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December 09, 2005

Workplace Issues - The Problem with Private ESL Classes

"They're called lessons because they lessen from day to day." ~Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures In Wonderland

How are your private lessons going this semester? I hope that they’re not anything like mine! Speaking of which, the topic of this entry is private ESL classes. I have talked to many ESL teachers about this topic, and it’s surprising to see how quickly the conversation can become heated. It seems that everyone has a strong opinion about whether or not a teacher can make a decent living giving them.

In the places I've taught ESL, salaries aren’t necessarily known to be top rate. After trying to live on the school’s salary, I eventually decided . . .

ESL Private Tutor.gif

. . . to try and give some private classes to supplement my income.

Despite what you may have heard, it is NOT possible to live anywhere on the planet on just $500 per month! Well, it may be possible, but I would highly recommend against it unless you have an unusual knack for eating porridge or ramen noodles three times a day, everyday, and don’t mind sharing your house with four-legged creatures that go “squeak” in the night.

Anyway, after starting this ESL job early in my career, I set out to find some students and set up private classes. After about a month, I had a good amount of students interested. I set up my classes, and began to teach. It seemed to be going pretty well, but I quickly learned that not all the students were as serious as others. For example, I have one class of medical students who worked for the university, and my requirement for that class was that there be a minimum of five students. Eventually—on a critical payday—I came to realize that my five student class has quickly dwindled to only two students. I gave this class two nights a week, and it was definitely not worth it for only two students.

Was it my teaching methods? Were the students not learning? No, they had all markedly improved their English since the conception of the class. It’s just life, and unlike a paid position, the income in a private class depends on the amount of students who are serious about learning English. C'est La Vie, right?

So, I guess that my opinion about private classes would be this: If you want to supplement your income, they’re a great idea. But I’m not so sure that I would feel comfortable relying on them to eat. What about you? I would love to hear of any experiences that you’ve had in this problematic area! Post a comment below, and let’s talk!

Until next time,

Lee Hobbs
Editor-in-Chief, ESLemployment.com
Blog: http://www.english-blog.com

Looking for more articles that focus on workplace issues specific to ESL? Click HERE!

Posted by lhobbs at December 9, 2005 11:57 PM

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Private lessons no-shows. Has this ever happened to you? You spent an hour preparing for a private class, then rush to get to it on time. You set up your props or whatever you will be using, then sit back and wait for your students to arrive. Ten m... [Read More]

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I think that teaching privates is a great way to make money depending on the country that you are in.

Recently there have been numerous immigration crackdowns in the Asian countries and while teaching privatly can be incredibly lucrative it can also result in hefty fines and even deportation so you really have to sit down and decide if the means justify that extra pint at the pub on a Friday night.


Posted by: Cher at December 9, 2005 08:48 PM


Note from Lee:


Yes, the ESL world is hearing about this more and more as nations that once took little notice to the hordes of Westerners renting flats in their cities, are now aware - usually through their own crafty press agencies - that foreign ESL teachers seem to be making more than the locals in unreported, "under-the-table" cashflow.

One really should investigate the possibility of paying taxes as an independent contractor to avoid big legal trouble with the ministry of revenue.

Posted by: Lee at December 9, 2005 08:55 PM

Lee and Cher,

I had a similiar experience in Vietnam. To supplement my income I started to try an establish classes, either private lesson or classes.

However after the first weeks weeks when the attendance was quite good the students stated being either late or not turning up. The idea is to get them to pay for 1 months tuition at the beginning of the month. This does of course help but the students with more money are not as keen to learn while others are really very dedicated.

I gave up the class lessons as it was not worthwhile doing preparation for only 2 in a class.


Posted by: Jenny at December 9, 2005 08:58 PM


I don't like private classes because they eat away my free time. But if I were to do them, I would teach children (shudder and cringe) because they will continue to come as long as mom and dad pay. Adults come as long as they don't feel like doing something else or get busy with work and are thus undependable as a source of income.

Posted by: EFL Geek at December 9, 2005 09:59 PM


Note from Lee:

EFL Geek,

Very good point.

Posted by: Lee at December 9, 2005 10:14 PM

Hi Lee,

Can a person really make a living just through tutoring? It's a good question, and one that I want to answer for myself by trying to do it. I have actually met teachers that support themselves in Canada exclusively through tutoring. Unfortunately I'm still in the gathering students stage so I can't really offer anything definitive one way or the other from my own personal experiences.

The main thing that I wanted to add is that in the case of tutoring it makes a big difference whether you are teaching in your home country (TESL) or teaching in the student's home country (TEFL) To a certain extent, students have already made a serious commitment to learning English by travelling abroad in the first place. This is not the case for students working at jobs and living their lives back home.

Regardless of where you are, it's very easy for students to think of tutoring as being something less than serious education. The teacher can go a long way towards changing this attitude, perhaps by doing things like asking for tuition in advance, issuing a receipt, having a contract and otherwise following some of the "official" procedures of conventional ESL schools.

