From Side Gig to Career: One Teacher’s Experience with EFL

Many people start out teaching EFL as a side-gig, whether as a college student looking to make some extra money in your spare time or a full-time employee, who’d like to make some extra cash. But I’d like to talk about how I started out, making EFL a viable way of making a good and very fulfilling career.

I started my EFL journey almost 30 years ago as a college student doing a year abroad program in Japan. After about a month or so into my studies, many of my friends and I were offered teaching gigs in various formats: private lessons, groups in language schools, and tutoring in juku (cram schools). 

All of us jumped at the opportunity, as the pay was excellent, and Japan was expensive in those days. Obviously, none of us had any idea what we were doing, so we tried our best to stick to textbooks (not a lot of Internet then) and to ask each other for advice. While I was probably the most unqualified teacher ever, ignorance was bliss – so bliss that I really fell in love with teaching, though I’m not sure I actually benefited my students.

Fast forward a few years and I moved to Israel, another English-thirsty country. The teaching bug was still strong inside me, but I knew that to make EFL a viable career, I needed to do some training. There wasn’t much in terms of online learning then, so I traveled to the UK to do an EFL certificate. 

It was there that I realized how much I DIDN’T know! Suddenly, the world of learner-centered pedagogy, communicative teaching, the PPP (presentation, production, practice) paradigm, grammar, etc. were revealed to me. My eyes opened up to all of this wonderful and practical knowledge that would help boost my ESL career once I returned to Israel. 

At the same time I realized my mistake in Japan: It had actually been extremely irresponsible to “sell” myself as an EFL teacher then. It was now obvious to me that EFL is a real profession with its own pedagogies, approaches, and tools. Anyone claiming even to tutor English needs a basic TEFL certificate.  (BTW, if you’re interested in doing a solid, internationally recognized certificate with personal coaching from me on how to be a successful English tutor, Messenger me for more information.)

Armed with my certificate, I returned to Israel to begin my new career. My first mission was to find students. I took a two-pronged approach, which I recommend to TEFL newbies: work for others and work for yourself. To get jump-started, I registered with three companies that provided materials and either sent you off to companies or had you teach in-house. Looking back, working with three companies might have seemed a bit schizophrenic, but I’m glad I did it and here’s why: 

Many of these so-called English language schools are little more than people pushers. Yes, they have libraries full of material and are run by seemingly credible professionals. On the other hand, they might care very little about your welfare. I’ll give you an example.

I still remember waking up in the middle of the night with a very high fever and feeling awful. The next morning, I promptly called one of the agencies to ask them to find a substitute for my class the same evening. I was told that I should “drink a half bottle of whiskey” and come in anyway. Needless to say, I told them what they could do with that suggestion…one company off my list, two to go.

Another time, with a gig from another “language school,” I arrived at the client site to find that no one was there! I called the school and they apologized for having forgotten to tell me and said I’d be paid half my fee. When I insisted I receive the whole fee, they threatened to terminate my contract….second language school down the drain. 

The third company, however, was excellent: completely professional and always sensitive to any unusual circumstances. With this company, I gained the experience and confidence to become a true EFL professional. Not only was I supported with materials and advice – I also learned what it meant to run a sound, credible EFL business.

If you decide to work for a company, of course, it’s wrong to poach students from the company. However, if you do a good job, word will definitely get around that you are a professional teacher. You’ll find that your clients will recommend you to friends whose colleagues are looking for a good EFL professional. Ensure that you remain loyal to your company; it’s where you got your first boost.

The second strategy is to begin developing your own following with people that you know. When I began, I let my wife’s friends know that I was an EFL teacher and that I was interested in teaching children. Surprisingly, that particular family hired me to teach their daughter (and later my wife’s friend). Soon, as other children in their neighborhood needed English lessons, my name was passed around. In fact, I even had afternoons in which I didn’t even leave the same apartment building – teaching floor by floor! 

Beware: make sure you’re not a substitute for a babysitter. Some career parents feel less guilty leaving their latchkey children with an EFL teacher than with a babysitter. In some cases, the children are not motivated to learn and are not at all happy when you appear at the door. When teaching children, make sure you meet with the parents and the child. You need chemistry with both.

As with the first family, oftentimes I would teach a parent or child and then I’d be requested to teach other family members. You should take advantage of such opportunities, as more learners mean more recommendations.

Regarding how much to charge, here’s a short extract from my course How to Be a Successful English Tutor (Messenger me for more information):

As far as how much to charge, it is a matter of market forces. I would say that when starting out, the amount you charge for a lesson should be in reference to the market. For example, if you know that the average rate for a 45-minute lesson is X, you should determine whether your lessons should be X, a percentage less than X, or a percentage higher than X. This can be decided by a number of factors: your qualifications, your speciality, your experience, your reputation, face-to-face v. online, location. 

For example, if you’ve been teaching children and you’re just starting out in the adult market, you might consider charging 10-20% less than the market price. In this way, price-sensitive learners will be willing to take a gamble on you. They’ll find out that you’re good and then will recommend you to others.

Another example is that when teaching online, I generally charge about 70-80% of my face-to-face rate. This is usually for 45-minute sessions (instead of 90 minutes face-to-face), which makes the lessons more affordable, leading to more bookings.

Once you build up a niche and reputation, you’ll be able to charge 50-100% above X, as everyone will want to study with you.

Using these strategies, within a year, I was able to quit my jobs as translator and technical writer and to concentrate on what I love: EFL. With the increase in online learning opportunities have expanded even more, leading to a variety of teaching jobs from all over the world.

EFL is a recession-proof career. People will always need to improve their English. Take my course How to Be a Successful English Tutor (Messenger me for more information) and embark on the career of a lifetime!

Dr. Daniel Portman has been involved in TEFL full time for over 20 years, both as a teacher and a teacher trainer. After falling in love with TEFL, he went on to pursue master’s level work in applied linguistics and education and a doctorate in education/applied linguistics, focusing on the teaching and learning of business communication. He is excited to offer his highly-supportive, step-by-step How to Be a Successful English Tutor course to all TEFL newbies. Feel free to reach out to Daniel on Facebook.