’ve now seen that dip go back up!

Massive organisations like VIPKid Global have moved from a 100% Chinese database, to having students globally. We’ve also seen an explosion of opportunities on networking platforms, with lots of students from around the world joining. There are people coaching IELTS (that’s a test people take for work or education), people who teach English through other subjects such as maths or art, and people who teach business English to professionals. There is a myriad of options available!

The climate for teaching overseas is also improving. In fact, we currently have the most jobs ever on our LoveTEFL Jobs board, from networking platforms to online teaching organisations.

What was the application process like for Preply?

Before I applied to Preply, I took about a week to work on my resume. I researched and YouTubed and Googled. I must be honest, I really struggled with the demo video [where you deliver a demo class to show employers or customers how you teach] and the introduction video [where you briefly introduce yourself as a TEFL teacher, set out your qualifications and experience and let potential students see how you speak and appear on screen]. It’s weird speaking to yourself – but once you’re there, it’s plain sailing.

You should change your demo and intro videos on a regular basis. When you see that your profile on a platform is stagnant, change your profile picture, change your demo video, change your introduction video. That is your time to show the world what you have to offer! It’s tricky getting it right, but i-to-i were amazing helping me.

What are your tips for trial lessons with Preply?

The trial lessons on Preply are daunting because you don’t get paid for them. But you have to change your mindset to think of a trial lesson as your chance to get a new student.

Remember these students on Preply are given thousands of tutors to choose from and they chose you. They chose you from your demo video and your introduction video. They chose you for a specific reason – because you’re authentic or you hit all those right notes. Exactly how you are in your demo video and your introduction video, is how you should be in your trial lessons.

Be yourself. At the end of the day, you’re not a robot! You’re a human being and these people want to connect with other human beings. They want to tell you about their day. They want to tell you about their jobs. Be as authentic as possible.

Where are your students from and what age groups do you teach?

I’ve got 47 students at the moment. I’ve got students from Italy, from Poland, from Ukraine. I’ve got students in Japan, Russia, and Turkey. I’ve even had an interview with a Buddhist monk! I’ve met the most incredible people from around the world. I had one student phone me while he was walking and he showed me Poland. It was the best lesson ever!

At first, I just wanted to teach children and not adults. Then, when I started on Preply, most of my students were adults and I swayed towards to wanting to teach adults as opposed to children! I’ve got two students who are children and we love our lessons. However, I don’t think I will take any more children on because I’m having so much fun with my adult students. Be open to different age groups.

Is there a top age limit for TEFL teachers?

There are programmes that try to capture that 21 to 35 year old age group, who’ve maybe recently come out of university and are not used to overseas travel and so they provide a lot of support to help them. There are also online organisations that only cater for children and they say that they are looking for people with energy.

But, I’m 40 and I feel older! I thought, starting out, that companies would give priority to someone younger or, if someone wanted to learn English and was picking their teacher, they would choose a younger person, but that hasn’t happened. It’s not about age. I promise you, age is just a number in TEFL!

Teaching online guide

How do you manage your time as an online TEFL teacher?

In the beginning it’s hard work. I had two to three months of constant hard work, back-to-back lessons, doing trial lessons, going for webinars, going for Zooms, doing the extra work. There were some days that I did 11, 12 hour-long lessons back-to-back, and I didn’t even have time to make a cup of tea or go for a walk on the beach. It’s difficult in the beginning but I promise you that initial hard work pays off!

I learnt I need to switch off when I’m not teaching. It’s so important to find the happy balance. Your mental health is important. Your wellbeing is important. I was getting so busy that I was completely burning out. I love going for a walk on the beach. I love surfing. I love being outdoors. You have to know when you need a break.

How do you teach online when there’s load shedding in South Africa (where the power goes off)?

It’s challenging when the lights go out and you’ve got a lesson, so you need a plan! However, you can look at when the load shedding is and plan around that if you want.

I’ve got a UPS on my WiFi, which means the internet carries on working. I’ve also got a good battery on my laptop so that if the lights go out for two or three hours, I can keep teaching. It’s completely do-able and I manage fine.

How do you find teaching English from your own home?

I live in a beautiful place. I overlook the mountains. I can hear the ocean. It’s amazing! But I did struggle at first. I started out working from my living room, where I also wanted to watch Netflix and have dinner and do my yoga. Doing all that in the place you are also working is tricky.

I love plants and I love decorating, so I rearranged my working environment and made a little corner for me, separate from the living area, separate from where I needed to do yoga. Now, I get to teach, hear the ocean, look at the mountains. It’s amazing.

If something doesn’t work for you, find a temporary solution – like using stick-on whiteboard paper. At the end of the day, this is your bread and butter. You need to build a little empire but you also need to be comfortable in your environment. Make it you.

Do you buy course books and materials?

All of my course material is on Preply! I don’t need to fish around for lesson plans and I don’t really need course books per se.

However, it’s handy to use material from the internet. I love Ted talks. I love YouTube. i-to-i also has resources for teaching online <link to https://www.i-to-i.com/tefl-courses/tefl-resources> if you need them, like lesson plans and flashcards.

Have you thought about teaching English in person?

I don’t know of any EFL schools in Cape Town but, when I was doing my course, I posted something similar to a demo on my local community Facebook page, with a photo and what I can offer.

I started taking private students in but I found it difficult because the students would come to my house. I prefer teaching online. Everything is on one platform. I log in. I have my tea. I can look smart on the top but wear my slippers and be completely comfy. Online teaching works best for me.

How did you set your rates for teaching online?

I began low. I started at $7 an hour. It’s hard work but it’s not like that forever. You can increase your rate after a week, or whenever you want once you’ve got students and you start believing in yourself. You can say, ‘You’ve had eight lessons with me. I now need to put my rates up. Are you prepared to stay with me?’ And they usually do!

It’s about how you engage with people. At the end of the day, they’re just people. Speak to them. Say to them, ‘This is my situation. I need to earn more money.’ It is really hard and challenging in the beginning but I promise you, in the end, it’s all smiles.

I’m not earning millions but I get to surf, and I get to live where I work. I’m having the time of my life.

What’s next for your TEFL career?

I’m happy where I am at the moment. I’m going to start a yoga and mindfulness course shortly with i-to-i. I’m really excited about incorporating that in my lessons!

Everybody will say to you, ‘No, you can’t do that.’ Don’t listen to them ­– how do they know? There are many times when people said to me, ‘You can’t do online teaching because you don’t have a degree.’ Don’t give up! Follow your own dreams. Follow your heart.

I’m having so much fun! Good luck!

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