Virtual staffroom – do you talk about events like Christmas and Easter in class?

Easter is coming up and I’ve been looking at some of the activities that I use in lessons around this time. There’s a text about Easter symbols – what chicks, sheep and eggs have been used to symbolise, both in current traditions and in those predating them. I’ve found a text on chocolate and how the chocolate Easter egg has developed. I have an Easter quiz.

But should you even talk about things like Christmas and Easter, particularly if your students don’t celebrate them?

I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer here, because it will depend on each group of students, their interests, why they are learning English, and generally what is appropriate for them. However, here are some thoughts.

1. What is your agenda?

I don’t have a religious agenda, but one former student told me that a private teacher had previously used English lessons as a way to try and influence the student’s religious beliefs. I think this is completely unacceptable. Debate is fine if both participants are happy to do it. Sharing of experiences and cultural traditions can also be interesting, but I believe a teacher should not abuse their position of power to try and tell someone else what to believe.

2. What is the goal of incorporating this material into your lesson?

For me, it’s about culture. Christmas, Easter, Bonfire Night, Pancake Day and Halloween are all celebrated in the UK, and if someone is interested in developing their cultural knowledge as well as their English language skills, we can work on this by looking at some of the foods and traditions associated with these events. This will help students to know what’s going on if they visit the UK during the various events, and they will also know what English-speaking colleagues are talking about if these things come up in conversation.

In fact, there doesn’t have to be a specific event to do this. You can have some really interesting discussions about food, in which students talk about dishes from their own countries, or you look at classics like the Sunday roast. What’s the story behind popular dishes and why do people eat them on certain days or at particular times of the year?

Sometimes these activities are good for making comparisons and looking at differences too. I wrote an article about what people from other parts of Europe think about Christmas in the UK, and this generated some good discussions in class about traditions in general.

3. Is it age appropriate?

As a teacher of adults, I’ve found a lot of information online about Christmas or Easter activities for children, but generally adults don’t want to make Christmas cards or go on an Easter egg hunt – they’d just be happy to eat the chocolate instead. So if you’re going to do something, make sure it really adds value and is appropriate for the learners’ needs. It may well be that the student really isn’t interested, or that there is no connection between current events and the syllabus or learning goals, in which case it doesn’t need to be included at all.

4. What can your students contribute?

Rather than just being a fact-finding exercise, is there anything that your students can contribute from their own experiences? Is something like Christmas celebrated in their country? If so, what are the differences. If not, is there a big social or family event? Are there any similarities in terms of food, gifts etc?

I remember some discussions about Bonfire Night and how that developed into discussions that went in different directions – from the use of fireworks to celebrate other occasions, to animal welfare issues.

How about you?

So, do you incorporate events like Christmas, Easter or Mother’s Day into your lessons? If so, how, and what are some of your favourite activities?

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Kirsty working with students

Also, if you’re interested in posts for teachers, you can see my other articles about teaching English and running an online language teaching business on my page for teachers.

Virtual staffroom – when teachers don’t know the answer

In episode 4 of my podcast, I talked about what learners can say when they don’t know the answer to something.

But how about when students ask teachers questions and the teacher doesn’t know the answer?

What do you do then?

After all, you can’t know the answer to everything, can you?

Still, it’s not something that we usually talk about, maybe because we don’t want to look incompetent in front of our teacher peers.

I have to say I was more worried about this situation at the beginning of my teaching career. Not because I think I know everything now, but because I’ve learned some strategies for dealing with the situation.

1. When the student asks something you’ve never thought about before

It’s happened to me a couple of times. Usually it’s because the student is looking from the perspective of a learner and things occur to them that didn’t occur to me as a native speaker who just accepted the language as a child without questioning it.

The question was interesting and I wanted to know the answer too!

Or maybe you know something is wrong, but you can’t think of a better reason than “it just sounds wrong/odd/unnatural” and you want to give your student a better answer than that.

A couple of times when I didn’t know something, I admitted it and said I’d come back to the student. That’s much better than trying to come up with an answer on the fly. After all, the student can research after class as well, and if it turns out you were lying or came up with a story to hide what you didn’t know, it looks worse than if you say that you don’t know but will find out.