At least that's what I'm betting on. I'll let you know how it works!


Posted by: Nigel Fogden at December 10, 2005 09:39 PM

ESL Folks:

Are private classes the way to go? I think it depends on two things: where you are, and what your goals are with your teaching. Im in Madrid, Spain. There is a huge market here for private classes.

In the long-term I undoubtedly would like to work exclusively on my own, but you cant do that overnight. You need to find a school or agency to provide some stability before you jump into the deep end with only private students, unless you have a good bit of cash saved and some nerves of steel to sustain you financially until you get enough private students to live on. But in the long term getting your own students is the way to go for a simple reason: you make much more money.

Schools and agencies are taking away money you could be making. That doesnt mean theyre doing anything wrong, but if you plan on teaching for a long time, as a career, it is madness to spend your whole career losing tons of money every month just for the convenience of having your classes organized for you.

Is it a pain and riskier to go private? Yes. But its the only way to make any money. Now, if you just want to teach for a year or two in a foreign country, its not worth it to make the investment in developing a base of students. So, I would say if youre in it for the long term you definitely want to go with your own students. If youre just in it for a while, take the easy route and go with a school.

Now, I dont know about Asia or other teaching settings that may present different challenges. In Spain, however, if youre going to be around for a long time, you definitely want to get your own show going.


Posted by: Justin at December 30, 2005 05:31 AM


At first I was afraid of teaching children but through pressure from parents I gave it a try. After a few false starts I got the hang of it and even, yes, got to enjoy it.

I find I prefer to begin with 9 or 10 year olds who know the international alphabet and are reading a little at school.

I found a textbook with a great teachers book and I follow it religiously (New Concept). Other people hate this book but it is because they have not used the teachers book. We study had for an hour and then have an hour of cartoon and song learning. The cartoons reinforce vocabulary learned from the textobbk. Students bring an exercise book to make a songbook. After they learn a song I dictate it to them and they write it in their songbook. No matter how hard it was during the textbook part they leaving singing at the top of their voices, they are happy and the parents are happy.

In this area I only needed to find one parent who wanted their child to learn from me. I tell them when I am available and if they can find 5 more we can open a class. They do the rest, they recruit the others, organize payment - they pay one month in advance. During winter and summer break we usually do 30 hours intensive.

It took about 2 years for me to get to this stage, now I have more students than I can handle. I still teach in a university for my base pay.

Only downside is that it is evenings and weekends that they are available. But it is lucrative and rewarding. Students make rapid progress and they like to use English. Last summer a group of 11 years olds started extensvie reading in English and were blown away.

Another important issue is to become friends with the parents. At first parents would try to tell me what they wanted their child to learn but their expectations were not realistic. Finally I made it clear that I am the teacher and I will decide what students are ready for. I think it took a load off the parents and they respected me for it.

Is it legal? The parents of some of my students are the ones who would enforce the law, if they wanted to. Changig money and fireworks are illegal too. Does that put it in prespective? Give it a try.


Posted by: jfarreast at December 30, 2005 09:00 PM

Great point Nigel!!

Advance payment, receipts and and contracts are what I started using when I saw that my private students were starting to trickle away. It worked like a charm!!


Posted by: Alexa at December 31, 2005 12:35 AM


i live in russia, and teach just for mysself. i have for over a year now.

i make between 2-5000 usd a month.

i think thats ok.


Posted by: jeremy at December 31, 2005 05:28 AM


"Despite what you may have heard, it is NOT possible to live anywhere on the planet on just $500 per month! Well, it may be possible, but I would highly recommend against it unless you have an unusual knack for eating porridge or ramen noodles three times a day, everyday, and don’t mind sharing your house with four-legged creatures that go “squeak” in the night."

Now, assuming that "anywhere" in the above quote means "in any place" and not "in every place", I must say that is a breath-takingly uninformed comment coming from a webmaster trying to attract Westerners overseas. The average monthly pay for a teacher in China would be around 4,000 yuan or $500 (higher in the major cities). On that salary, one can live very comfortably BY WESTERN STANDARDS and save money to boot.

Then again, if your intent was to discourage your readers from "eating rats and living with noodles" or whatever, I must say thank you. The shortage of foreign teachers will force our salaries even higher.


Note from Lee:

Thanks for your opinion MIke and please forgive the sarcasm (no offense was intended).

Posted by: Mike in China at December 31, 2005 05:43 PM


See my post on the related topic for how I deal with this.

One thing I will say, is that I have managed to live quote comfortably teaching privately mostly by getting independent contracts with companies. I am about to attempt to put together some groups of indivduals.

I think how much you can make depends on how much you value your work, and also the country you are living in. One thing I do when selling to companies is present myself as a Language Trainer rather than as a teacher. Trainers get a much higher rate of pay than teachers do.


Posted by: AMB at January 6, 2006 06:41 AM

Note from Lee:

Readers, this post has been relocated to the English-Blog space. To make a comment on this article, please click on the following link HERE!:


Posted by: Lee at January 24, 2006 08:42 PM