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.

TEFL Educator / TEFL Boot Camp

Teaching Internships in China



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

School Housing or Your Own Digs?

Your Home Abroad: School Housing or Your Own Digs?

Whether you imagine yourself sleeping in a hut or a palace, the logistics of moving abroad to teach English as a Foreign Language always involves finding a place to stay.

New teachers usually have two options when they move abroad: school-provided housing or finding their own accommodation. Not all schools offer apartments for their teachers, however, so you may find yourself with only one option. This can be good, or it can be bad.

When It’s Provided by Your School…

If school housing is listed as a part of your overall employment package, be sure to find out details about it before you move abroad. It’s hard to look a gift horse in the mouth and many teachers feel strangely indebted to their school for giving them accommodation, but what seems like a great perk at the beginning of your contract might be a millstone around your neck a few months later.

When I first started out teaching, I lived in about nine places over a span of eight months. One of them—school-provided—was a stairwell closet in the building where my language school was located. Yep, I’m the original Harry Potter.

Questions to Ask About School-Provided Housing

Here are some questions to ask your employer about the housing he or she provides:

•  How far away from the school is it? To save costs, some schools put teachers out in the suburbs, forcing them to commute a long distance to work.

•  How far away from the city center or other attractions is it? You won’t always be working. It’s important that you are able to get out and explore your new environs.

•  Do you have to share it? Some schools abroad expect their teachers to share accommodation. This might be fine—or it might not.  See if you can get an introduction to your new roommates before you accept.

•  Do you have a kitchen or cooking area? If your accommodation doesn’t allow you to cook for yourself, it might mean that you’ll spend a lot in restaurant bills. Or, if you’re the kind who doesn’t like to cook anyway, this could be the excuse you’re looking for to make the acquaintance of your local fast food delivery crews.

•  Does it have a curfew or other restrictions? If you’re teaching at a middle school in China, for example, you might be housed on a floor in the students’ dorm, and the whole building might lock down at a set hour each night. Or, you may not be allowed to bring guests back to your room. Depending on your lifestyle, these restrictions might be fine or they might make you feel, well, restricted.

•  Who maintains it? On the other end of the spectrum from the Chinese dorm, you may find yourself in a condo with weekly maid service and a crew of workers doing gardening and window-washing for you. These amenities might make up for a more remote location.

•  What is the neighborhood like? Is there a nearby supermarket or convenience store? How close are you to public transportation? Will you feel comfortable walking at night there?

When It’s Not Provided by Your School…

If your school doesn’t provide housing, you still may be able to get their assistance when looking for a place to stay. Ask if a liaison officer or other coworker can help you navigate your new city and negotiate with landlords. Chances are, you’ll be facing a new language as well as a new city, and having someone on your side will help a lot.

Finding accommodation abroad will follow much the same process as it does in your home country. If you’re willing to share an apartment or house, you can look on local Internet pages—yes, Craigslist is overseas too—to see if there is anyone letting a room. If you want your own digs, be prepared to spend several days looking at potential sites before signing anything. As in your home country, be prepared to pony up first and last month’s rent as well as a “key deposit.” Not everywhere is exactly the same though, and some places may ask foreigners for even more cash up front. Your school may be able to help you cover this if the amount is too much for you to absorb in your first months in a new country.

Ask Your Landlord

Other questions to ask about renting your own accommodation in a foreign country:

•  Is it furnished? While you might be able to afford buying furniture for your first apartment in a new country, what will you do with it when you leave? If you’re planning on settling down for several years, it might be worth it, but generally speaking it’s best to find a furnished apartment.

•  What utility bills can you expect? Utility bills abroad might be more expensive than you’re used to paying in your home country. It’s best to know this before you leave your air conditioner on all day, every day for that first month. Also, some landlords fold the cost of basic utilities into the rent.

•  As a foreigner, what paperwork does your landlord need from you? They may want to see a copy of your work contract or a copy of a bank statement that shows you have enough money to pay the rent. While they may be in the right to ask for a photocopy of your passport, never, under any circumstances, give your passport to anyone to keep for you as a security.

•  What are the emergency evacuation procedures? If there is a fire or other disaster, is your apartment equipped with an extinguisher and evacuation plan? It might seem paranoid to think about this, but if you’re going to a developing nation you may need to.

TED’s Tips™ #1:  Know before you go. Learn as much as you can about your school-provided housing before you decide to stay in it. Ask for photos. If you don’t want to live in school-provided housing, they may give you a stipend to help you pay for housing elsewhere. Or, they may not.

TED’s Tips™ #2:  If you are finding an apartment on your own, give yourself a week or two before starting your new job so that you are well settled before your first classes. You don’t want the double stress of your first day on a new job followed by moving in.

TEFL Educator / TEFL Boot Camp

Teaching Internships in China