2. Using it as a way to learn

I had a situation in which a student wanted to know the origin of an expression. I had know idea how it had come into being, but we turned it into a learning exercise. Where do you go when you want to learn about words and their origins? How do you find out which sites give credible information? We got our answer, and both learned something, but during the course of the exercise, we trained other skills that would come in useful at other times.

If there’s no time for this in lesson, a student might enjoy finding something out as an extra task and reporting back next lesson.

3. We’ll cover that later

As good as it is to answer questions, it’s important to stay focussed on the task at hand. Sometimes students can come up with the most interesting questions in order to avoid a task they don’t want to do. I know this because I’ve done it. I may have been that student who wanted to avoid a free speaking exercise and who came up with some fascinating grammar questions. They were valid and worth exploring, but the danger was that doing that meant there would be no time for the speaking exercise I was desperately trying to avoid. My language teacher saw through it!

As interesting as the questions may be, you don’t have to go down every rabbit hole. If you think something genuinely is interesting and worth looking at in more detail, you can always make time for it later on. It doesn’t need to take priority over whatever else you were doing at that point in the lesson.

Of course, putting something off until the next lesson means that you can take the time to refresh yourself on the topic if you’re not quite sure of the rules or the best way to explain something.

4. When the student is trying to make you look bad

To be honest, I haven’t had this in my classes … yet! The people I work with genuinely want to learn and have no interest in trying to trip me up or make me look bad. Still, I choose whom I work with and I am aware that not everyone is in this position.

I have, however, had this problem in an online forum. Someone who thought it was their task to correct every single comment made in a Facebook group, and who suggested that I’d made a mistake, and that this was a very bad example to set for learners, meaning I must be a very bad teacher indeed!

I hadn’t made a mistake, but it made me question myself. I came back, armed with links and sources to quote. It was maybe more than was necessary, but I felt the need to prove I hadn’t done anything wrong.

I probably wouldn’t bother now – trolls will be trolls. There’s a difference between people who genuinely ask a question when they’re not sure about something, or looking for clarification, and people who feel the need to bring others down so they can feel good about themselves!

I think experience definitely helps when dealing with situations like this. That doesn’t mean the next troll won’t get to me, but I think you do build up some resilience, especially if you’re working in the online space and you’re the face of your brand. At least, it helps if you can do this.

Anyway I digress – if you enter into a battle with a student, you may never win. If someone has decided they’re smarter than you, it will always be a challenge for them to prove that you do know how to do your job, and it will probably take up a lot of your energy. On the other hand, it may become a less “fun” game for them if it doesn’t get the anticipated response from you. If someone’s looking to learn – that’s great. If someone’s looking for a fight every lesson – don’t give them one!

There is of course always the possibility that the student was right on a particular point and you were not. Some may see it as a sign of weakness, but others – maybe the majority – will respect you for owning it and admitting you made a mistake. That doesn’t mean you’re a bad teacher – just that you didn’t know this particular thing.

I’ve heard teacher colleagues say they felt a bit intimidated by students who were very confident and who had spent a lot of time in English-speaking countries. If possible, try to make these students allies, rather than competitors. In some cases it might not even be about the teacher at all, just someone feeling good about the fact that they are good at something, rather than trying to give the teacher a hard time. If someone wants to challenge you as a teacher – is there anything you can learn from it? After all, teachers never stop learning. Is there some way that you can channel the student’s energy into something more positive and constructive?

5. No excuse for bad preparation

This brings me to the last point. Nobody can know everything, but that’s not an excuse for bad preparation. If you’re teaching a particular grammar point and you’re not clear about how to teach it or what the rules are, it’s reasonable for students to feel short-changed. If you dashed off some photocopies of an exercise and can’t explain the task or why there are mistakes in it, you probably won’t want to do that again!

I have seen people who were frustrated by questions that they really should have been able to answer, and then I don’t think the students were to blame. They were there to learn after all. I think that, particularly for freelance teachers who are not following a school syllabus, it’s important to be clear about what you can and can’t offer.

Summing up

My students expect me to know what I’m talking about and answer their questions, but I don’t pretend that I have all the answers. Nobody should feel that they have to do that – even teachers!

Do you have any strategies to add? What do you do if you don’t know the answer to a question?

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Kirsty working with students

Also, if you’re interested in posts for teachers, you can see my other articles about teaching English and running an online language teaching business on my page for teachers.

What do you want to see in the virtual staffroom?

