Leaving the Sinking Ship

I’ve heard many times from my colleagues that they feel society doesn’t give enough respect to their teaching efforts and that this is reflected in their salaries and in the way schools are organized.

Classes are over-filled. Budgets are cut. Staff is overworked.

This is why many teachers are starting to look for other teaching opportunities on the web, either by registering on an online tutoring marketplace or building their own online teaching business.

For some it’s a refreshing awakening into a world of endless possibilities. Others simply don’t know where to start!

In my recent book How To Teach Online Without Selling Your Soul I speak a lot about the independent online teacher, who works not for a school or for a company but only for the benefit of himself and her students.

The idea is to attain a maximum of flexibility and freedom, and minimize financial or professional compromises one might face while working in a more conservative environment.

Sounds good? But how to start an online teaching business?

Sizing Up The Elephant

AS I’ve said, many people start out by registering in one of these online teaching marketplaces that claim to connect teachers looking for students with students looking for teachers.

Sometimes you have to pay a fee just to get listed (don’t sign up!) and others are free but even then, after a while you begin to wonder why you are paying relatively high commissions while the marketplace provider doesn’t really seem to be doing anything!

Ironically, after a while you might find yourself in a shockingly similar position like the one you tried to escape by going online: Salaries are low. You feel that your hard work is not appreciated. Only now, it’s worse.

You don’t just have lessons on a consistent basis. No! Now you have to compete with hundreds of other online teachers, each self-promoting themselves to death and pushing prices down while all that you get from the marketplace provider is some measly rating-system and a not-always-fully-functioning virtual classroom software. (I’m sure hat not all online teaching marketplaces are bad, but I simply haven’t seen one that is awesome, either)

Looking at all of this in retrospect, it is hard for me to understand why I put up with it in the first place.

One of the obvious reasons is that the marketplace provider promises to hook you up with students. But even then, it’s not like you get something for free. You have to work hard just to get started teaching.

So in the end, it’s not less likely that students will find you if you aren’t listed on the marketplace. Instead it will be more likely for them to find you if you go independent!

“But that means that I have to do all of this annoying marketing, right?”, many people say.

Teachers don’t think like marketers, I know. But on the other hand, there’s nothing worse than fighting with your colleagues (directly or indirectly) over who “gets” a student. Shouldn’t we have some sense of self-respect? We are supposed to be educators, aren’t we?

To summarize: you can only win by leaving the confines of the marketplace platform, because you’re not actually leaving anything. You’re now entering the open market of the world instead. (Many online learning marketplaces try to make you feel that you’re lost without them. That’s just bogus!)

Standing on The Market With Cold Hands And Wet Feet

Now you’ve left. Gone, the warm and fuzzy feelings of the forum. You’ve left the herd. Now what?
Maybe you’ve already built a little online teaching website somewhere and installed a contact form and payment buttons.

But what to do next? Should you put yourself on the pedestal and start shouting “Lessons!!! Lessons!!! Education for Everyone!!!”

Probably not.

Do you have millions of dollars of spend on advertising. No?

So, what to do? After all, you’re not a marketer, right?

And my answer is: If you’re a great teacher, you’ll be a natural at “marketing”, not in the way economics students think but in a more essential and original way.

“How I learned to stop worrying and Love the Market”

The skills which make business people succeed in the “market” and teachers succeed in the classroom aren’t as different as they might seem at first glance.

In order to sell something you have to make your potential buyers see the value.

In order to teach something, especially if it’s difficult, the learners has to see a certain value in what is being taught, and if this perceived value isn’t there, the teacher has to help create it.

In other words: If you’re teaching algebra and your students don’t care about it you have to advertise it.

If people are already wildly interested in what you’ve got to teach, you’re lucky.

It’s the same for starting your online teaching business: You have to find ways to get people interested.

Now that sounds a lot less scary than “marketing”, right?

Since you’re an awesome teacher you know that bending the truth won’t help. You have to actually make potential students feel the value!

This is why immediately after having set up your homepage you should start a blog! Get accustomed to posting consistently (hard at first, easier later) and try to let people see the value that you (hopefully) perceive in what you do.

Sometimes I wish that my high school teachers would have had to do this as part of their training, because it helps to reflect back to you what you’re doing.

You begin to ask yourself questions like:

  • “What is it that I have to give?”
  • “Why should anyone bother listening to me?”
  • “Would I be interested in this person?”
  • “How can I make this more interesting?”

And it is at this point that you start doing the real “marketing”. Even if noone reads your articles you still would have the advantage of having asked yourself those questions and come up with new creative ways of thinking and doing.

But how can you start an online teaching business just by blogging? Well, you can’t of course. There are many ways to find students online, and you should always be on the lookout for more.

But there’s nothing like blogging for establishing the right attitude, to get into the spirit and start doing things!

Self-Promotion vs Service Promotion

We all hate selfish people. The self-promoter is the worst kind of them. Because they don’t ever seem  to shut up about how great they are. And with each new service like Twitter on Facebook this species has found a new breeding ground.

So, while many people recommend that if you market something online it should be personal – (making it too impersonal would be pretty bad and boring, so this is a no-brainer) – don’t make it all about you!

And this is actually a very important point. For if you go independent and you write a blog about what you do, trying to make people see the value and get to take lessons with you, there is no school, headmaster or Ministry of Education to hide behind.

This is why many online teachers start promoting their person, buying a domain with their name and taking it from there.

While that’s not really a bad idea I would actually suggest not to focus too much on your person. To keep you from falling into this black hole of navel-gazing and tooting your own horn, come up with a project title, give your website a funny name and inject it with your personality, instead.

This way you can keep the doors open for new ideas (and other people) and you won’t get in the way of your own progress.

I can’t really explain it, but it seems that when you don’t make everything about you you are infinitely more resourceful. It’s like when other people are in need of help we can give lots of advice but when we suffer from the same thing ourselves we are as helpless as the proverbial beetle on its back.

Call it altruism or whatever. It works.

Again: Don’t be afraid of filling your project with personality.

But don’t make it all about you!

illustrations: Some rights reserved by HikingArtist.com (see also hikingartist.com)