“If you want to be rich, don’t become a teacher.”

To educators all over the world this is a well-known slogan. And while there is some definite truth to that, it also doesn’t mean that all teachers are on the breadline, surviving only by their limitless idealism and governmental life-support. Just look at those Hong Kong tutors!

In this article I will sketch out a few ways people are dealing with education between survival mode and reckless ROI calculation.

You can fill in the rest by thinking out loud, er.. I mean live – in the comment-section below. After all, these are just my 2 cents and I’d love to hear your take on all of it!


Let’s go…

The Good Samaritan Syndrome

In every teachers’ training program you’ll find people who are overcome with a need to help. The thought of children not knowing their irregular verbs or multiplication tables doesn’t let them sleep at night, although their personal need to help is often far bigger than the clarity of where and how to help.

Those are the Good Samaritans.

Many of them don’t make it through the first rounds of teaching in the trenches. When confronted the first time with a herd of hormone-enraged teenagers who are most interested in seeing how far they can cross the line – any line! –  the Good Samaritan will respond with watery eyes, throw up her arms and plead against the roars of laughter: “Why are you so mean to me?! I just want to help!

The Good Samaritan has three assumptions which, more often than not are merely a reflection of a psychological condition than a pedagogical agenda:

  1. “The world needs help.
  2. “I am qualified to help.”
  3. “I’ll do it for free, even!”

Nothing against voluntary community work. But this can become a martyr approach: People burn out. They feel under-appreciated. Not getting paid doesn’t make it better. It replaces the decency of bread earned by the “sweat of the brow” with a lofty sense of pride we so often see with the world-savers and other over-zealous activists. In the end this approach is neither effective for the student or the teacher.


Wanting to help is great. But you should make sure to:

  • Specify the need of people down to the nth degree so you can actually meet it! In other words: Don’t settle for helping people “become better people” or something vague like that. Boil down what you have to offer and you won’t be disappointed. Example: Maybe you want to help people understand English grammar from an everyday perspective. That’s very concrete.
  • Check if you’re qualified! I’m not talking about certificates. Those often say less than they claim. Ask yourself: Did I see it work in the past? What’s my track record? The obvious problem here is of course, that people radically over-estimate themselves. See also: Kruger-Dunning effect
  • Never let voluntary work be the main-focus. If you do things for free, great. It’s always nice to do some community service in your spare time. I hope people appreciate what you do. But what’s your occupation?

Nothing Comes From Nothing

Although the famous statement was originally put forth by Parmenides, the 5th century Greek philosopher, this is also the standard approach of business majors and the way companies and conglomerates operate, albeit admittedly on a less metaphysical note.

What it means, here, is that no action will be taken unless there are clear predictions and market research as to how it will work out.

Everything can be reduced to three letters: ROI – Return on Investment

Particularly in the realm of online education this is a bit of a problem. Why?

New online education companies are modeled after the Silicon Valley example of “start-ups” and they don’t make a secret about it. People will say: “So, what? Why can’t we run an online education business like a software company? After all, it’s about technology, isn’t it? We need developers to build the technology and investors to run that technology and market our course, service or product. Same thing.”

Well, think again.

An online education business that is only about technology, investors and ROI is simply that: a failure.

Thinking only from investment to return on investment is the business major’s form of attention deficit.


I’ve worked in privatized education companies, both offline and online and despite all their advantages (spelling them out would call for a different article) they both share one thing: at the end of the day, numbers, not people matter. This is a simple fact.

Also, in my experience improving conditions against the ROI-only approach often has to be carried out covertly and in opposition to the prescribed business-agenda in a bottom-top way. It’s the secretaries willing to turn a blind eye to let a student switch a course, although this is against company regulations; The teacher who doesn’t report a student’s bad behavior, although his contract binds him to. Things like that. Those are the real heroes in my eyes. Not the so-called leaders at the top who only see the money they spend and the money they get in representation and under the cloak of the business entity.

You will find that all (online) education companies and entreptreneurs talk as if people, relationships and applied psychology of learning is the central factor. Mostly, though, it’s just smart copywriting.


If you’re an entrepreneur looking at the numbers of the online teaching or tutoring market and saying to yourself: “Nice, how can we get a slice of it?” make sure to:

  • Hire people with long-standing field experience in actual teaching, not just administration and put them into key positions of your budding “start-up”
  • Keep the tech in check! If it does allow people to communicate, great.  That’s all it’s supposed to do. Now, improve communication, relationships between teachers and students, teachers and teachers and so on and so forth. If you hold conferences and board-meetings, don’t discuss features but communication strategies!
  • Be patient. If you want your business to be sustainable, don’t cook up too much investor-pressure too early. Take it easy. And if you want an easy dollar, do not start an education business. Period.

Good Educators Don’t Live Off Grains Of Sand

So, let’s say neither of the above perspectives really fit you. And I guess most people are neither 100 % Good Samaritan or 100 % Business Majors but a mixture of both, somewhere inbetween of “just trying to help” and “making ends meet”.

So, what to do?

Apply for an online school somewhere, hoping prices, commissions and workload are in the right balance to allow you to survive?

Or build your own base?

While the first solution seems the most practical and sane thing to do, it actually comes with a lot of complications. Education businesses, as I’ve mentioned before, are built like software-companies. Their way to hook you up with students and providing you with work often consists of running costly ads around the clock and is the household excuse for demanding high commissions or even up-front fees (don’t do it!)

Back in the days I applied for an online teaching school and found out later that they were taking about 50 % commission. I asked the administrator why he thought I’d go for that and all he told me was: “I don’t know what you want. Getting clients is very very difficult, you see. And I also have to make a living, you see.” – And I said: “If that’s so, good luck. I’m out of here!”

Dirty Windows and Social Abundance

Imagine you’re a window-cleaner. Someone says: “Hey I’ll hook you up with a person who has dirty windows but you’ll only get half of what they pay you because I put you in touch.”

Some people will say: “Hey, fair enough. After all, if he hadn’t hooked me up, I’d have gotten zero, nada, zilch, right?”

In a pre-Internet society this would have been an excuse, maybe… When social connections were rare and publishing materials was expensive you had to know people who knew people to make business.

But in a world of Social Media and almost-zero costs for publishing blog posts, ebooks and more, there’s no need to make these compromises, anymore. If you’re paying for connections that’s like paying for oxygen! Also, what do you think is stronger: An acquaintance of mutual respect or a slave/worker relationship?

So, yes – to make it absolutely clear: Build your own base! And do it like a pro!

Smart content marketing can go a long way and you’ll see that it’s very much possible connecting to students without spending even a dime on advertising.

To find out more about this approach to online teaching, check out this article or download my latest book “How To Teach Online Without Selling Your” which is designed to make this simple and powerful approach accessible to anyone.

img: CC by lamont_cranston