This post is a question for the teachers who read my blog.

I never set out to write articles for teachers. The first article happened because I was asked a specific question about teaching blind students, but then I had other ideas about posts that I could write.

People interacted with the posts and I received feedback that some of my tips and advice had helped people, so I continued to write.

The teacher posts on my blog fall into two main categories:

  1. Posts about setting up and running an online teaching business
  2. Posts about teaching English, developing activities, getting the best out of students, and helping students with specific needs.

I’ve received a couple of questions since I started writing the articles for teachers – that’s where the idea for the post about finding new students came from.

If I discover something interesting or find something that I want to share, I’ll write about it. However I would also like to know if you have any specific questions or topics that you would like me to cover in the coming months.

If so, please let me know using the form below:

If I don’t know the answer to a question, I am developing my own personal learning network of educators and I may well be able to find someone whom I can interview.


If you want to see the articles that I have already written, you can visit the teachers page.

How to find new students

This is not a post that I would have written without someone asking for it. After all, I’m not an expert in this. I could maybe write it if people were breaking the door down scrabbling for lessons and I had no gaps before next Easter, but as it is, although things are going well for me, people come and go when they have what they need, so I do have some gaps in my schedule and I could take on a few extra clients.

There was a time when I had a waiting list, but that was back in 2013, when my lessons were under-priced and work-life balance wasn’t a thing! I don’t want to go back to those days!

Anyway, when I ask in my newsletter or on my blog what other people want to read about, I do take the suggestions seriously. So when someone asked me to write about finding new students, I decided to share what I know.

1. Do you want to find new students?

I definitely do want to have my own students, and not to work for a school or language site, but some people choose to go down the route of working for others, at least at the beginning. I don’t want to go into all the positive and negative aspects of each option here, but I did write a guest post on whether it’s better to find your own students or work for others. You can find it here.

2. Are there potential students in your network?

Everyone knows people. The first two customers that I got came through people whom I already knew. One was someone that I’d been chatting to in an online forum, and the other was the partner of someone with whom I’d worked in the past.

The people who already know you may well be looking for the service that you offer, but they’ll only be able to tell you that if you let people know about your training. I don’t mean in a pushy way – you don’t want to bore everyone senseless by talking about work every chance you get, but there’s nothing wrong with dropping it into the conversation from time to time.

3. Word of mouth is powerful!

It’s hard to get word of mouth referrals at the beginning, but they really are the best way because you’ve got someone who’s already willing to promote your services. I had one customer who was happy with my work with one of his children, so he asked me to teach his other child too. The same family told one of their friends about me, and through that I got an additional customer. I’ve also had situations where people have told their friends or colleagues about the lessons because they enjoyed them, and then the friends came along too! This is great, because you don’t actually have to sell anything – just make a positive impression on the current customers.

You can also offer incentives for people to tell a friend. I’ve done this before – the referrer gets free credit on their account after introducing a friend (once the friend’s first payment has been received).

Testimonials work too – if people have enjoyed working with you, they may be willing to give you a quote for your website. Ok, it’s not quite like reviews on Amazon, because most people won’t post terrible reviews of themselves on their own site, but comments about your lessons will give people an idea what it’s like to work with you.

4. Where is your ideal customer likely to be?

Think about the various social media platforms, and where the people you want to attract are likely to spend time. Of course, you can only do this if you know who they are. If you say that you want to teach English to everyone and don’t specialise in anything, it will be much harder for you to stand out from the crowd and talk to people in a way that resonates with them, making them want to find out more.

As well as thinking where the customers may be, think about where you like spending time. I don’t like platforms such as Instagram, Pinterest and Snapchat, so I don’t use them!

You could use the well-known platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, Google or Instagram.

You could set up something of your own such as a blog, podcast, or Youtube channel, so that people get to know your content first and hopefully know, like and trust you as a service provider. I don’t give free lessons or trial lessons, but I do make useful information available to people so they can find out about my style and learn something before they have to pay.

Some countries have alternative sites. For example, people do use LinkedIn in Germany, but there is another business networking site called Xing, and as someone who works primarily with German speakers, Xing is a smarter option for me than LinkedIn in terms of reaching people. I believe that other countries have their own social networking alternatives, so if you have the language skills to use those sites, they are an additional way to find people.

You could post adverts on local or national websites.

