How To Start Teaching 121 Online… And Keep Them Coming Back!
Despite the fact that there should be plenty of opportunities in TEFL now that everything is online, finding good repeat customers is really hard: students keep messing about, they book a trial lesson and never show up, they attend the free level assessment, then do a vanishing act. Getting them to stay is difficult, and all of this is so annoying!
After some bad experiences, I have had some success and I am now on lesson 36 with my favourite ‘repeat customer’! Here’s what I did…’ And so, lovely readers, here my ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’.
Dos and don’ts of getting and keeping a 121 student online
DO: Look for students in the right places.
If you look online sites such as Gumtree, you will see about 100 other teachers hustling for students. This is not good.
Are you really willing to compete with teachers who don’t mind earning £6 per hour, who between lessons are sunning themselves in a lovely exotic (cheap!) location like Thailand?
DON’T GO THERE!
I highly recommend that you work freelance via a school or agency, so they can do all the tedious, boring marketing, filtering of timewasters and convincing the student of the real value of your lessons.
Yes, they will take a cut, but are you a teacher or a salesperson? (In my experience it is rare to be good at both).
Accepting £5.99 per hour to undercut the teacher in Thailand while working 18 hours per day to make ends meet is not the way forward – if, like me, you work in a place with a high cost of living.
If you are a teacher in Thailand, however, then this is probably a fortune so lucky you!
As a point of comparison, though, the National Minimum wage is £8.20 for 21-24 year olds in the UK.
Something to think about, no?
Secondly, word of mouth is a great way to get more students and get paid what you think you should be.
Let it be known that you are an amazing, experienced teacher with great results, who currently has availability for new students, and see what happens.
As another point of comparison, teachers preparing teenagers for British national exams (e.g. GCSEs) usually charge about £35 per hour.
Get your availability into the right circles and now we are talking!
DO Make a fantastic first impression.
Now, this is kind of a tricky one because if you were in a face-to-face lesson, a ‘fantastic first impression’ would be what? Smiling? Being friendly?
Coming armed with an amazing lesson plan with all the bells and whistles? Well, these points are obviously important but what I have learned is that with online lessons, the first impression is gained way before that, in the first email you send (and yes, email is better than phone because if they are queuing at a supermarket in a face mask pushing a trolley, do they really want to speak to you?).
But – point to note – my top tip is that instead of sending a potentially intimidating Needs Analysis form as an attachment, get to know them by starting an organic email conversation.
In this conversation, ask questions to get to know what the student wants and needs. The fact you are taking time to do this shows that you care, are professional and are a good communicator.
This will particularly impress them if you write to them in graded language and write follow-up questions to show they are understood.
How pleased would you be if you were having an authentic communication in a foreign language and were understood?
See – they like you already!
DON’T just chat.
It can be tempting to think, ‘well, the student wants conversation so I’ll just talk to them on Zoom for 30 minutes and that will be fine.’ While it can be educationally beneficial to have ‘free conversation,’ you should remember that this student is paying you instead of the other 699 teachers out there, which brings me to my next point.
How can you add value?
My favourite ways to add value are to screen share and type notes throughout the lesson then email these over directly after the lesson.
I usually screenshare in Word, and make sure the page is well-organised and logical – like board work – apart from I type instead of using an electronic pen (unnecessarily expensive set-up cost, looks messy, bad idea).
I always make this look smart and professional by writing the student’s name, date, lesson number and lesson objectives (linked to the email conversation needs analysis) at the top and have pre-prepared sections with subheadings that match the lesson objectives.
If there are any separate documents, e.g. handouts, I use ‘snipping tool’ and insert these directly into my Word document.
This means the student doesn’t have to try to print anything before the lesson (headache and 101 technical questions avoided) and means I don’t have to constantly switch screens throughout the lesson (tedious) which improves the overall flow.
Also, if you insert the other documents using ‘copy and paste’ from ‘snipping tool’ in Word you can use ‘Draw’ and then choose a pen from ‘Drawing tools’ so you can highlight / write on the other document/image/object as you feel fit.
