Difficult times call for bold measures…
Current world events have caused a lot of uncertainty when it comes to employment. Among the worst affected are the young, recent graduates who have never properly entered the job market. Many businesses just aren’t hiring, and the type of work traditionally used to tide young people over (part-time, service sector) has all but dried up.
One side effect of the current circumstances is that people who have long been thinking of starting their own businesses are finally deciding to take the plunge. Language learning has been a popular choice for combating the boredom of long hours spent in lockdown, which in turn has inspired many people to flog their services as online language teachers. As many have discovered, though, finding students to sustain their enterprise presents a whole new challenge that can be difficult to overcome.
How to Find Students
There are no shortage of online discussion groups addressing this issue, and I highly recommend joining at least a few to hear what others are saying. For my part, I’d like to contribute some advice that is often overlooked by those setting about finding customers for their online language teaching business. Most will be aware of the importance of specializing (often referred to as “finding a niche”). However, the vast majority neglect to consider the most basic niche of all, geographical location.
Demand for language teaching (particularly English language teaching) is distributed across the globe. It’s very tempting to cast a wide net in the hope of capturing a little from all over. Many would-be online teachers imagine a handful of learners from Central and South America, a few more from Europe, and a lot from Asia. It’s a nice idea, and by no means impossible, but there are a number of practical difficulties you may not have considered.
The times at which you are free and available to give lessons may not match well with the peak demand in another country. For example, in most parts of America people are sleeping at the time when Japanese school children are getting ready for their online lessons. This is inevitable for the most part, and online language teachers should expect to sometimes work unsociable hours, but making yourself available at peak times on several continents is likely to prove unsustainable. Imagine finishing a class with a business executive in Sophia at midnight only to wake up a few hours later for a lesson with a schoolgirl in Beijing. Remember, you too need to sleep sometime!
Although you will do your actual teaching in a language in which you are a competent communicator, what about arrangements around scheduling, payment, curriculum, etc. that may come up? Are you prepared for those discussions? I’m not suggesting that you need to learn the native language of every student you take on, but if you are dealing with low level learners (or non-speaking parents), some facility with their native language will be useful. In reality most communication will take place via instant messaging or email, and there are plenty of technologies available to help overcome the language barrier. Even so, such tools are by no means perfect, and there will be times when you struggle to communicate effectively. Such struggles are manageable when you are dealing with one language, but what about three or four? A teacher I know went several weeks before she realized that messages from her students were being translated by her browser as simplified Chinese instead of Japanese.
In order to find students to grow your online teaching business you will probably, at some point, need to advertise. In years gone by it was the newspaper classifieds, but these days it will likely be one of the major social media platforms. Although you can advertise your services directly, it’s more common to direct traffic to other content you’ve prepared online (website, Youtube video, online textbook, etc.). A particular platform will be more or less prominent depending on the region, and not all are universally accessible (particularly in China), so it’s a good idea to settle upon a specific country and become familiar with just the platforms that will help you reach customers in that area.
Your weakness is your strength
I find it heartbreaking (and deeply unfair) that many highly qualified non-native language teachers are excluded from jobs in the online teaching industry. This reality often forces them to work as independents. Although it’s a harder path, the rewards for those who pursue it can be much greater than what’s available to teachers working for a company. Non-native speaking teachers should play to their strengths and focus on finding students from the same country or with the same mother tongue. Spreading the word about your service, identifying leads, and communicating with prospects will be much easier for you than your monolingual competitors. More often than not, you can beat them to the sale and offer as good (if not better) value as a teacher.
China is the world’s most populous country, and represents the biggest market for language learning (by far). I don’t know of a single online language teacher who doesn’t dream of breaking into China and creating a thriving business for themselves. However, there are significant obstacles to operating there, which can be difficult for a solo teacher to overcome. Decisions concerning where to host your website, how to collect payment, what video conferencing system to use, and many others all hinge on whether or not you intend to do business in China. The enormous potential that China represents has attracted considerable competition, largely from companies with a lot more resources than you. If you accept the challenge and invest the time and effort to break into the Chinese market, then I applaud you. However, it’s worth remembering that there is unmet demand for language teaching in many countries that are far less challenging for an independent teacher to access.
Language learning has never been more popular than it is right now. All around the world, there are millions (no billions) of people learning a language. As an online teacher, there are both opportunities and challenges to making a living in this field. The prevailing wisdom from those who have succeeded in establishing themselves is to find a niche. For many this will begin with choosing a single country on which to focus your efforts.