When I started my business, I thought I’d be working for language schools. I did work for one briefly, but once I started learning about the world of online teaching, it’s not the road I decided to take. Now, five years later, I only work with my own customers.
I’m not going to argue that one way is better. I know people who are working successfully with their own customers as I do, others who work for schools, and others who work on sites such as Italki.
The purpose of this article is to talk about some of the differences, advantages and disadvantages, to make it easier for new or aspiring teachers to decide what’s best for them.
I have had limited experience working in a school and no experience working on a tutor site, but this is because I made a decision not to do these things. Your experience may be completely different, so please read the article with an open mind. I have tried to look at all the options and explain the reasons for my choices.
1. Finding and retaining students
You may be a wonderful teacher, have interesting ideas, and give fantastic classes, but none of this will help you if you don’t find anyone to teach.
Certainly at the beginning, working for both schools and tutor sites are appealing because they take some of this work away from you. In schools, you are usually allocated students, which means you don’t have to be involved in the process of finding them or doing any of the admin related to bookings and payments. On tutor sites, you have to present yourself and your services, but the site has already done the groundwork in attracting potential customers, often from markets that you may not be able to reach if you don’t speak the native language.
I did work for a school for a while, although it was only a small part of my workload at the time. It was good to be sent details of someone who wanted to learn, rather than having to find these students on my own. However for me, this advantage didn’t outweigh the other disadvantages that I will explain later in the article.
As someone who finds all of my own students, I do have to work harder. I need to keep my website up-to-date, add interesting content, manage my social media channels, approach potential customers, engage with people online, and generally do a lot of other tasks to build my brand and my business that people working for schools don’t need to do. However, I love this flexibility and the fact that I don’t have to play by anyone else’s rules! This is ideal if you don’t like a school’s policy on a certain issue or you find something in the terms and conditions of a tutor site that you feel is restrictive.
2. Pricing and conditions
If you’re working for a school, the school sets the price for the lesson and the price that you will be paid, taking into consideration their overheads. I am sometimes approached by schools, but what they are offering is generally a lot lower than what I charge on my website. However, if you’re willing to trade a lower rate for less hassle in terms of finding students and doing admin, this may be a good deal. Similarly, you may be lucky and find an online school with conditions that you consider to be good enough.
Online tutoring sites are more flexible, in that they allow you to set your own rate. However this is generally a rate per hour, which means you don’t have the flexibility to offer discounts or to work at different rates. This is fine, as long as you don’t want to do these things!
On my website, I like to reward the behaviours that I want to encourage. In practice this means that there are discounts for block bookings, and although I offer evening lessons, they are more expensive than lessons during my normal working hours. I wouldn’t have this flexibility on a tutoring site, but on my website, I can clearly set out how the different payment options work, including the charges for non-attendance, which brings me onto my next point.
Before new customers start working with me, I ask them to agree to my conditions in writing. This is a short document, available in English and German, that sets out the payment plan, what I will do, what students are expected to do, how payments will be made, and what happens if I or they cancel a lesson at short notice. I rarely do this, but if I cancel, I offer a free lesson. If they cancel, don’t show up or try to change the lesson time at the last minute, there is a cancellation charge. This is important, because not doing this can lead to people being unreliable, or cancelling lessons because they don’t feel like it or have a better offer. Knowing that there will be a charge often discourages this behaviour. Of course sometimes things come up, but they know that there will be a charge, so they are less likely to pull out at the last minute.
I have found that most people are genuinely interested in learning and do respect your time, but having something in place to deal with those who don’t is always a good plan!
In a school or on a tutoring site, the students are not directly working for you, so they sign up for the terms of that specific site. If you are ok with these terms, that works, but it’s a good idea to look into what happens if students don’t turn up or keep changing the lesson times.
Dealing with payments yourself is an extra task that people working for schools or language websites don’t have to worry about, but I minimise the risk of non-payment by always requiring payment in advance. Most of my customers come from German-speaking countries, and the fact that I also speak German makes it easier to deal with any payment queries or problems, irrespective of whether the customer can do so in English. This may be more of a challenge if you are working with customers with a low level of English and whose language you don’t speak. You don’t have this problem in a school or on a site where someone else is looking after the payment side of things.