You could get media interest – journalists are unlikely to be willing to promote your service for free – after all, that’s not news – but if you have an interesting angle on a current story, something which is interesting to the local community, or some knowledge that would benefit their readers, they may be willing to include your website link in their story as well.

You could attend events to promote your services – either local business events, or events where your ideal customer is likely to be.

There are also many online events.

I never had much luck with flyers, but it’s an option if you’re doing something locally, or if you have people in other places who would put them up for you.

5. What makes you unique?

Often, teaching languages is about fixing problems. This could be helping children at school, preparing people for an exam, helping people to feel more confident about using English at work, preparing for a holiday, or making sure that the information people put up on their website is not full of mistakes.

Can you offer a solution to a problem as a package? So not just an exchange of your time for the customer’s money? My business English course does include Skype calls, but it also includes audio messages, factsheets, worksheets and feedback on an exercise to help people complete each module and more importantly, feel confident in each business situation.

In what areas do you shine? I can teach grammar in a way that helps people to understand, whereas other teachers hate doing that. I can’t get excited about language exam preparation, but other teachers focus on this and do a really good job!

Have you experienced problems in any of these areas? I’m sure it helps that I was once really nervous about speaking my second language, but now I do it all the time at work. This helps my more nervous students to understand that I know the struggles they face and have come through them.

Can you think of an idea that is new or somehow quirky? Something that sets you apart? There are people who wouldn’t want to sit down in a classroom, but they would be up for “English for dog walkers!”

Do you have some knowledge from your previous experience or career that would put you at an advantage? I don’t market exclusively to blind people, and most of my students are not blind, but as I have a visual impairment, I know how to create materials that can be used by people with screenreading software, and I can highlight this when I’m talking to potential customers who are blind.

Do you have a marketing budget? Maybe not at the beginning. I put an advert in a magazine and it didn’t work at all, so if you do have a bit of money for advertising, try a couple of things out. Also, is the advertising bringing the right kind of people? New Facebook likes are great, but not so great if they are all people who are only looking for free services. Sometimes the numbers aren’t everything if they aren’t really the people whom you want to reach.

6.How can people get to know you?

Sometimes it’s hard to know which offer to take or which teacher to choose. There are so many people doing this work now. When I started in 2012, online learning was more of a new concept, whereas now plenty of people are doing it.

If you can find some way to let people get to know you, how you work, what you offer etc, and they like it, they are more likely to sign up for things that you offer.

If they love your Youtube channel, were helped by a blog article, or look forward to your podcast every week, it will build up a sense that you aren’t a complete stranger to them. Then, if they need help, you’ll be top of mind.

This is clearly more work than sticking up a few ads, but it’s planning for the long-term. Also, it’s worth mentioning that the first website that gave me a lot of customers changed its rules, which meant that I couldn’t rely on it any more. Facebook pages can be taken down. If you build your own audience on your own platform, you are more in control.

7. Can you offer things at different price points?

Sometimes people can’t afford one-to-one lessons, but they would be able to afford something like a book or a video course. Alternatively, people may want to buy some of the cheaper products before committing to lessons. Have you got something that you could offer at a lower price point?

Some people will tell you to create group programmes or self-study courses. Self-study courses are great, but they’re not really my thing, so I can’t comment on that. I found a reluctance in my audience to take part in group programmes (they tend to be professionals with specific problems that they want to solve in a one-to-one setting), but your audience may be different, so it’s worth considering.

8. Joining communities or building your own

When we talk about things like Facebook, I don’t just mean setting up a page and posting there. Facebook groups are powerful. They give you the chance to meet people who have identified themselves as being in a particular group or having a particular interest.

Some people’s use of Facebook groups is really bad – it won’t work if you just spam every group you can find with an advert about your services. But if you build relationships, give good advice, help people out, share useful information, and become the go-to person for your particular niche, you can grow your network and potential customer base in a way that isn’t pushy or offensive. I don’t usually do things that would require a lot of one-to-one time, but if someone has a quick question, I’ll try to answer. If someone has a more general question, I might answer it in a blog post, and then other people can benefit from it too.

You may also want to set up your own Facebook group. Ok, again this is more work, but it gives you the chance for people to get to know you and what you offer. Sometimes people are more willing to interact in groups rather than on pages, particularly if they are interacting in a language that is not their native language. You just need to be clear about what the group is for (i.e. it’s not for free English tuition!) and whom you most want to help in there.

