I have a friend called Robert, whom I met in China as an English teacher. We both worked the usual job – standing in front of a group of disinterested students, saying things they would never understand. It paid good money, though, and it could be a laugh at times. But with the coronavirus and the insidious influence of the Chinese Communist Party making life there much harder, the laughter died and Robert made a hasty exit.
About a year and a half ago, I also beat my retreat from the Middle Kingdom, and I have not looked back. China is a wild and weird place, but not a pleasant one by any standard, and on top of that I hardly miss the working life – up at dawn and home at dusk. Since the day I left, I’ve been keeping my own hours and building my own business.
That’s what I taught Robert to do, too. At first, he was worried he wouldn’t be able to get by without his inflated Chinese salary, but within a matter of two days he was already working online – another digital nomad joining the ranks of the free people…
The Benefits of Teaching English Online
This article is going to explain pretty much everything you need to know to get started teaching English online. But before I get into the details of it, I’d like to give you a little outline. Let’s face it, not everyone is down for reading a 3,200 word article and you might just be here for a little tl;dr.
So here we go. Some compelling reasons why you should get into online English teaching:
- You can make good money
- It lets you work (almost) anywhere
- There is no commute
- You can set your own hours
- You can work in your pyjamas
If all of that sounds good, then read on and I’ll explain everything more in detail.
Teaching English Online for Freedom and Money
There are many reasons why people choose to get into teaching, but in the West those people wouldn’t be likely to say, “freedom and money.” In fact, in many countries, teachers are criminally underpaid and overworked. In the United Kingdom, local councils are letting teachers go and having one teacher rotate their schedule to fill three or more positions, moving from school to school each day of the week… Beyond that, teaching has become a service industry and the students’ parents are customers, able to bully and demean the teacher that has dedicated their life to teaching ungrateful youngsters in an awful work environment.
Truly, these people are saints. To be a teacher is one of the greatest callings in life, like nurses, doctors, firefighters, and Kai – the man who brings me coconuts to drink while I hammer away at my laptop in a beachside café on the tropic island of Phuket. How would society function without these brave and dedicated souls?
Mercifully, there are still places in this world where people respect their teachers, and one of these places is the internet. That’s right, the place everyone goes to act like an entitled brat is – ironically – where manners and decency prevail in education. This is where you need to go if you want to earn big bucks and pick your own schedule. Here at wanderbbq, those are pretty much our raisons d’être.
Indeed. But you probably knew that already, having presumably read the title of this article. Perhaps you were sceptical: “What manner of clickbait bullshit is this?” you might reasonably have wondered. But wonder no more, for I stand by my title and fully intend to share much more to back it up…
How Can I Become an Online English Teacher?
If the prospect of money and freedom appeals to you, then perhaps you might want to give this whole online teaching thing a shot. In this section, I’m going to tell you some things you need to know so that you can jump in and give it a try.
The first things you need are – unsurprisingly – an internet connection and a computer with a webcam and microphone. It may also be possible to replace the latter with a device such as a smartphone, but some companies are particular about the connection (which is understandable given that a poor-quality video call can ruin a lesson). In those cases, they might insist that you have a wired connection rather than Wi-Fi, and that you have a certain quality of headphones or microphone. These will be tested in advance of your first lesson.
Qualifications may or may not be necessary, depending on the company to which you apply. Some companies are very easy-going and simply want a native speaker of English to run through a basic lesson plan, while others prefer you to have a degree or certificate of some kind. It should go without saying that qualifications are preferred and may lead to a higher salary, but you’d be surprised by what’s available to those without teaching certifications or college degrees.
If you work for an online teaching company, you will almost certainly be provided with lesson plans that you will review prior to the start of class. These are almost scripts that you read out, meaning that there is surprisingly little thinking involved. Some people find this wonderful as it makes the job absurdly easy, but others hate that it sucks all the creativity out of the job.
On the other hand, though, if you decide to go freelance then you will obviously have to make your own materials. This comes with some massive pros and cons. You can make your own schedule, teach what you think is best, and exercise your creative muscles. However, it can also involve a lot of preparation of materials and a certain amount of insecurity about where the next paycheck will come from.
If you are going the company route, you’ll want to find a job board or forum online and apply. We’ll deal with that next…
Applying for an Online Teaching Job
The easiest way to teach English online is to work for one of the many companies that have sprung up over the past few years. Primarily, these offer you the chance to teach English to young children from China. This is a huge growth market as China’s economy continues its great push into the new decade. Parents from China are happy to pay quite large sums of money to have their offspring talk to a native speaker of English, and that means these companies will pay you anything from $12 to $50 per hour.
