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December 11, 2005

Teaching ESL WITHOUT An Employer

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"Early to bed, early to rise. Work like hell and advertise." ~Ted Turner

Lots of us have done it. Especially with the more dodgy ESL school contracts.

The moonlighting ESL job on the side or the private student that pays as much as an hour of class at your local International House. The extra cash is good, it's all under the table and it's no real skin off your back.

Well, what happens when the demand for your services begins to exceed the amount of time you have available? In other words, if you do the math, you begin to figure that you might be able to do better doing only private lessons that having to adhere the schedule of an ESL school that doesn't get you legal working papers to begin with.

Assuming you can get away with it legally - and depending on the watchdog activity of your host town - let's say that you decide to forego traditional ESL employment and go full throttle with only private ESL lessons to account for the bulk of your income. Or, let's say that you keep a "legal" job, but only with the minimal part time hours so you will have more time to devote to your private students.

For some, this is an ideal situation. Especially when the business is easy to get.

Our encouraging friend Nigel, over on Barefoot ESL, has introduced a newer business model, one that certainly seems safer legally. He's gone back home to North America, where he's from, to set up shop exclusively as a private lesson ESL instructor/tutor. His idea is to set up a website that allows for immigrant ESL/EFL clients to find him online (the opposite of going out to find them).

Unless I'm wrong, it seems that this model resembles a "dating service" internet model where ESL learners who are seeking a private lesson ESL tutor, go to the site to "hook up" with an ESL instructor of their choice who are looking to provide private lessons. Somehow, both parties will get connected on the website leaving everyone happy in the end.

I am hoping that Nigel will find great success with his venture. Over on his blog (here), he has been expressing some of the day-to-day difficulties he's had in getting both the business and website up and running. In the interim, he's resorted to putting up posters on lamp posts, the old-fashioned way. A recent blog entry had to do with what kind of copy one should put on a poster to distinguish yourself from competing private lesson ESL instructors.

I'd like to find out from any of you, dear colleagues, whom have found particular success with the ESL private lesson industry. What strategies did you use to get more business when it was needed? How did you guarantee regular payments? How and where did you advertise? Most of all, what doesn't work?

Let's give Nigel a hand by opening up this new discussion. Hopefully, he's reading and will share his insights as well. As usual, I look forward to hearing what you have to say.

In the meantime, "your message here!"

Lee Hobbs
ESL Instruct, Editor-in-Chief

Posted by lhobbs at December 11, 2005 11:06 PM

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Hi Lee,

I really appreciate your input and support. Barefoot ESL and yourESLteacher.com are kind of ongoing experiments for me. Getting a sense of other people's ideas and experiences is invaluable.

Personally, I think you have to be a bit brave to go it alone and privately tutor while you're living in a foreign country. One of the most frustrating things for me was never being quite sure what I was and wasn't allowed to do. Often the line between frowned upon, forbidden and illegal is disturbingly unclear.

Even so, if schools aren't living up to their obligations to students and teachers then it's inevitable that people will cut the schools out to some degree. In any country tutors naturally fill in the gaps left by traditional ESL schools.

Posted by: Nigel Fogden at December 12, 2005 01:44 PM


Can you free lance and offer private lessons in Germany without a work permit>



Posted by: Hemphill at December 12, 2005 05:02 PM


Note from Lee:


Germany, hmm. Please go over to ESL Forum and ask around to be sure but my immediate guess is "no."

If you are in the EU on a tourist visa (non-working visa), then, from my understanding, you have made an implicit agreement with the government that the purpose of your visit will not be business-related and that you will not be accepting funds.

I knew some Americans, for example, who worked in Germany during the 90s but they had to on the sly. Otherwise, try to get hired at Berlitz or something as a part-time native-speaker and just avoid the legal trouble.

However, if you are offering them for free, there's probably not a thing they could do for you.

If you are already an EU citizen, I would imagine you would need to report your income to the ministry of revenue as some kind of independent contractor to avoid penalties.

Good luck!

