What I Learnt from a Year of Being a Freelancer

I never wanted to be a freelance teacher, but COVID-19 did not ask me what I wanted. I was given lemons, so I had to make the best lemonade I could 🙂 This week, I am celebrating my first anniversary of being self-employed, and I figured that the best way to do this is to write a post with some useful advice for those teachers who are thinking of going freelance or have done it recently.

1. Setting Up

The first question every teacher asks when weighing their options is “How can I make sure I have enough students?” What I recommend is find some online schools to work for at the beginning. You will not be able to set your own hourly rate, but it will give you certain stability, and you can then give the remaining hours to your private students. Gradually, as you are getting more private students, you can decrease the number of hours you work for those schools.

Personally, I do not recommend teaching on platforms because the competition is really high there, so you really need to market yourself, and this is not something everyone enjoys doing. I tried several platforms and did not like any of them, but of course, it is up to you, and I do know teachers who are thriving on Preply or italki. Just not my cup of tea.

Next thing you must do is officially register as self-employed. This usually means that you have to set up your own private company. The procedure is different in different countries, so this is something you will have to figure out by yourself. Once you have set your own company (i.e. registered as a sole trader), you can start providing teaching services to both businesses and individuals. Keep in mind that as a sole trader, you will have to issue invoices to your clients, keep sales records, do accounting, submit your tax statements, etc. Make sure you understand your rights and obligations and consult with an accountant or a lawyer (or both) if there is a need for this. Know the law! For example, in Norway, you cannot issue invoices created in Excel because it is a legal requirement that they are numbered automatically, so I use PayPal Invoicing Tool.

On a positive note, as a company, you can have business expenses. This mean that if you happen to buy some textbooks or attend a conference, their cost will be deducted from your tax.

2. Finding Students

I would say go with the local websites. Post free ads and rely on the universe to help you out 🙂 You can also post in groups for English learners on Facebook, but make sure this is not against their rules. However, the best way is still the good old word of mouth.

Do not expect quick results. Typically, it takes at least a year or even a year and a half to build a solid client base.

You can invest in paid advertising if you wish so, but I would first do some quick research on its effectiveness and consult with a marketing specialist to make sure that your money is not wasted.

Finally, try to schedule a free ice-breaker call with each new student. This way, you will be able to see if you kind of click with this person, how serious they are about learning English, what their learning needs and goals are. As for terms and conditions, I am quite strict about it. No money – no lesson, so all payments have to be transferred one day before the lesson. Any cancellations or changes should also be made not later than one day prior to the lesson, otherwise, the money will not be returned. I explain these rules during the initial call and if the new student agrees to them, we sign a written agreement and schedule the lessons. I personally do not like the idea of teaching a free trial lesson because I prepare thoroughly for every lesson I teach and deserve to be paid. Students have the right to terminate our agreement at any time if they do not like the way I teach, and I make sure to tell them that it is totally okay to do so.

3. Timetable and Payments

When you are a freelancer, it is really easy to stop keeping track of your actual working hours and end up working pretty much all the time. I teach from Monday to Thursday and then I have Friday to plan lessons and do the admin stuff (mostly sending out invoices). Saturdays and Sundays (especially Sundays!) are untouchable. The only exception is the ELT Lesson Jam 😉

Do not hesitate to use paid websites that offer ready-made lesson plans. I personally love Linguahouse and ESL Brains: their lesson plans are superb, you will need just a few tweaks here and there, and you are all set. Onestopenglish and Fluentize are also great.

Another nagging problem is which payment system to use to get payments from foreign students. According to the majority of freelancers I have talked to, the best one is Wise (former TransferWise). I found it a bit confusing, to be honest, so I use PayPal. The fees are higher on PayPal, but those can also be written down as business expenses, so no problem here. Plus, their Invoicing Tool is awesome.

4. Social Media and Marketing

I have briefly touched on this in 2. Basically, in many cases, free ads and word of mouth are enough to get the ball rolling. To build a strong public profile, be active on social media. Write about your work, how your lessons go, questions your students frequently ask, etc.

If you wish to build your personal brand, you might need to hire a marketing specialist to write a content plan for you and manage the advertising. Alternatively, you can take some introductory courses to be able to do it yourself in the future, but in any case, this is something that does not come naturally and has to be learnt. Be ready to invest time and money.

It is a good idea to create your own website. You can use free website builders, such as Tilda and WordPress. I am currently working updating my website; I am using Tilda, and it is awesome although not always intuitive.

5. Community

As a freelancer, you might feel disconnected from the ELT community, but it does not have to be this way. There is an amazing group on Facebook run by Cecilia Nobre, where you can always ask a question and get plenty of support.

There are also ELT Lesson Jams organised by Freed with me, Liza Fedotova and Blanka Pawlak as hosts, where teachers from all over the world gather to share their lesson ideas (by the way, the next session is this Saturday, 14:00 CEST, hurry up and register, we are awesome!).

You will also find the recording of this Fireside Chat interesting; there were four of us and we covered pretty much all the basics of being a freelance English teacher.

So this is it. If you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment or contact me via Twitter or FB. And good luck!