What is the life of a freelance English teacher like? How do we know it’s time to take the step? In this issue, Marc Jones, Patrice Palmer, and our new blogger Tim Thompson share their stories and tips for those of us considering this change.
by Marc Jones
Shrill bleep. I open my eyes, unplug my phone, go to the kitchen to make coffee and eat breakfast, then wash, shave, brush my teeth. I sometimes leave the house before my wife and son are awake but this is growing less common. Usually I read the news but if I’m in a slack period, I check all the job sites I use, and then I go to work.
I work three days a week at a school, one day at a university, and for the rest of my time I teach corporate clients, often through agencies. I have a love-hate relationship with the agencies because there is always a Faustian bargain in mind: what meaningless paperwork can be requested in order to justify the price to the client? This makes English teaching just another component of big business, like two-hour meetings and Gantt charts on the office wall. On the occasions I work independently, there is no paperwork bar invoices: all my students know how they are progressing in their courses because there is always feedback. I do paperwork on the train on my phone or tablet if possible, when files are urgent and formats compatible. I check Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus, the job sites and think about whether Craigslist is pointless or toxic. I go to the staff room, print what I need, and then greet my students.
Between lessons I kill time reading or planning lessons in the park if the weather is nice, else it’s a coffee shop. I used to teach in coffee shops but the number of cancellations from private students just meant that the work wasn’t tenable. When I finish the planning or the book gets to the end of a chapter, I check the job sites again, just in case I missed something. I usually have: something I’m hideously unqualified for that pays numbers I can’t count to. I seethe and make plans to set up my own business, knowing that I have too much on my plate to be able to quit jobs to do it.
If it’s a really busy day I might need to rush home to cook dinner for my family before going back out to teach at a company. My cooking is awful and this is exacerbated by the pressure to leave the house in decent time to get to the next gig. I also know all my concentration has been spent on the morning lesson and shouting at the Internet.
I drink a can of coffee on the train and will usually have a snack or twelve to keep my energy up. My wife warns me about diabetes but I’m more immediately concerned with the supply of energy to my brain and limbs. I greet my students with a caffeinated smile and hope that I don’t fall asleep in the middle of the lesson.
I say my goodbyes after setting homework or listening to arguments against it and get on the train home. I might wake up in time to get off at my local station or else I change platforms to the same train in the opposite direction and look forward to another exciting day full of autonomy, free from outside influences and the anxiety of working for The Man. I am a freelancer!
by Patrice Palmer
As a language teacher, I am sure you share my delight when new words are coined and become part of the English language. Words such as “edupreneur” and “teacherpreneur” are two great examples. There are several definitions for edupreneur/teacherpreneur:
“Teacherpreneurs are classroom experts who teach students regularly, but also have time, space, and reward to incubate and execute their own ideas – just like entrepreneurs!” (Berry, 2015)
“They manage their own incomes, colonize and create new learning environments, create their own content and taste the kinds of artistic satisfaction that only freelance, independent teachers can experience… They are free to do what they love; teach, share, inspire, write, create. Many edupreneurs work online, where they can build up massive networks of students and teachers. They can choose to do voluntary work, make a difference, publish inspiring work on their websites and still earn a healthy living.” (Guigan, 2015)
The definition that I like to use is from Kiana Porter-Isom (2015): “A classroom teacher or school based leader who is both educator and entrepreneur; an educator who works a flexible and/or freelance schedule; and/or an educator with a “side hustle” that supplements their income.”
So why did I become a teacherpreneur? I have had an incredible 20-year career in Canada, including 7 years in Hong Kong. I have taught students from 8 to 80 years of age in a variety of programs such as EAP, ESP, language programs for new immigrants, and Business English. However, like many ESL teachers in Canada, I have been piecing together several teaching jobs in order to earn a full-time salary. I used to worry about whether or not I would have work for the following semester so, like many teachers, I overloaded myself. At one point, I had 6 part-time jobs! I started to feel worn out and realized that it was time for a change. I also craved variety and wanted a creative outlet.
The real reason why I wanted to become a teacherpreneur is because of my dream to relocate to Costa Rica in 2017. Earning an income from online work seemed to be sensible, so more than a year ago I started teaching an online course in a TESL program to see if I would like it, while still working as a classroom teacher. When I discovered that I enjoyed teaching online, I took on another course teaching academic writing for a university. This gave me the courage to leave my teaching position at a college last December to become a full-time teacherpreneur. Every semester now I teach two to three online courses which is a nice, steady source of income.
Working from home is very different from working full time at a school. Instead of travelling to a school (and in the past it may have been two different locations in one day), I now only work from home. I have time to read in the morning, catch up on emails, check out social media, have lunch/coffee with friends, and continue to find ways to be creative, on my own terms. I have found that I have more energy and creativity, but at the same time working from home requires discipline and good time management skills.
As well as teaching online, I am writing online courses for other people managing some social media accounts for entrepreneurs, and developing my own online courses and materials. There is so much variety to my job now, which I really love. Here are some of the projects that I have completed since January 2016:
- I’ve designed and developed a 10-module online English course for students in Saudi Arabia;
- I’ve written an online course on Anger Management for a psychologist and another online course on well-being related to positive psychology;
- I’ve evaluated an ESL/EFL website for students to improve their listening skills;
- I’ve designed a one-day lesson plan for a trainer in Spain to teach presentation skills;
- I’ve been writing bi-monthly blog posts for two ESL/EFL websites plus for my own blog;
- I’ve been working as an instructional coach providing service to teachers around the world;
- I’ve written an e-book A-Z Guide: How to Survive and Thrive as a New ESL Teacher.
