Are you thinking about becoming a freelance TEFL teacher? Feeling a bit unsure about what it involves and how to get started? Then, do we have the blog for you! We managed to chat to the amazing Gill Murray, a super successful freelance TEFL teacher from the UK. She kindly agreed to answer your questions, give you all a sneak peak into what life is like as a freelance TEFL teacher, and explain how to get started.
Read on to benefit from her wisdom!
Can you introduce yourself? What was your background before freelance teaching?
My name’s Gill and I’m from Glasgow originally. I currently live with my lovely husband and a gorgeous golden Labrador! My working background includes lots of different jobs! But they all, in some way, have prepared me for teaching.
I first worked in hospitality, and training staff members was a big part of my job. I feel like this role helped me develop my adaptive teaching style, as I learned that the best way to approach training was to work with the needs and skills of the person I was training.
I then owned my own catering business, and I now realise this was really useful in preparing me for teaching business English! This is because I gained experience in the areas of HR, Legal, Accounts etc., so I’m now familiar with the key terminology of each of these fields.
I also lived in Spain for a few years, working with a language company, and, while I was there, I learned Spanish. This gave me great insight into what it’s like to be a language student and I got to analyse different teaching styles, so I picked up what worked and made a mental note of what didn’t when trying to teach a language!
When I came back to the UK, I had a tutoring job in a food tech college and I was given the most challenging students to teach, the majority of which had lower-levels of education and abilities. I really enjoyed the challenge though, and I’m happy to say that the students flourished and actually did really well! It was very rewarding, and I definitely caught the teaching bug!
When did you do the course? What course did you do?
It was around 12 years ago! I did my course with i-to-i and, at that time, there was a 100hr course. It included a 20hr weekend classroom course and short courses in Grammar, Teaching Young Learners, Teaching One-to-One, and Teaching Business English. I found it very useful!
The course format was easy to navigate, and I loved the level of support and structured feedback I received from my tutor. I felt supported throughout and passed everything first time!
(Side note from i-to-i: This course was the starting point for our modern courses. We have since developed them into Level 5 courses and, if Gill was taking her course today, it would probably be our Level 5 300hr TEFL Diploma!)
Why did you decide to freelance/create your own business?
It started gradually to be honest! It has always been there in the background as a space for some private classes, but it just grew and grew until the bulk of my time was freelance! The more confident I felt in my teaching abilities, and the more experience I gained, the more autonomy I wanted in my classes. Freelancing helps me to cater to the exact needs of a student, because you don’t have a strict curriculum to follow, as you often do with the online schools.
How have you marketed yourself?
I haven’t really marketed myself until the last couple of years! I tend to get more students through existing student referrals and recommendations. The more effective and dedicated you are as a teacher; the more likely students are to recommend you. And then you almost don’t need to market yourself, they do it for you!
I have started to do some marketing via Facebook in the last few years though, but it’s more in the form of showing what I can do and providing informational videos and webinars. It started as answering random questions on different forums and Facebook pages because I wanted to help the new teachers that were struggling. I then realised that it was probably best to produce regular videos and conduct webinars, with information on different topics, so I could answer more questions and reach more people at once!
I also did over 140 free online classes for impoverished schools last year. This was a personal challenge, rather than a marketing attempt, as I wanted to make sure these schools had some access to native speakers, but it definitely showed people what I can do! Free classes/taster classes are a great way of doing this.
Do you work full-time as a TEFL teacher?
I do now, yes! But it took around 8 years of doing it alongside other work to build up to being a full-time TEFL teacher, and I think this is a great way to do it. I gradually did more and more teaching, and less and less office-based work, until I felt my skill set was good enough, and my client base was strong enough, to be able to financially depend on my teaching work.
If you’re new to TEFL, I wouldn’t advise freelancing 100% of the time straight away, it’s best to build things up gradually.
Why Facebook and not your own website?
I find webpages really stagnant. I created a website for my catering business and noticed that the information and structure didn’t really change, and updates weren’t obvious. So, people didn’t keep coming back to check for new information. If they didn’t see what they wanted on there initially, they just didn’t come back to the page! There was also no opportunity for conversation with the customer, it was a one-way street of information.
On the other hand, Facebook is constantly updating and it’s about what you’re doing now/today, which keeps the information more relevant and up to date for your students. It also provides the opportunity for instant connection with your students, through comments and Messenger, so it’s a conversation, rather than just being a wall of information!
How do you get paid?
Primarily through Paypal, it’s accessible for almost everyone and is really easy to set up and monitor.
How do you teach your students when you’re freelancing?
I use Skype! Perhaps not the most technologically advanced platform, but it’s dependable and is accepted by most countries, so the students are able to access it easily.