3. Building an online reputation and promoting other services
When I worked for another school, I was told not to mention anything about my other site. I believe that people who work for tutor services also agree not to poach customers from the site or work with anyone privately that they first met on the site.
This is fine if you are selling blocks of your time in exchange for lessons, but if you want to develop a brand with a range of services, it soon becomes restrictive.
For example, I use my newsletter to highlight the other services I offer such as a grammar course, a CV service, a writing course, language coaching, and a proofreading service. One person may start off with one service, and then realise that they would benefit from something else as well.
I can also promote my free materials, such as my blog, my podcast and my Facebook group. All of
these things help the learners to develop their language skills, and they also help readers to get to know me better. They can also be shareable resources that can attract potential customers to my site. If someone’s a loyal podcast fan, or they watch your Youtube channel regularly, they may be more willing to work with you than with someone they don’t know on a language tutor site.
4. Accessibility and flexibility
As someone who is blind, accessibility, or rather the lack thereof, was a big dealbreaker for me on a number of the teaching sites that I had considered. For example, the calendar was not designed in a way that worked well with my software. People didn’t bother to label their website graphics, which should be standard good practice. The forms for logging lesson activity were a nightmare. These things made me not want to work for a site because I either couldn’t use it, or I would need to ask for more help than I do when I’m running my own business, where I make sure that everything is accessible to me.
This won’t be an issue for most teachers, but it’s an extra consideration for anyone with a disability. If you control the website, the software and the paperwork, you can make sure that it is all accessible. There’s enough to do without dealing with the additional obstacles that come with using inaccessible or badly designed sites and software.
When I worked for a school, I was given a lot of freedom to use whatever materials I wanted, but this isn’t always the case, and you may need to be willing to follow a certain syllabus or way of teaching. This may be exactly what you want, but if you start to question the relevance of the materials or the effectiveness of the exercises, it may become a problem for you!
5. Competition and making yourself stand out
There are more online teachers now than there were when I started working this way. However you choose to work, there will be competition. Whether you’re competing on a language tutor site, or competing for attention online, or on your own social media channels, you will need to stand out and show that you have something distinct and valuable to offer that students won’t get somewhere else. This doesn’t mean competing on price – there will always be someone willing to work for less than you. Students at an online school will probably have signed up for a specific programme, but private students or those on tutoring sites need to be convinced that you can help them, meet their needs and solve their problems. This is easier to do if you know what you’re good at, whom you want to help and for what purpose. That doesn’t mean you can’t diversify and offer multiple services, but it does mean that you should have an idea of your strengths and the type of people with whom you’d like to work, whether this is related to nationality (because you speak another language), age (I don’t work with children), profession (if you have a lot of knowledge in a specific field), or study purpose (maybe you know a lot about a particular exam).
You may decide that the profile on the teacher site gives you enough flexibility to do that, or you may feel that you can have a bigger impact doing your own thing. The tutoring site automatically gives you a ready-made audience, but it also puts you alongside the competition in a way that your own website does not.
So, as I said in the introduction, I know what I chose to do and there are a lot of reasons for that decision. However, doing things this way does involve a lot of additional work, and it will not suit everybody, which is why it’s good that we have so many choices!
Also, you can do a number of things at the same time. You could work for a school in the morning and teach your own customers in the afternoon. You could fill up slots with students from a tutor website while you are looking for your first customers. Or you could work entirely on a tutor site because you don’t want some of the hassle that comes along with doing everything yourself.
Let us know what you think in the comments.
You’ve been reading a guest post by Kirsty Major
Kirsty Major is blogging, podcasting and sharing information about language training on englishwithkirsty.com. If you’d like more articles about teaching English or running an online business, Kirsty’s monthly newsletter has a “virtual staffroom” section. You can sign up for the newsletter on English with Kirsty here.