The Life of a TEFL Freelancer

Being Your Own Boss in the TEFL World

You’ve heard of freelance writers, no doubt. And freelance private detectives. And freelance web designers. But, did you know there’s also a niche for freelance teachers of English as a Foreign Language?

Depending on the demand for English teachers in your target location, there may be a market for teachers who are willing to teach in a variety of locations, and be paid by a variety of schools.

There’s a lot to be said for being a freelance teacher. You make your own hours, allowing you to structure your lesson schedule around hobbies, family demands, or another job. You are free to pursue a mix of teaching assignments, from kids to corporations. You may be able to ask for a higher hourly rate than you would get if you were employed by a school full-time. You’re free of the constraints of a boss looking over your shoulder, and you’ll be able to (most likely) keep your nose clean of internal office politics. Furthermore, you may be able to pull in seasonal or other short-term gigs to supplement your other means of employment.

Freelance EFL teachers may find themselves working at local schools, doing supplementary or substitute lessons; at private language training centers filling in gaps in the schedule; at companies offering English training as part of employees’ ongoing development; or in the homes of private individuals who pay for their lessons out of pocket. Freelancing may also involve a mix of EFL skills, from online teaching to teaching English for specific purposes to proofreading and editing documents for non-native speakers.

Sounds like sunshine and roses, doesn’t it?

Contacts are Key for Freelancers

However, beginning as a freelance English teacher will take a little more maneuvering than setting up with your garden-variety teaching job. First of all, contacts are key.

Having a network of contacts is highly important when finding any job, of course, and is doubly so in the garrulous and often close-knit world of English teaching abroad. To be able to fill your schedule as a freelancer, you’re going to need to convince a whole roster of clients to hire you. So, where you might have to suffer through only one or two interviews and mock lessons for a regular teaching job, as a freelancer you’ll need to pull out the stops and show your stuff for each school, institution, company or private client that you hope will contract you.

Also, as a freelancer you are going to be wholly responsible for your visa and other legal paperwork (ahem, taxes), accommodation, and health insurance. These three logistical bugbears of working abroad are main reasons why most teachers starting out will seek out sponsored employment when they first move to a new country.

Start Planning Early

However, if you are thinking of staying for a few years in one place, it makes sense to start planning toward a freelancing career, especially if you are unimpressed with your first employer. Most complaints from new teachers revolve around school policies and administration, not their students. Freelancing is a great way to maximize the time you spend in class while minimizing your exposure to school politics. However, as I mentioned, the tradeoff is you’ll probably spend more time dealing with immigration and other bureaucracies. Luckily, in many countries you can pay a lawyer or other service to help facilitate the paperwork.

Questions to ask before you start freelancing:

• Does the country you’re living in allow foreigners to freelance legally? Many countries, for example China, tie working visas to a specific company. And, not all companies are allowed to hire foreigners. Other countries, like Japan and the Czech Republic, allow foreigners to create a sole proprietorship or trade license under which you can freelance.
• Do you have enough contacts to bring in clients? It may take some months to build up your clientele, but you should analyze your starting prospects carefully.
• Do you have enough money saved to start up? If you haven’t got a full load of clients on board right away, do you have enough in savings to pay the rent and other bills while you work on getting new clients?
• Do you have your own library of teaching resources? If you contract with a school or training center, you can expect them to provide you with appropriate materials. But if you’re offering your services to companies or individuals, you’ll be expected to bring your own materials. At the very least, you should have a list of books that the students can purchase for their involvement in your lessons. Most freelance teachers also benefit from a printer at home, to help them prepare. Some carry a back-pack-sized white board and markers from class to class as well.
• Are you self-motivated? Being a freelancer is not for everyone. It requires a lot of motivation and discipline to pull in new clients and maintain the contacts that you already have. Think carefully about whether this matches your personality before you commit.

TED’s Tips™ #1:  Check the legalities of working on your own in your target country before you hang out a shingle. If you do choose to work under the table, be sure you know the risks involved before you do so. Most countries don’t look favorably on people skirting immigration and tax legislation, especially foreigners. However, most countries do not energetically pursue teachers doing a few private jobs on the side.
TED’s Tips™ #2:  Develop contacts who can help you find clients. Networking is important in ESL, and even more so when freelance teaching.

TEFL Educator / TEFL Boot Camp

Teaching Internships in China

Author: Ted

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