There are many benefits to being an independent teacher. You gain more flexibility by setting your own rate and teaching style. You have a more stable income as you grow a long-term relationship with your students and their parents. However, the process of recruiting your own students isn’t usually easy and quick. This blog shares some vital strategies to attract students as an independent teacher. I will also share some tips based on my own independent teaching experience.
How to get students – word of mouth
This is still the most effective way to get new students. If parents and students like your teaching, they will spread the word for you, for free. People usually believe recommendations from people they trust. So instead of saying how great you are, you can let your existing parents and students sing praises for you.
How would you like your existing clients to describe and introduce you? That is a key question. When there are many equally wonderful teachers around, it is no longer enough just to say, “This teacher is wonderful”. You need to develop a very clear personal brand to stand out in the crowd.
How to get students – build your brand
The biggest advantage of going independent is that you can build your own teaching mission, style, and brand. And that’s very powerful. My language teaching mission is “to grow global citizens using foreign languages.” When I asked my parents why they chose me, their answer is usually something like, “your mission really speaks to me.”
Parents are busy people, so try to articulate your brand in just a few words, e.g. “Prepare your child for an Ivy League college” or “cultivate a well-rounded citizen for the future”). Coming up with the right words to differentiate yourself is a positioning issue. This is the hardest and the most crucial task. You can check out our Udemy course for this important topic.
How to get students – support your target clients
There are communities and groups (online or in-person) where your target clients gather. Maybe it is a Facebook group or WeChat group that you can tap into and recruit potential students. However, I suggest you always post content with the primary focus to support these groups rather than selling your class bluntly. This is a much more effective way to win the trust and gain clients, in my experience.
Before I set up my independent language teaching business, I spent a few months just browsing Facebook groups where my target families discuss and connect. I wrote down their challenges and struggles and tried to develop classes to help solve their problems.
How to get students – build partnerships
You are independent but you are not alone. Collaborating with the right people and organizations can be a cost-effective (very often free) way to get students if you don’t have a marketing and sales budget.
It is also essential when you are recruiting students for your online teaching. Your online students are probably from another cultural background and speak a language you’re not familiar with. So, the right partner who can help you interpret your student’s language, culture, and context will be tremendously valuable.
I am based in the UK and most of my students live in the US or Europe. Therefore I rely heavily on parents in continental Europe and North America to be my partners. They help me test payment solutions, recruit new learners, and recommend marketing channels. I can’t say thank you enough to these wonderful cross-cultural parents and partners.
Partners can be parents who share your vision and mission or can be NGOs, charity organizations, schools, or other business entities (without conflicts of interest). The more support you can offer to these partners, the more help they give, hence the more students you can get.
How to get students – learn from the marketplace
I taught classes on platforms such as Outschool before I went independent. Even though I couldn’t (and didn’t) take students away from the platforms, I still found the process of teaching at and learning from these marketplaces hugely valuable. (Outschool and most others do not allow teachers to communicate with learners outside the platform). It was this experience that helped me improve my teaching skills and know more about my students and their families’ needs, so I could design a great learning experience for my own students.
How to get students – use social media
I rank social media last as a student recruitment channel, as this requires a lot of resources, is time-consuming and takes a long time to reap the benefits. If you do have extra time and energy for the foreseeable few years, you can consider growing your own social media channel as a way to recruit students. Or you can just see it as your digital presence.
Here are some tips on what to do based on my personal experience of being an independent language teacher online.
Every week I dedicate specific hours and space to student recruitment. That gives me a structure to take action.
It takes time to come up with positioning, build a personal brand, and form partnerships. So do give yourself at least six months of lead time.
If a particular way doesn’t work, then take a break instead of doing the same thing again and again. Stop and reflect, am I doing this right? Are there better ways to achieve the same objective? Think out of the box sometimes.
These are free digital tools I recommend for online ESL/EFL teachers in their language classes.
Why use digital tools in online language teaching?
You can use digital tools to create engaging and interactive content. You can also use them to provide feedback to students and track progress. Most important, you can help students to connect with other language learners and to enjoy learning. I was struck by this comment from a student: “I continued to learn Spanish because I made some Spanish friends and found them quite fun.” The two words “friends” and “fun” stayed with me and become part of my foundation pedagogy.