That’s quite a difference in wage, but let’s say that the average is about $20 per hour. If you have experience, you could get a little more, and many of these companies will reward your efforts and loyalty, so after a year or two you might be able to push up towards the higher end of the payment spectrum. People who smile a lot and speak with a clear American or British accent also tend to get positive feedback, which quickly results in a higher hourly wage.
To find a job, you might find it useful to check Dave’s ESL Café, which is one of the oldest and most popular ESL forums. However, most of these jobs aren’t actually online. Only a small percentage of them are for remote workers, and the result for simply teaching ESL abroad. There are many Facebook groups, however, that are open to recruiters for online teaching companies. These two have dozens of posts per day and would be a great start if you are seeking to teach English online:
On groups like these, you will find jobs being posted daily (often ones that will give you an interview within 24 hours) and comments from other online teachers. This is particularly useful because you can learn which companies pay out reliably and can therefore be trusted.
It is also very easy to apply to these different companies individually. This website gives a run-down of the best-paid jobs in the field, with links to the websites of the respective companies. Some of the big names in online teaching are:
Note: All of these are from China. There are other countries located in Korea and Japan. They generally pay less, but the job might be preferable depending on your skills and interests.
Working for Yourself
Perhaps you don’t want to work for one of these companies. We totally understand that for a number of reasons.
- Maybe you don’t feel like working for a company, even if it is remote work that gives you some freedom and good money.
- Perhaps you don’t want to deal with little kids.
- If you really love teaching, you might find the rigid framework of these courses boring.
- These companies often have quite strict rules that often don’t mix well with the digital nomad personality.
- Maybe you are planning to build a vast business empire starting with just a few private lessons…
Instead of teaching from a pre-made lesson plan, maybe you want to teach your lessons in your own style, choosing your own time and platform. This is taking remote work to an even higher level of freedom. If this is the case, it may be time for you to go it alone.
For this, you have several options, some of which are actually integrated into the above systems. For one thing, you have companies like iTalki, Cambly, and PalFish (the last link is in Chinese, but their app is in English). Each of these allows you to talk with English learners from around the world on your own terms. You make your own lessons and set your own prices. iTalki is probably the best of these because it does allow excellent teachers to make a great income, but the other two are much easier to join. Sadly, though, you’ll also make much less money. For Cambly, you’re only going to make about $10 an hour, for example. On PalFish, you can set your own rates but obviously people gravitate towards the cheaper teachers.
The other option is to teach via Skype (or another messaging app) and then attempt to build a base of customers yourself. This has some obvious challenges. I personally set up a website four years ago and built a good reputation over the first two years, just writing blog posts and generally securing a good ranking on Google, along with an e-mail list and a strong social media presence. After that, I was able to find customers pretty easily and conduct online classes through Skype.
It should go without saying, though, that this is not necessarily something that everyone can do. To teach a decent lesson requires quite a lot of education and experience, and that’s why it’s easier to jump into a position offered by one of those companies like VIPkid, which will just give you a pre-made lesson plan, or to go Cambly, where you simply chat with people and are paid for your time.
Do I Need Qualifications to Teach English Online?
Lots of people wonder whether it is necessary to have qualifications in order to teach online, and the answer is that it depends. Different companies have different requirements and of course if you just choose to set up your own business then it doesn’t matter at all.
Most online teaching companies (at least the ones that pay the most) want teachers who have at least some sort of university education, though that does not necessarily mean they want qualified teachers. If you have a BA in geography, you could still find yourself qualified to teach English. However, it should go without saying that better qualifications lead to better opportunities. If you have a TEFL certification, for example, that will help you find a job.
You may wonder what that acronym means. It stands for Teaching English as a Foreign Language and you can get one of these certifications quite easily by studying online. Not only does it help you find a job, but you’ll be a much better teacher after doing the course. They guide you through all the basics of teaching in a short time, as well as offering a grammar refresher course.
Of course, knowing how to teach is not terribly important for most online teaching jobs. Unless you are required to make your own lesson plans, you don’t really need to do much except just speak. For most of these gigs, you simply have to read from a script with minimal improvisation, or chat about the student’s life. Most of these people are paying for the privilege of chatting with a native English speaker and they aren’t expecting a detailed lesson.
