Considering a change in career as an online teacher? Just started your first job teaching English online?
That’s great, but have you heard it all or only what your recruiter wants you to hear?
There is more to know about teaching online than just the rate of pay or the best company to work with. But most recruiters won’t openly share these truths about teaching online unless specifically asked about.
Don’t get me wrong, teaching online is brilliant. I really love my job. It honestly saved me the difficult decision many women are faced with after having children. Either quit their hard-earned careers or say goodbye to most of their wage putting their children into full-time care.
As much as I am so grateful for finding this opportunity, meaning I work a max of 4 teaching hours per day and have the rest of my time with my children. There is a darker side to teaching online that most people either choose not to share with new teachers or haven’t experienced…yet!
Again, let’s be completely clear here. I am not bashing or trying to degrade the industry in any way, shape or form. I love the hours, the pay, my students and colleagues I have made friends with along the way.
But, it has become apparent to me, that many new teachers aren’t given a full overview of what it’s like being an online teacher. Many teachers-to-be are offered referral link upon link, from keen individuals trying to earn an additional bonus on top of their teaching pay. I completely appreciate that everyone is earning a living. What I don’t appreciate or agree with, is when people are dishonest or sideline certain ‘challenges’ all of us have come across during our online teaching careers.
Related Post: Your Teaching ESL Online FAQ Answered
This post is about providing an honest insight into some of the difficulties online teachers are faced with. Sharing these ‘truths’ will help you to make a fully informed decision as to whether online teaching is the right career choice for you.
It’s just the same as your brick and mortar job
No, no it isn’t and far from it. Yes, you are still teaching students, whether they are children or adults. But, that is probably where the similarities end.
Being a face to face teacher, you have a presence within the classroom. You can manage behaviour easier, moving students around, having time outs, etc. You can address different children’s needs within one class, setting a whole class activity, whilst spending 121 time supporting those requiring additional help. You can mix up and change your students learning environment quite easily, taking them outside, moving the room around or creating different activity stations.
Online teaching is quite different. Your only presence is via a small video on a students phone, tablet or computer. Through this small screen, you have to create an environment where students want to learn with you.
Each student is completely different and so you need to be aware of ways to manage behaviours positively, encouraging your student’s participation and focus. This can be incredibly challenging if you have a student bouncing off the walls or a student who is so scared, they won’t even sit in front of the camera.
It requires a different kind of skill set, I feel, teaching students online compared with physically in the classroom. With this in mind, I seriously think that personality is JUST as, if not MORE, important than qualifications. Most people nowadays are able to gain a degree, but not everyone can or should teach.
Successful online teachers possess certain qualities that make them so fantastic. Qualities such as:
- Being able to build a relationship with students AND their parents
- Engage students of all abilities and personalities e.g. high energy, shy.
- Having lots of patience, knowing that relationships build over time with students as well as their learning progress
- Willing to adjust and learn new ways to engage students, teach lessons and evaluate what is or isn’t working
- Being creative within the classroom, incorporating props, songs, games, etc.
- Passionate about what they do and supporting students to progress
Work is Guaranteed All Year Round
Anyone who tells you this is lying. It simply is not true. Yes, you can earn a full-time income teaching English online part time – I know, because I do it. I also work all year round and earn an income all year round, but my work is not 100% guaranteed.
Teaching online is incredibly ‘seasonal’. The biggest and highest paying market is Chinese. They place great value on their children learning English. Education is extremely competitive, particularly for school places and so, being able to speak English can provide students with a higher chance of gaining a good school place.
Due to the Chinese being the biggest chunk of the online ESL market, work can fluctuate dramatically depending upon the Chinese school calendar. For example, low seasons are usually between December and March, as well as June. This is due to exams taking place in December and June. Plus, the Chinese have their biggest holiday and celebration around February for Chinese New Year. Many students take time off from their online English classes for both of these events.