Posted by: Lee at December 12, 2005 05:56 PM


I procurred my own private contracts to teach English to 4 & 5star hotel staff, and then advertised in the local English magazine for private students. I gradually built up a good number of private students. Many of those were Japanese business people, who then told their friends and brought along more students.

I used the Cambridge University Interchange English books. We were in China for 2 years 3 months, and enjoyed it very much.
Payments were made after each lesson.

My husband taught at some colleges and some were very unreliable and kept most of the proceeds for themselves. However, there were some reliable and ethical colleges.

Government schools do not pay enough to sustain a good living standard.


Posted by: Es at December 30, 2005 03:47 PM

To JDH and Lee,

Lee, you are right about needing a work permit in Germany. I am a German citizen, but grew up abroad, so German is actually a second language to me. I speak it fluently but with an accent. I lived in Germany for a few years and worked there as well. Because of my accent, my employers immediately assumed I was foreign and asked me for my work permit.

JDH, I am sure there are quite a few people working under the radar. That happens everywhere. However I do think it is kind of risky to attempt to work under the radar, regardless of where you are. The stress alone of having the feeling you have to hide something, or to have to constantly be on guard, added to having to keep your private students interested enough in the class to keep coming and more importanlty paying, is considerable enough not to want to work that way.

A lot of part time jobs in Germany apparently offer you a guaranteed minimum number of teaching hours a week, and some are of about 20 teaching hours, but they do not pay that well. Given the low amount of hours, you can surely either find another part time job somewhere else or freelance on your free time.

The advantage of having a part time job is that you know that, at the end of the month, you will have at least what that job offers as a salary and you will probably be able to pay for your apartment. If I were you I would try not to work under the table.


Posted by: Alexa at December 31, 2005 12:23 AM

Hi Lee.

I think that in most EU countries you can get away with private classes "on the sly" whether you are an EU citizen or not. However I recall in Japan (and I'm guessing in China and South Korea too) it was considered a breach of contract with your employer that could get you kicked out of the country, thus making it difficult if not impossible to work there again.

That's not to say that people don't give private classes in Japan (plenty do!), it's just that the penalties are higher if you get caught.

Overall, it's fair to say you can get in a lot more trouble offering private classes in some EFL markets than others. My advice would be to consult discreetly with colleagues and dip your toe in the water only after you've done a bit of research.


Posted by: Jon Yeomans at January 4, 2006 01:08 PM


I agree with Alexa that a part time job can be a useful way of giving yourself a safety net of regular pay and, in some cases, accommodation.

A reliable employer can help with the legal niceties such as visas, work permits and tax numbers. They can offer you some measure of protection if you run into any trouble with the authorities and provide evidence of your income if any questions are asked.

They can also be a source of materials for your private lessons – language schools tend to have a better range of books and tapes than most teachers and, most importantly, access to a free Xerox machine. The problem remains of finding a reliable employer...

Assuming you have found a trustworthy employer, then there should be no problems finding private work to boost your income. I think that the best combination is to have an “official” part time job and then supplement this with private clients.

I have tended to find private clients through word of mouth - once you have one or two clients then things start to snowball, with one client recommending you to another, and so on. All the learners in your regular classes have mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and friends who are potentially looking for a good teacher. Your teaching colleagues can also be a valuable source of students, passing on work that they don’t have time for.

As for advertising, local free-ads papers, ESL bookshops, and British Council resource centres can be good places for promoting your services. In general, I would not recommend mail shots as most potential employers will not be interested in an unknown individual.

I remember spending money on faxes to embassies in Moscow, but with no result. Again you need a recommendation or the backing of a well-known organization to make any headway with private firms, embassies and NGOs. In many cultures, nothing beats personal contacts so you need to get out there and network.

Regular income is more likely to come from a reliable employer unless you strike it lucky with a big private contract. Payment for private lessons need not be a problem if you arrange for it upfront or by the lesson. As the teacher-student relationship develops you can be more flexible about payment. No-shows can be a particular problem – maybe agree some ground rules in advance with the client about payment if they miss lessons. In the past I have agreed to waive payment if the student can contact you the night before, for instance.