I also have time to travel at any time of the year. For example, in April I attended IATEFL conference for the first time as it would normally fall on the exam week at my college. I will present at a TESOL conference in Costa Rica in July and teach report writing in Guyana later this fall. For me, working from home and travelling means all the freedom that I did not have before.
Words of advice
- Before you take on the challenge of becoming a teacherpreneur, think about what you really LOVE about teaching English (e.g. curriculum design, academic writing). Personally, I have always loved the process of writing lesson plans (reading, researching, browsing online resources to find the right clip art, an image or a quote), and so most of the work that I do now relates to writing. Once you narrow down what you really love, it makes it easier to find this kind of work and you will be happier in the end.
- It takes time to find freelance work so if you are considering becoming a freelancer, plan well in advance. Start by setting up an account and profile on freelancer.com or golance.com and then bid on projects that match your skills.
- Learn how to brand yourself and boost your reputation online. There many online resources that can help you with branding. The key is to differentiate yourself from others in terms of your skills, experience, and niche.
- Learn all you can about social media. Set up accounts on Linkedin to start. This leads to the next point.
- Connect, connect and connect! with people online. For example, I connected with a materials writer in the UK on Linkedin and then she recommended me for the Saudi writing project.
- Talk to other freelancers and get all the information you need before making this decision. Find out how they got started and how they get work. You might think that other freelancers wouldn’t share, but there really is a sense of collaboration, not competition.
The quality that I needed the most to become a teacherpreneur or freelancer was courage. The classroom provided a sense of comfort in that I knew what I was doing. Venturing off on my own means that I have had to learn a lot of new skills such as email marketing, design, and social media. I am solely responsible for my “pay cheque”. Despite a huge learning curve, I am glad that I made this leap from the classroom to my home office, and I would be happy to help anyone who has questions about making this change.
- Berry, B. in Wolpert-Gawron, H. (2015). The Era of the Teacherpreneur. Retrieved from http://www.edutopia.org/blog/era-of-teacherpreneur-heather-wolpert-gawron;
- Guinan, S. (2015). Edupreneurs – Creating a New Wave of Disruption in Education. Retrieved from http://www.wiziq.com/teachblog/edupreneurs-creating-a-new-wave-of-disruption-in-education;
- Porter-Isom, K. (2015). Edupreneur Today. Retrieved from http://www.edupreneurtoday.com/.
by Tim Thompson
Freelancing might sound like a dream come true. No boss to answer to, interesting projects to be a part of, the freedom to work as much or as little as you want, and the ability to charge what you think your services are worth are all attractive qualities of the freelancer lifestyle. But what are you giving up to take control of your career? In my case, it was steady income, five months of paid vacation every year, a light teaching load, a private office, name recognition (because I worked at one of the top universities in South Korea), paid health insurance, and a government pension. So, was it worth it? The short answer is yes.
Transitioning from being employed as a university professor to working as a freelance educational consultant was not easy. I started planning it three years before I left my job. A list of potential clients was the first thing I started to assemble. More importantly, I needed a network of people who trusted me and would pass my name around their professional networks. You can read more about some of these people in my blog post here.
If you chose to read this you may also be thinking about leaving your teaching job to pursue a freelancing career. But how will you know if you are ready to make the leap from a steady, salaried job to the white water rafting ride that freelancing can be? There are three important questions that you need to ask yourself before handing in your resignation letter.
1. Why am I leaving teaching and why now?
I wouldn’t say I was burned out but my career felt stagnant. I liked my students and my co-workers but there was no real opportunity for advancement. From time to time I would get opportunities to work on English level testing projects or run workshops outside of the university but my main duties were to teach the same classes that I had been teaching for the past eight years. I realized one day that I was enjoying the outside projects much more than my regular teaching duties and that was when I first seriously thought about leaving the university. I assuaged my feelings of dissatisfaction by making lists. I made a pros and cons list for my teaching job and new freelancing idea, a list of people I knew who might hire me, a list about all the things I would be giving up by leaving my job, and a list of my skills and experiences. I saw a lot of gaps and knew that the time wouldn’t be right until I had stronger lists, which took several years to accomplish.
2. Should I specialize and have my own niche?
The answer to this is maybe. I do a lot of different things and I wouldn’t have it any other way. The good part of having a diversified skillset and consulting menu is that you don’t get bored. I flip between editing, training, testing, and advising for a host of different clients. It’s great because I get to continue building my CV while getting paid to do it. Every project that I work on makes me better qualified to work on the next project. The downside of not specializing is that it is more difficult to efficiently explain to people what I do. “Consultant” is a vague term at best and if you can’t tell people you are something specific, such as an editor or a presentation skills trainer, then it can be challenging for potential clients to know what projects they should contact you about.
3. How should I market myself?
Most of my projects have come through mutual contacts. If you don’t have a strong network, you need to be prepared to spend a lot of money on advertising to create name recognition for your business. A freelancer needs to make sure that he/she follows these three rules to get more work: 1. Be qualified. 2. Be connected. 3. Be available. Cast a wide net and don’t be surprised when someone you reached out to three months ago suddenly contacts you about an urgent job. People who are always available are rarely good and people who are good are rarely available, so a person who is both good and available is a valuable commodity and should be treated accordingly.
Freelancing is both rewarding and terrifying, full of opportunities and full of loneliness. There have been days when I couldn’t believe I was getting paid to do something so exciting and unexpected and other days where I had to check my internet connection because I had waited so long to receive an email asking me to work. It is a career path filled with highs and lows and I have to remind myself daily that I have only been doing it for four months and next year will only be better.
My favorite thing about freelancing is the list of nine pending projects I have next to my computer monitor. Even if only half of them work out, I will be thrilled as each one will create a new set of opportunities. None of the ideas were on my radar four months ago and that is what excites me the most about the future. You never know what is around the corner and when you are your own boss no one can hold you back.