On the flip side, summer is usually the busiest time for the online ESL industry. Chinese students are off school for 2 months in July and August. Many students take on additional classes, twice a week, during this time. Online ESL companies also offer more teaching hours than the usual 6-9pm (BJT peak hours). Often, offering hours between 8am-10pm 7 days a week. Many online teachers use this time to ‘boost’ their income, working extra hours these months, as it helps provide financial security within the low seasons.
Another point to make is that, with whichever company you choose to work for, being given a fully booked schedule every week is also not a guarantee. This can be for a number of reasons:
Companies over hire teachers to ensure they have enough teachers trained and ready for when they plan on gaining an influx of students. This is great if you are one of the lucky teachers who gains more bookings from the onset. But, for many teachers and I have seen this myself, they will only receive one or two bookings a week with the promise of more, but they don’t always receive them.
The Online ESL industry is still relatively new with a new startup company popping up all of the time. The flip side to this is that just as many companies are also having to close due to failed business models, over hiring and paying teachers, and not gaining enough students.
Some ESL companies offer teachers different types of classes, for example, regular or trial classes. For teachers with regular classes, students have paid upfront for a number of weeks worth of lessons, and hence those teachers have a more fixed schedule and secure amount of work. For trial teachers, they experience the complete opposite. Work and pay are fantastic when it is the high season and more and more parents are looking for online English classes for their children. But, during low seasons, work is few and far between. I know from speaking to trial teachers, in the low season, they might only gain 2 classes a week – not great if they are relying solely on their teaching income to pay the bills.
Working Hours Available
As mentioned above, the majority of online teaching available is teaching Chinese students. Most hours available to work are whilst they are not attending school. This limits hours available to work to potentially only 3/4hours max per day, with additional hours available at the weekend.
Alternatively, you have to work for a company that offers classes 247 or to other students outside of China. There are a number of companies that offer both of these, however, again, work cannot be guaranteed as it depends on when students are available.
If you are looking for a company that offers schedules 247, you could consider ItutorGroup, Cambly, ItalkI, BuddySchool and AmazingTalker. Most of these are conversational style lessons, but some do also have kids teaching programs as well.
This one is a BIG issue and one that is spoken about among online teachers often. As an online teacher working for an ESL company, you are classed as self-employed. This means when you have time off, whether for sick or holidays, you don’t get paid.
A number of companies also have quite harsh and unrealistic policies in place for sick or holiday leave. Often, time off will lead to teachers receiving penalties and fines on top of no pay. On many occasions, teachers also will not receive additional bonuses their company might offer.
For example, a fully booked teacher with 15 classes a week earning $20 per hour.
If they chose to take a week’s holiday and their company had a 20% fine in place per missed class, the teacher would lose out on:
- 15 x $20 classes = $300 +
- 15 x $4(20% of 1 hours work) = $60
So in total, this teacher would have lost $360 in earnings for taking a week’s leave.
Not all companies are as strict as this. Some do offer a small amount of flexibility and within their policies will outline how much time a teacher can take off without being fined. Usually, this is broken down into long term and short term leave.
Even so, it is something to be careful about and read your contract carefully. I have heard horror stories, even experienced challenges myself in terms of leave.
Within my own circumstances, my daughter was incredibly sick when she was 2 years old and ended up in the hospital. As her mum, of course, I stayed with her 247 for the few days she spent there.
My company at the time (I am no longer with them) was very unsupportive. When I tried to request last minute leave, I was met with challenge after challenge. It was stressful enough that
a) my daughter was sick and I couldn’t do anything to make her better than comfort her,
b) we were going to struggle the following month financially as I wouldn’t be paid for the time off and now
c) I couldn’t take time off easily and no one as understanding that my daughter’s health was my first and ONLY priority.
It took me until the third staff member to book that current day off and have my classes rescheduled. I then was required to send in a cancel request for each and every following day. Honestly, it was a nightmare and made me so angry at the time that I was having to deal with difficult people all the way in China when I wanted 100% of my attention to be present with my daughter.