With regards to my teaching style, I adapt that to fit the students age and learning style. The majority of my classes are conversation classes, so I make sure the discussion topic for each class fits the interests of the student, to keep them engaged and enthusiastic about learning English. For younger learners, I use more TPR teaching methods and I have invested in additional resources, like British Council flashcards and worksheets, and a handy Harry Potter mascot doll! The Harry Potter doll is great for getting the younger students to speak, when they are too nervous to speak to me directly. I have even included my lovely dog in my teaching, and use pictures of them sitting/standing/playing/jumping to demonstrate action words with younger learners (and adults!)
I also adapt my teaching method to fit the cultural preferences of the learner. The main portion of my students are from Russia, and I have discovered that, culturally, they really like having books to physically go through. So, I do a lot of exercises from books (that they can get access to) and, especially with teenagers, I often pick novels/short fiction that they can read through and discuss with me in class.
I don’t have a curriculum, as such, but I plan my lessons carefully, after assessing the students needs, and work through all the elements they need to know – a mix of grammar, writing, reading, and speaking.
Did you experience any difficulties?
Initially it was difficult to balance a 9-5 job with my TEFL teaching, and I felt like the whole process was a big learning curve! There wasn’t a lot of downtime but, fortunately, I have a very supportive husband, who fed me at regular intervals! It’s worth all the struggles or sacrifices though, when you see how well your students progress. I also love the fact that I’ve seen my first ever student all the way through from not being able to string a sentence together, to now, when she’s just gone off to study English at university!
It’s also not easy to commit to making the leap from working in a classroom/with an online school to freelancing online. It can be nerve-wracking, and teaching online is very different to teaching face to face, but it’s definitely worth doing if you’re passionate about teaching, willing to put in the hard work, and want more autonomy with your TEFL classes.
What are the positives of going solo?
Well, first of all, you are able to choose which students you work with and, importantly, which time zones you are willing to work with! As I mentioned, the majority of my students are Russian, and the rest are from Southeast Asia or Europe. This means that I can start work early, but not too early, to coincide with the afternoon/early evening in Southeast Asia, then in the middle of the day/early afternoon I can teach my Russian students, who are only 2-3 hours ahead, and, in the afternoon, I can teach my European students. These time zones all work well together, so I have a full day without any massive gaps or overlaps. Online schools will often only have students from one time zone, so you can only work the hours that fit in with that time zone. Freelancing gives you more flexibility.
When freelancing, you also have the opportunity to be more adaptable and flexible with your teaching, to fit your student’s needs. If the student is really tired one day, I have the flexibility to change their planned lesson from a gritty grammar session to an easier class. They will learn more, as it’s likely their brain won’t be able to process the grammar rules when they are really tired, and they appreciate the fact that I adapted to their needs! With online schools, you often have to stick to the original plan.
You’re also more able to accept ad-hoc work on short notice, and set your own cancellation policies, so if a student cancels for a good reason, you don’t have to charge them! This builds more trust and means the student is more likely to carry on learning with you.
Freelancing also helps you to keep motivated and creative with your teaching, as you’re not constrained by online school structures and can really focus on the teaching, rather than the marking/assessment aspect that schools tend to focus on.
What would you say to others that want to do the same?
Be prepared for hard work and longer hours at the start! It’s worth it for the rewards, but you need to make sure you put that hard work in first. It’s about connecting with people and relationship building – put time and effort into your students and your lessons.
You also need to take it seriously; teaching is a privilege, and you need to make sure you’re dedicated before you start, because you can really make a difference to someone’s life. You also need to make sure you will be able to keep yourself structured and keep up the quality of your teaching, without the continual assessment of an employer as motivation!
With freelancing, I would also say to really think about the type of person you are beforehand. Some people thrive on adapting to new situations, so freelancing suits them. Others prefer the safety net of an employment contract with an established company. Nothing wrong with that! But, if the second one sounds more like your personality, freelancing might not be for you!
I would also advise that, initially, it’s probably best to keep up additional income flows to support your freelance teaching work (e.g. some work with one or multiple online teaching companies). Give yourself time to build up your client base gradually, before you fully depend on your freelancing work financially. You don’t want worries about your finances to detract from your teaching!
And, finally, keep it simple. You don’t have to be the most technologically advanced teacher, you’re not in the Minority Report! Take it back to basics and focus on your student’s learning experience. Make sure you’re providing your students with a teaching environment where they feel comfortable and happy to participate, and you’ll be on your way to becoming a great freelance TEFL teacher. It’s the best job out there!
Want to learn more about freelancing and TEFL from Gill? Check out her Facebook page!