That last point might just be the only qualification you really need: being a native speaker of English. Alas, no matter how well you speak English, being from the US or UK will make you a much more valuable asset to a language school in Asia.
Are Online Teaching Jobs Only for Teaching Kids?
No, they are not. Although most of the jobs that you will see advertised online involve teaching children from China, there are many other opportunities. You can teach teenagers, college students, businesspeople, or almost anyone else if you look hard enough. There is even a company in Japan that will let you teach lessons about a particular subject of your own choice and the members of this site are typically middle-aged. You could, for example, teach art history or computer programming but in English.
For my own business, I only deal with people who are preparing for the IELTS exam and those are usually in their twenties or early thirties. I personally find this age to be the best as you can relate more easily to the students, but others find that children are more fun and rewarding to teach. It depends on the teacher’s personality.
Of course, you should be aware that the best-paid jobs are currently the ones focused on Chinese kids because the economy there is booming and education is big business. If you’re getting into online teaching purely to make quick money, I’d suggest signing up with a big Chinese company and doing that for a few months.
Going It Alone: How to Run Your Own Teaching Business
I mentioned above that you have the choice of whether to work for a company or start your own. If you choose to do the latter, you need to think about a few things:
- Getting students
- Planning lessons
- Getting paid
Thankfully, it has never been easier to do any of these things. Getting students is the hardest, but if you set up a website and promote yourself well, it can certainly be done. You will be most successful if you get a good niche like teaching business English, test preparation, or something like that. You can use social media ads to reach out to potential customers, or perhaps go on websites like Cambly, where you can meet and chat with people. Once there, you can promote yourself and your business. You will need a website and for that you can try Squarespace or WordPress. Both are cheap and easy to set up.
Planning lessons is where you need some experience. Getting a TEFL or CELTA would certainly help you to learn the basics of lesson planning, but otherwise you can just use your intuition. Think of language learning as a matter of input and output. You teach the language, practice it, and then test them to see if it has been retained.
As for getting paid, right now there is nothing better than PayPal. Yes, they are problematic. They charge high fees and have a nasty habit of shutting accounts with money in them. Alas, we haven’t yet had any better options. You could try Payoneer, but it’s harder to send money, and obviously bank transfers are extortionate when going between countries. You can accept Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, but remember that their values fluctuate wildly and the $100 you earned on Monday might just be with $70 on Tuesday.
Is My English Good Enough to Teach Online?
Finally, let’s look at one last question that often puts people off teaching. Do you really need to be an expert in the English language to teach it to someone else? The answer really depends on who you are teaching and how you are teaching them.
When I first got into teaching, nearly fifteen years ago, I was a relatively well educated young man who had read a lot of books. I would say that my English skills were pretty good (I had an MA in Literature) but I didn’t actually know why I knew grammar. If a student had asked me, “Why do you use the present perfect rather than the past simple?” then I would have been totally lost.
Fortunately, such situations rarely came up. In the early days, I was teaching very young children and such things don’t matter. As long as you know the difference between “apple,” “ball,” and “cat,” you’re pretty much fine. Later, when I was teaching at university, I would research language before each class so that I knew how to teach it. This was great, but if questions came up about something else, I had to stall and scramble for an answer.
In the end, I just made the effort to learn English grammar. Honestly, all native speakers know the basics through simple absorption of information, so learning the rules doesn’t take much effort. Once I knew it, I was much more confident in the classroom. A few years later, I wrote my own guide to English grammar and was teaching grammar course for an English university.
If you’re going to teach kindergarteners to talk about what they like to eat, you probably don’t need to know how to explain conditionals or the various uses of semi-colons, but if you are going to teach college students and adults, you probably should learn. Thankfully, there’s this wonderful tool called YouTube. You might have heard of it… Get online and spend an evening watching grammar tutorials. Pay attention, make notes, and you’ll be able to explain the tenses and correct subject-verb disagreement in no time.
Teaching English online isn’t for everyone and I don’t want to make it sound like the easiest thing in the world… but if you want to make your own hours, work from home, and save some decent money, it’s a pretty good option. You’ll find most of the information you need in the article above, but you should definitely look into it further by searching through forums and Facebook groups for feedback and ideas. This job can be boring, frustrating, or embarrassing, depending on your personality… but if you can handle it, you might be onto a really great remote working career that you can do from almost anywhere in the world. That’s what we believe in here at wanderbbq. Anything that can unhook you from the daily grind is worth considering.