It was my final push to change companies and look for work elsewhere.
I have to say not everyone experiences this when needing time off nor is every online ESL company the same.
My present company, Whales English, have been really amazing when I have taken last minute time off. This is mainly down to my class support, who is fantastic and very understanding that I work around two young children.
Whenever my kids have been sick and needed me, my classes have been moved from my schedule straight away and dealt with in one message. My class support has even then messaged me the following day, not about work, but to ask how my children are!
This experience at Whales English is quite dependant upon the relationship you have with your class support. I also would still recommend not taking off too much time, as fines can still occur and of course, you aren’t earning an income when you aren’t teaching. They have, upon writing this, just released a new emergency leave policy incurring no fines. Teachers are allowed up to 3 emergency leaves within a 6 month period, however, do still need to provide evidence. This is a HUGE step in the right direction for supporting teachers.
When you work for a company, especially big corporate companies, your job doesn’t just come with a pay packet. You also expect to receive benefits such as a pension, healthcare, pay rises and sometimes you even receive additional bonuses such as a company car.
When you are self-employed and teaching for an ESL company, you can say goodbye to receiving any of the above.
As a self-employed online teacher, the industry sees you more as a contractor. Even your contract you sign when starting with an ESL company is more of an agreement than anything written in stone. ESL companies change and update their policies very frequently.
You are fully in charge of setting up your own pension, healthcare, negotiating pay rises after 6months of 1year with the same company. Definitely take it upon yourself to contact the payment or HR department within your company in order to negotiate a pay rise. Be prepared to back up with reasons as to why they should offer you more money. Sometimes gaining a pay rise is more challenging than taking blood from a stone. Having evidence to back up that you are a great, hard-working teacher, goes a long way in your favour.
Another important point to consider and plan for is that you are solely responsible for adhering to your countries tax laws and paying the correct amount of tax each year.
I highly recommend setting up a separate bank account solely for receiving your teaching income and paying for any related expenses e.g. laptop, headset, webcam, props, teaching background, CPD courses, etc.
This means when it comes to filling and paying your taxes, you can easily track and show your income and expenses for each tax year. I also keep a spreadsheet I update about once a month and save any email receipts onto my computer.
Job Security and Stability
As I mentioned above, even though you sign a contract with your online ESL company, it is treated as more of an ‘agreement’. There really isn’t such a thing as job security and stability within the online teaching industry.
With it being such a new industry, companies are up and down, changing with the times, new ones are opening, others are closing. It can be difficult to just work with one company for a long time.
You have to consider the above points:
- that there are high and low seasons within the year which impact on bookings
- not every company will have enough students to fully book all teachers
- If a company changes direction, they may ‘let you go’ without warning (I have witnessed this happen with one company who had a huge cull of their online teachers)
- If a company suddenly closes.
All of these external elements impact your job security as an online ESL teacher.
You also need to be aware that, in essence, it is the parents of your students who pay for the lessons. Hence you have to please them first and foremost as they hold a lot of power on whether you will receive bookings. Even companies which book for you rather than the parents choosing your class. If a parent does not like your teaching style or lesson for any reason, they can ask to have another teacher.
Therefore you need to be professional at all times and deliver your lessons to the highest quality, else this can have a great impact on the number of bookings you receive and your reputation among parents and a company.
Working as an online ESL teacher usually means you are teaching from a room within your home or in a hotel if travelling. You are working solitary, surrounded by 4 walls and once you finish teaching or are in between classes, there is no one else around.
This is great for being able to completely focus on your lessons and students. But what about those times when you want to share something incredible that happened in your class today. Or when you just need another teacher to tell you-you’re still doing a great job, even if your student was messing around the whole lesson.
Those are the moments when teaching online can become quite lonely. I am fortunate, in that I’m not on my own. I have my husband who I chat to and share the ups and downs of my day with.