The other thing to consider is the type of group that you want to join. My first thought was to join groups about learning English. This did work for me on business networking sites, but the ones that I found on Facebook were very big, poorly managed and full of irrelevant content. Sorry if you manage a big Facebook group about English learning – I’m sure there are some great ones out there, but I didn’t find them.

I had better luck when I thought about what other groups my ideal customer would be in. German groups for small business owners are a good fit for me. If you want to teach children locally, is there a parents’ group that you can join? If you train people who are going on holiday, can you find some travel groups? If you offer English for dentists, can you find some dentist groups? Try to get past the fact that people are looking to learn English, and think where else they might be. If you do, you won’t find yourself in a group flooded with other English teachers, and you will stand out, because you might be the only person offering that service in the group.

9. Monitor how people find you

Anyone who knows me well won’t be surprised to know that I have a spreadsheet that monitors where people first heard of me. It updates automatically, calculating how much money each channel brought me, and what percentage of the total income that is. I don’t want to invest loads of time or money in something that clearly isn’t working.

10. It’s ok to work with other teachers

I did a post about working with other teachers but basically, they are not just your competition. If Someone were offering a service that was similar to mine, I probably wouldn’t promote it, but if someone’s doing an event or someone wrote a really helpful post, why not share it? They may do the same for you! Also, if you find someone whose blog or podcast you like, there may be guest opportunities, which can be mutually beneficial, because they get you both in front of new audiences.

11. Things that have worked before may stop working

Facebook pages are a good example of this. I’m not saying that they don’t work any more, because they do, but in the beginning, I knew that most of the people who had liked my page would see my posts. Now, you can still have success with organic reach (people seeing your post without you having to pay for it), but it is harder.

I used to advertise on a site that was bought up by another company and stopped offering adverts for goods and services.

I know a teacher who was using Blab, but then Blab closed down.

Even if you find a “winning formula”, don’t put all your eggs in one basket because things change and you need to adapt along with them, trying new things out, stopping things that don’t work any more, and doing the things that work best for you.

12. You never know who’s watching or who might find you in the future!

I got one customer because one of her friends interacted with one of my Facebook posts. She didn’t know about English with Kirsty before then.
Another customer found me because of a blog post that I had written six months previously. This same customer then went on to refer me to someone else, but I didn’t know that when I put the post up! I didn’t see immediate results! Actually that’s one of the hardest parts when it comes to looking for new students – you can do a load of marketing activities and you may not see any immediate results.

That’s why it’s so hard to write a post like this – like the tortoise in the hare and tortoise story, slow and steady wins the race. There is no easy answer to how to find students, and unless you find people who want to stay for a number of years (I do have a couple of those), finding students will always be on your to-do-list because people go and will need to be replaced.

This has got very long, so I’ll stop here. I hope some of the tips were useful to you. Feel free to add more in the comments.

More from English with Kirsty

If you would like more articles like this and other news from English with Kirsty to be delivered straight to your inbox, you can sign up for my monthly newsletter.

Kirsty working with students

Also, if you’re interested in posts for teachers, you can see my other articles about teaching English and running an online language teaching business on my page for teachers.

Virtual staffroom

Do you follow this blog because you teach English, or because you’re interested in setting up an online teaching business?

If you do, I’d like to let you know about my virtual staffroom, a page on my website where I post links to all the posts that I’ve written for teachers (newest first).

There is a contact form where you can sign up for English with Kirsty News or make suggestions about posts that you’d like to see in the future. This can also include pitches for guest posts if you have an idea about something you would like to contribute.

You can also read about my new strategy session service for new or aspiring online teachers.

Of course you’ll see new posts on the blog, but if you want to get all of the teacher content in one place, or to look back at previous articles, the virtual staffroom is a good place to do this.

Have a great week!

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Kirsty working with students

Teacher Q&A

Hello and welcome to my teacher Q&A post!

I thought it might be interesting to do a kind of “get to know you” post using some of the questions that I’ve been asked about life as an online teacher. I don’t really like doing tag posts, because I never know who will be interested, but if you want to answer any of these questions and share your experiences in the comments, please do so. Also, if you’re a blogger and you want to take part, it would be great if you mention this blog as the place where the questions originated, then feel free to drop the link to the post with your answers in the comments.