DO Collect meaningful feedback.
As I’m sure you are aware, there are about a million ways to get feedback. In schools this often involves students being given out pieces of paper that they fail to complete correctly and then lose.
For your successful 121 online lesson, what you want is feedback that shows they have engaged with the lesson, got something out of it and are…
Aware of how you can help them next lesson.
My favourite way to do this is the ‘traffic light’ activity. This is where, as the last activity of the lesson, I ask the student to tell me what they think for the blanks below and I type exactly what they say.
This is equivalent to ‘getting inside their head’ and I have found this invaluable for future planning and discussion about what I can help them with next.
I suggest that you don’t error correct them while they are doing this so they can speak freely and without potential perceived judgement.
Red traffic light = Something to improve is: _______________________.
Yellow traffic light = Something to think about is: _____________________.
Green traffic light = Something positive is: ______________________________.
5. DO Think of your teaching as a business that is true to yourself
Thinking about the conversations with our teacher friends saying: ‘I really need to get more students’ in exasperation, I think that what they actually mean is ‘I really need my teaching ‘business’ to be more successful’.
To my mind, that is not the same as simply having loads of students.
Have a good think about what ‘success’ in ‘teaching business’ looks like. What kind of customer are you trying to attract?
Do you want to teach 3x lessons at £6 per hour, or 1x lesson for £18 per hour?
Do you want to work for an agency who can filter out the time wasters and send confirmed, interested students straight away? Do you want to be a marketeer and try to stand out from the multiple competitors alone
Everyone will have their own answers to these questions, and I strongly recommend that you make a decision that feels right to you and stick with it.
If you don’t go with what feels right to you, this can lead to feeling disgruntled that you are not being paid your worth, or even burnout, and who wants that?
I hope you have found these ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ useful.
I wish you many happy, returning students and if you have any other tips or tricks that you think makes us stand out from the crowd, I would love to read your thoughts in the ‘comment’ section below!
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Thanks Emma for your useful thoughts on what for many ELT teachers, both native and non-native alike, is becoming a more and more important skill: recruiting and keeping online students and making it all worthwhile. What you write about competing with teachers living in places like Thailand where the cost of living is far cheaper than somewhere like Northern Italy where I live, is particularly pertinent. The internet (accelerated by the pandemic) has globalised the world in terms of online communication but this crazy world of ours is still a vast mosaic of varied and fluctuating forms of economic development…
All you say is good advice. I would just add two points, one country-specific. When scheduling a new online course, insist on getting paid for a cycle of lessons upfront. In this way you guarantee both your time and your student’s. I usually charge in cycles of 5 lessons (hourly sessions on Zoom held once or twice a week) and then if the student is satisfied (which thankfully he/she usually is) we just arrange another cycle and take it from there.
Finally if anyone is reading this in Italy, there’s a really good service for professionals called ProntoPro through which I have found an increasing number of clients.
Hi Charles, thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts about this. Really valid and interesting.
As a teacher in Northern Italy, I can imagine that you are indeed in the same boat as us in the UK. It really is important for all of us to maintain our professional value, and the fact that we are competing in a worldwide market shouldn’t make us drop to what is essentially unsustainable and economically and emotionally unacceptable. It really is a case of looking for the right students in the right places – and thank you for sharing your suggestion of where to find clients in Italy. Great insider tip there! I think the more we share knowledge between us the better armed we will be to invest our time and energy in the right places 🙂
As regards the payment, again you raise a great point. I think that block bookings are definitely the way to go. A block of 5 is enough to give them some good solid progress and also awareness of what their strengths and weaknesses are. Unless they have a very specific goal which is met after 5 lessons (e.g. submitting a university essay or delivering a presentation on a particular date), I would say that the chance of them rebooking is high, as after 5 lessons it will be clear to both of you what you can help them with next.
Best wishes and stay safe!