But he isn’t an online teacher and so doesn’t always understand fully the challenges we teachers face or can offer helpful suggestions.
It’s those little moments that I miss when working with colleagues in a usual 9-5 job. Sharing the good, the bad and the darn right awful moments in online teaching. Being able to have tea breaks and asking if anyone watched last nights episode of David Attenborough (who doesn’t love David Attenborough right?!).
To help avoid this, many teachers have set up Skype groups or Facebook groups just for online teachers who work at the same company. Though it isn’t the same as face to face contact with colleagues, it is still a great place to share
- any questions you have
- the ups and downs of your day
- top resources you come across
- and somewhere you can build genuine friendships.
Through teaching online, I have built some really strong friendships with people I would have never met if it wasn’t for my job and the online communities available.
How to overcome these challenges
In order to try and maintain a steady income throughout the year, it is helpful to not put all your eggs into one basket. Ensure you balance your schedule with multiple companies. This way if one company is going through a quiet period, you might be able to offer more hours to a second company who has more work available.
Whales English is my priority company. I am a regular teacher, which means I teach the same students every week and must keep a fixed schedule. Students book for 6 months at a time, so I know that for 6 months, at least, I have a regular number of hours work and can predict my income each month.
UUabc, I offer 7 hours each week around my Whales English commitments. However, I know with UU they do not have many bookings available. I choose to still work with them because I love the company, their values, how they look after teachers and their lesson materials. I realistically only gain on average 3 hours worth of work with them. I am fine with that as I don’t have to sit at my computer on standby if I don’t have any bookings.
Both PalFish and SayABC have flexible scheduling, where you can open and close your own slots. I do not teach regular classes with these companies, so I can teach as much or as little as I’d like. If I want a little bit extra pocket money, I open a few hours each week around my Whales English and UUabc bookings.
I know a number of teachers who have one main online ESL company they teach with and then a secondary company, which teaches adults conversational English. A number of sites that offer this type of work are Cambly, AmazingTalker, ItalkI, Preply and BuddySchool.
Check within Facebook Groups or Google Reviews of the company you are looking to apply for. Do teachers seem happy there? Are they gaining a regular, fully booked schedule? Check the answers to these questions to help you decide the right company for the income you are looking to earn.
As teaching online can be seasonal, it is important to plan ahead and ensure you can maintain a consistent income across the year.
Most online ESL companies offer additional working hours during the summer period. This is a great time for online teachers to double or even triple their income during the summer. Through putting by that extra income, you are covering yourself and planning ahead for the low season. This really helps to balance out your income and provide you with a safety net.
Remember being self-employed means you are solely responsible for sorting out your tax, healthcare and pension.
Depending upon the country you live in, you might also be able to gain some financial support as well to help ‘boost your income’. For example, within the UK, you can apply for Working Tax Credits, Child Tax Credits and/or Universal Credits depending upon your circumstances.
It is really important to set up a pension and healthcare. You want to prepare for the future and set aside some of your monthly earnings to do so.
It can be really easy to isolate yourself when working from home, especially nowadays with services such as food delivery available. It’s easy to stay in when working from home and find yourself not leaving the house for a few days.
But this is extremely unhealthy, both physically but more importantly mentally. Even if you just go for a 30-minute walk every day, this can really benefit your mindset and fitness.
At the very minimum, ensure to join your companies Facebook or Skype group, so that you are a part of that community and have fellow online teachers to talk to. If your company doesn’t have one, create a new group and invite online teachers to join.
There you have it, 7 Truths about teaching online that you may not have come across elsewhere. I hope this post has benefited you in some way, to see some of the challenges online teachers face.
Every career choice has its pros and cons. I really do enjoy teaching online and being a part of this new industry as it grows. As much as I love it, I still think it is important to be aware of the challenges and share them honestly, along with our own experiences, with individuals considering becoming online teachers.
If you have any more ‘truths’ regarding online teaching I haven’t covered in this post, please feel free to share them below to help prospective teachers.