Beware of doing favors for friends - I once agreed to teach what I thought was going to be a group of Afghan refugees for a reduced price. It turned out that the Afghan student appeared for the first lesson only and after I was left with a group of rich diplomats’ wives benefiting from my generosity.

As for Nigel’s “Dating Service” model, I think that this has potential as it stops the people in the middle taking their cut and provides a forum where learners can find the best fit for themselves without having to trawl through endless adverts in the papers.

Finally, here are some dos and don’ts:


• consider your legal position carefully before taking the plunge

• arrange payment by the lesson

• advertise in local papers and places where learners go

• network and use your contacts

• work out a system for no-shows


• give up your day job unless you have a reliable source of income

• waste money on ill-considered mail shots

• do favors for friends – this is your livelihood


Posted by: Paul Bartlett at January 4, 2006 01:21 PM



I've NEVER had a job :-)

I make my students pay in advance and the further in advance they pay, the better the hourly rate. The minimum I accept is one month, however I prefer three.

I have a strict no cancellation policy, though I am reasonable. I require that all lessons be completed within the agreed upon period of time, providing a mutually agreeable time can be found for the make-up lesson.

I don't teach weekends, and I charge a premium rate for after 4:00PM.

I am currently experiencing my first real slow period in 5 years of teaching and that is mostly because I didn't do anything to get students last fall. I have, until now, relied purely on word-of-mouth - and having printed and distributed over 1000 business cards, I only ever got one student as a result of my cards, so I stopped printing them, and now I get people's cards and follow up with email.


Posted by: AMB at January 6, 2006 06:34 AM

Teaching ESL WITHOUT An Employer


I think private lessons can be a good way to supplement your income, if you first make an effort to discover how the system works. For example, I've found that there are a lot of people who can't afford to take classes in language schools because they usually have to cough up what they feel is a lot of money, upfront. Many find it easier on their pockets to pay per lesson. This works out well for me as well because I end up working for less but getting paid almost double what I would be paid if I had taught that class under the “umbrella” of a school.

Personally, I don't like the idea of being in a foreign country and working under the table. For someone who has just arrived, I think it's a good idea to work with a school (they’ll take care of all the legal stuff), but take on a minimum work load which will still allow you the time to take on private lessons.

Probably the best way to get some private students is to advertise in the local newspapers. I know many people feel that word of mouth is best, but I think that only applies when people know who you are, and vice-versa. If you’re new in a country, getting students by word of mouth might not be the best way to start. Eventually when you’re more settled, then I think word of mouth would help a lot.

I've never had any problems being paid. I charge a high per class-hour fee, am punctual, committed to helping my students, and above all, friendly. I don’t charge a cancellation fee because this hasn’t been a problem for me. I think the key is to be professional about your services while trying to maintain a good rapport with your students. A good sense of humour goes a long way to help strike that balance. With time, people will begin to look for you, as opposed to the other way round.

I definitely suggest NOT doing the following:

-Partying and late night "pubbing" with your students (on a REGULAR basis). Once in a while is harmless, but if this happens on a regular basis it will be hard for your students to want to keep paying you to teach them when they can improve their English for free by just socializing with you.

-Being unprepared for your lesson. People can usually tell when you’re unprepared and if they see this on a regular basis, they’ll quickly start cancelling or may stop the lessons altogether. I know it can sometimes be a hassle preparing lessons. I don’t want to spend all my time preparing lessons either, so I take on mostly conversation classes (I still prepare for them, but it’s much easier and less time consuming).

-Neglect to socialize with the locals in your host country. Make the effort to meet people, learn the local language, etc. The more contact you have with the locals, the greater your chance of being found by the people who want to learn English.

Hope this helps.


Posted by: E.Nkwocha at January 13, 2006 11:09 AM

Note from Lee:

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Posted by: Lee at January 27, 2006 10:06 PM