15 things I wish I’d known before becoming an online English teacher

Sometimes people ask me what it’s like being an online teacher. Usually it’s people who are thinking about setting up an online business – either teachers who have previously worked in a face-to-face setting, or people who want to start something completely new.

There are a lot of misconceptions about running your own language teaching business. I love being the boss and not having to support other people’s bad decisions or ineffective ways of working. I am glad I don’t have to commute for 3 hours every day and I enjoy setting my own schedule. But it’s not all about sitting around with your feet up watching the pounds come in, as some people would have you believe. It takes work and commitment to set up something of which you can be proud!

It’s important to decide on your target audience – where do you want to focus when it comes to doing your marketing? If you can get this clear in your mind, it will be better for you because you’re doing what you want to be doing, and it will make it easier to write specifically for that particular group. Would you rather work with children, students, speakers of a specific language, professionals in a certain field, or people studying for a specific purpose such as an exam? Which skills do you enjoy teaching? Do you want to focus on speaking, grammar, listening, writing or something else entirely? You can do more than one of these things, but it’s good to identify your own strengths and preferences whilst you’re working out who would benefit most from your teaching.

What unique things do you have to offer that will set you apart from other online teachers? Another language, experience in a certain field, or experience working with a certain group of people? You don’t have to decide on this straight away, but it helps when you’re building your brand and helping people to get to know you and what you can offer them.

Do you want to work for agencies/tutor sites, or do you want to find your own students? I do the latter, which in some ways is harder, but it has the advantage that you make all the rules and you can introduce students to other products and services. This is usually not allowed if you’re working for a school or language site.

If I had to list 15 pieces of advice that I wish someone had given me before becoming an online teacher, I’d say:

  1. Don’t think that you’ll be spending all your time teaching. A lot of time is needed for other things such as book keeping, preparation, marketing etc. If you don’t know how to do these things, you either need the money to outsource them or the time to learn. Even if you do outsource them, you should still have a basic understanding of how they work.
  2. Have some way for people to get to know you. A website is great, and it definitely helps you to build credibility, but something like a podcast, a blog, a Facebook group etc gives people an opportunity to really find out who you are and decide whether they want to work with you. (Only relevant if you’re getting your own clients and not working for other organisations). It’s also worth bearing in mind that if you bring people to your site, you set the rules. If you rely on something like Facebook for building your audience, whilst it is good for getting your name out there, Facebook could change its rules or algorithms at any time and there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s better to find some way to build direct contact with your audience, such as a newsletter.
  3. Working on your own can be a bit isolating at times, so it’s good to build a network of people in a similar situation so you can have a laugh together or someone to give you some encouragement on days when things aren’t going so well. This can either be other teachers, or it can be other small business owners – sometimes people from a completely different field can suggest really good solutions to problems, and many of the questions about running a business are similar, irrespective of the service that you provide.
  4. It takes time and sometimes you don’t see immediate results. Last year someone contacted me after reading something that I’d written 6 months previously! At the time, the post didn’t get a lot of love, but six months later, it helped me to get work from this person.
  5. Try to be specific and know what specific problem or need you can address. For example I do work with other people, but I mainly focus on German professionals who need English at work.
  6. If you hate doing something, don’t do it! You’re your own boss now and you don’t have to follow the herd in terms of what everyone says you need to be doing in order to succeed. Ok, there are exceptions, such as tax returns – you don’t have a choice there – but if you don’t enjoy doing live videos, find another way to communicate with potential customers. If you don’t enjoy being on Facebook or Instagram, focus on building a following on LinkedIn, Tiktok or YouTube. Or maybe there is another platform where you are already active.
  7. There are more online teachers now than there were when I set up my business in 2012. It’s still possible to find students, but you have to do more work than you had to previously to stand out in the crowd. It’s best if you can start with a plan on how you’re going to do this. You won’t know whether things work until you try them, so keep a log of how students came across your services and have regular reviews with yourself about what is and what isn’t working in your business.
  8. Don’t overdo it! When I started my business, I was so determined to make it a success that I didn’t see any of my friends for about 6 weeks. You need time to relax and rest as well. Being passionate is good, but so is being rested so that you can give your best when you get back to work. Being exhausted because you are super-busy but under-priced is not something that you can sustain indefinitely.
  9. You will thank yourself if you set boundaries – with yourself, in terms of the hours that you want to work, and with students in terms of what is acceptable, when you can be contacted and when you are willing to teach. Being an online teacher doesn’t have to mean that you’re available 24/7.
  10. On the subject of boundaries, it’s good if you can draw up an agreement to which students should agree before the lessons begin. It doesn’t have to be long or complicated, but it’s good to set out what you’re going to do and what you expect from them in return with regard to payment, cancellation or general behaviour. It’s helpful to know where you both stand, and in the rare cases that you might need an exit strategy, you can refer back to the terms of the agreement.
  11. Unless you’re working on something specific and confidential, if you’ve spent time putting a learning resource together, such as a grammar worksheet or a listening exercise, keep it for future use. I have a whole stack of stuff in my folder now that I can use for new students because I’ve already put the work in creating it.
  12. Networking with other teachers is beneficial. Sometimes they will be talking about things that are completely irrelevant, in my case school politics, working with small children, and managing larger groups, but if you build up a network of teacher contacts, you get the benefits of the online staffroom such as mutual support, inspiration for lessons, and a sounding-board for new ideas.
  13. Generally, new students won’t come beating down your door, even if you have a good website and interesting programmes. I’ve had a few word-of-mouth referrals, which are fantastic, but I’ve had to work for the rest, showing up every day, producing and distributing good content and building my reputation.
  14. There are people out there who will expect you to work for free. Decide what you’re going to do about that and don’t feel obliged to do it – because if you do, you won’t have time to work with paying customers! That doesn’t mean I haven’t helped someone out because I knew they couldn’t pay, and I do provide free content, but it needs to be on my terms and if a random person contacts me and asks for free English lessons or to chat to me as a language exchange (usually without the exchange bit whereby they offer something in return), I point them to my free resources, such as the blog, podcast, Facebook page and newsletter, and explain that one-to-one time with me is a paid service.
  15. As an online teacher, you’ll have good and bad days! Days when everything falls into place and days where the tech drives you wild, a mean comment on social media makes you sad or someone does something really kind and unexpected such as sending you chocolate!! Don’t let the feelings you have at any one time, particularly if they are negative, govern how you feel about your teaching or your business. Try to keep the big picture in mind and have people around you who will make you smile!

I love my job. I get to meet interesting people, do something I enjoy, use my second language, have an office to myself, set up my own systems and processes that work well for me, and know that I’m making a difference. Still, in some ways it’s very different to what I had expected. I’ve learned a lot since I started my business in 2012 and I hope some of this information will help others who are thinking about venturing down this road!

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Achieving results online with adult language learners

If you enjoyed this article, you may also be interested in my book about teaching English to adults online. You can find the book, “Achieving results online with adult language learners – by Kirsty Major” on Amazon or iBooks, or you can read more about it here.

In the 40 chapters of the book, you’ll find several articles that I have published online, along with exclusive content that can only be found in the book. I talk about my experiences of setting up an online language teaching business, what I’ve learned, and how I’ve dealt with a variety of challenges, both in terms of organisation and running the lessons.

book front cover