Teaching Under the Table

The Ethics of Private Lessons

At first, they look like any two friends meeting for a coffee. Except, one of them is foreign, and the other is local. They sit close together in the crowded cafe and lean in so as not to miss a word the other is saying. After a while, they consult a book and make notes.

They could be colleagues, working on a project. They could be planning a party for a mutual friend. They could be dating.

And then, when saying farewell, the local slips the foreigner some cash.

Welcome to a private English lesson, happening daily in a Starbucks near you.

Private Lessons Take Place Anywhere

Private English lessons, or tutorials as they are sometimes called, can be fun, lucrative part-time gigs for foreign teachers working abroad. They don’t have to happen in a coffee shop, either—some students ask teachers to go to their homes, or come to the teacher’s apartment. Or, they might meet at a local library, the food court of a shopping mall, a bar, or even in a park. Sometimes several students will group together and ask for a lesson. These lessons’ informal nature makes them a treat for both the student and the instructor, who often end up becoming close friends. And, many an English teacher has been pleased by the extra pocket-money gained from teaching a few hours off the books.

But, that teacher’s main employer may not be so pleased. Especially if the teacher in question has a school-provided visa and accommodation.

It’s an Ethical Decision

The decision to teach private lessons or not is mostly an ethical one. First of all, some employment contracts flat-out prohibit teaching outside lessons. In some countries, to get a teacher’s visa the school has to promise the government that it is responsible for that teacher’s actions. Or, the owner of a training center that provides lessons to a wide demographic may feel that your under-the-table lessons are robbing him of customers. Or, your employer may worry that you’ll be so successful in your endeavors that you’ll open your own school in competition with theirs—it’s happened before.

Secondly, aside from your agreement with the school (and some schools are fine with it; I’ve heard of a boss who told teachers to go ahead and offer private lessons—as long as students from his school got a discount), you’re most likely breaking the law by taking money from someone without paying taxes on it.

It’s Not about How Much You’re Making

Now, you may be making only a nominal amount—“will work for beer” is the motto of many teachers abroad—but, on the other hand, you might be banking more than you make at your regular job. Private students who are pleased with your lessons are likely to recommend you to their friends. Who call up their cousins who want English classes. Who bring in their sister’s coworker… you get the picture. It’s not uncommon for English teachers who are willing to teach off-schedule hours to fill up their evenings and weekends with extra lessons. If this happens to you, it might be a sign that you’re ready to start off on your own, as a freelancer. But that’s a topic for a different post (see the previous post).

The point is, if you’re accepting cash for private lessons you are putting yourself at risk for violating your visa and local tax laws. That’s not to say that you should turn your nose up at the scent of easy money—just that you should make sure you’re informed about the rules and whether you’re breaking them or not. It’s a good idea to talk to your co-workers or to an online forum about whether private classes are ignored by your school and the local authorities or not.

TED’s Tips™ #1:  Check the contract you have with your school to see if they frown on teachers giving private lessons. If it’s not mentioned in your contract, ask your coworkers or boss. Sometimes you’ll hear that they just don’t want to know about it; other times you’ll find out it’s a firing offense.

TED’s Tips™ #2:  If you do give private lessons and find yourself in demand, you might look in to the logistics of becoming a freelance English teacher at the end of your existing school contract.

TED’s Tips™ #3:  When working in non-language school settings such as public schools, colleges and universities, it is not uncommon for your school to ask you to teach an individual or even a small group of students or government officials.  You still need to clarify the legality of the situation and make your own decision about whether to proceed or not.  In my personal experience, I never had a problem with these types of lessons.   But that doesn’t mean they are legal.  Know before you go.

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Author: Ted

Semi-retired EFL teacher/teacher-trainer working and living abroad since 1989 in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.