1. Why did you decide to become a language teacher?

I’ve always loved languages. English, French and German were my favourite subjects at school, and I have now found a way to combine my love for language with my interest in working with people and my desire to speak German (I work predominantly with German speakers, and some of the organisation and occasional grammar explanations take place in German).

As a child, I always wanted to be a teacher, but not wanting to work with children in a school soon put an end to that idea. Later I realised that adults need training too, and the idea for an online English teaching business was born.

2. What is the hardest thing about your job?

Possibly the marketing of the business – at the beginning I didn’t realise it would be such a big commitment. I thought I’d spend all my time teaching, and that’s not the case. I think the hardest thing about marketing is that you often don’t see results straight away, so it’s hard to measure the effectiveness of each activity until you’ve given it some time to take effect. Still, I like a challenge!

3. What is the funniest thing that has happened in one of your lessons?

One of my students had a bird in the same room as her. He must have got tired of the lesson, because he flew down, perched on the iPad and ended the Skype call. The bird that didn’t like English lessons!

4. Where is the most unusual place that you have given a lesson, or what is the most unusual thing that you have been asked to cover?

I was at home, but one of my students was so eager not to miss a lesson that she logged into Skype from her balcony while she was on holiday in Spain.

5. How many countries have you taught in?

I’ve only lived in England, where most of my teaching takes place, but I’ve also taught whilst on short trips to Sweden and the Netherlands. I’ve taught people in Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Russia, Turkey, Chile and China. Not as impressive a list as some, but I tend to focus on the German-speaking market.

6. What makes you happy?

Seeing people grow in confidence and use the skills that they learned in my lessons. People who were shy about speaking telling me how they have had a good conversation in English. Polite and friendly students who pay and arrive on time! Oh and being sent chocolate in the post also makes me happy!

7. What is your least favourite thing to teach?

Probably punctuation, because it’s necessary, but more of a challenge to make it exciting!

8. Who inspires you?

That’s difficult. My students inspire me, because some of them are so committed to their goals and enthusiastic about achieving them. Some of the small business owners in the Facebook groups in which I take part inspire me, because they don’t give up, and they keep coming up with innovative ideas to develop their businesses.

9.Knowing what you know now, what would you do differently?

Knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t have wasted money on a course for my own development that was not as good as it was marketed to be, but I like to think that I learned some valuable lessons all the same about communication, customer service, reputation management, and the way I want others to see me!

10. Can you think of something that you tried in your business or in a lesson that you’d never done before?

Producing the podcast was a challenge at the beginning because although I’d been listening to podcasts for years, making my own was something I’d never done before. I am glad I tried it though and I’ll soon be producing episode 100!

11. How do you get support from other teachers?

I don’t work in a school with other teachers, but I am in a couple of Facebook groups for online teachers, and I have also connected with teachers on Twitter.

12. What advice would you give to a new online language teacher?

Don’t feel that you have to do everything that everyone else is doing. I am a blogger and podcaster. I do not like making videos. Other people are having real success with videos, but if you hate doing something, it won’t be your best work, and people will see that. Let your business reflect who you are and don’t feel you have to copy other people. Of course it’s great to follow good advice, but stay true to who you are, don’t let people make a pushy salesperson out of you if that’s not what you want to become, don’t be told that you’ll never be successful if you don’t follow the herd. My visual impairment means that I do a number of things differently by default, but as long as I get the job done, who cares that I don’t use the same tools as other people? Everyone needs to work out what is right for them – it’s your business after all!

If you want some more tips, you can have a look at my 15 things I wish I’d known before becoming an online English teacher post .

13. Where do you go when you have questions?

Google is my friend! I’ve learned a lot from my friend Google about web design, social media, tax returns, and how to self-publish a book. If I’m looking for human advice, I have built a network of teacher friends and other people with small businesses. My partner is also a fantastic sounding board for new ideas.

14. What’s your favourite way to connect with people online/where can we find you on social media?

I love it when people comment on my blog, or via the contact form on one of my podcast pages. You can also find me by using my Facebook page or on Twitter.

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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 baring 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, focus on building a following on Twitter or Youtube.
  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.
  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. 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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Kirsty working with students

For more articles for teachers, visit my virtual staffroom page.