What is a teacher’s role in language teaching?
Yes, a teacher must teach vocabulary, grammar, reading and writing skills. But when every online language teacher does that, how do I differentiate myself? That was the key question I asked myself when I set up my language teaching business. I needed to tell a parent why my approach was different in a few words. That positioning question took me four months to answer. Eventually, I landed on the brand “Creative Chinese Club”. Creative to make learning language fun, Club to connect students to be friends. The use of digital/tech tools is to support this teaching mission and pedagogy.
Although the club teaches Chinese, the method and tool recommendations can be applied just as well to online teaching of English and other languages.
What (free) digital tools to use in online language teaching?
Here are some (free) digital tools I use to make learning a foreign language fun and collaborative.
Visual Collaboration Platform
Miro: online collaborative whiteboard platform for distributed learners
Before my class, each student is set a challenge to create a drawing on a topic to be discussed in class. To inspire them, I use Whiteboard Miro to display examples done by previous students. See the example below, with drawings for covers of ‘My Story’ books.
With the free version of Miro, you can create 3 boards. If you want to continue creating new boards, you can still stay at the free level, but your previous boards become view-only.
The paid version of Miro costs US$30 per month, to edit more boards and invite members.
Flip: video discussion platform for distributed learners
Listening and speaking skills are essential to gaining fluency in a foreign language. It is important for students to practice these skills outside of online class time. A great way is to connect the students with their native peers. This not only gives students an immersive language environment but also helps build cultural connections and friendships. Video is the ideal medium to engage students and provide ‘ear training’.
Flip is a video-centered social platform I’ve explored. It is a completely free Microsoft product. Users need to sign up for the platform to upload videos and engage with each other using video as a medium.
My students watch videos made by native peers so that they can hear the authentic pronunciation and sentence formation. They can respond by making their own videos talking about the same topic.
Videos made by native peers are subtitled with highlighted areas.
Alternatives to Flip for video collaboration
Flip requires users to sign up in order to view videos and this can create friction. An alternative is Trello.
Trello does not require signup to view. However, in order to respond or upload your own message (picture, video, text), you need to create your account. The comment and reply buttons of Trello really make social interaction easy and engaging.
The free Trello plan provides you with unlimited personal boards (viewable only by a single individual) and 10 boards (projects) per workspace.
Artificial intelligence (AI) for language teaching
One tech area that will have a huge impact on teaching and learning or education, in general, is Artificial Intelligence. Some amazing resources (many currently made free to the public) could transform education.
Dear Studio is a magic tool to help teachers design our lesson plans or websites. If you are worried about copyright issues using images from others, now you can create your own images, defining the topic, style, size of image you want.
This is an image I use for my website homepage. I simply typed the phrase ‘concept art of a teacher with students of the world with bright color’ to Dream Studio to generate this image. The intellectual ownership of this image belongs to me.
You can use Dream Studio to generate 200 images for free.
Alternatives to Dream Studio for AI-generated art
This link provides 13 AI art generators (free and paid)
Many of us use stories to teach a language. Automated story writing presents both a huge opportunity and a challenge in education, including online language teaching.
Story-Machines.net is a website empowered by AI technology to generate stories (best in English, but it will generate stories in other languages). The following story is generated by the website when I typed in the title ‘tech tools to engage online ESL learners’
You could use this tool in class to compare the writing by AI and the writing by your ESL/EFL students. Or ask your students to critique and improve a story written by AI. Or students and AI can co-write a story, taking turns to write. Try adding some words to the end of a story created by story-machines.net, then click CREATE again.
How to use digital tools in online language teaching?
Tech tools, in some ways, are like the genie in the lamp. Once released, it shows great power. But we need to use this power with caution. These are the Dos and Don’ts in using digital tools in teaching and learning.
Do: let tech serve pedagogy
Very often, we might get bogged down by the tool itself and overlook the goal – pedagogy. Every tool, tech, prop, and flashcard we use should serve only two goals – good learner experience and teaching effectiveness. If there are other non-digital tools that do this better, let’s use those. Even if they might not come with hype or a fancy name. Stay true – enhance learning.
Do: remember the ethics
There are many ethics to consider in the digital space, for example, data privacy and social media protocols. As online language teachers, we also bear the responsibility to provide a safe environment for our students.