Freelance teacher 101: BASICS TO BREAKTHROUGH

I receive emails every day from dedicated educators who:

  • Are being underpaid or under-compensated for their time;
  • Aren’t sure how (or if) to become freelance teachers;
  • Are freelance teachers but struggle to find and/or retain students or charge a rate that leads to thriving, not just surviving. 

Does that sound like you?

Read on while I show you the basic business skills that successful freelance teachers from Australia and New Zealand need to earn up to $100AUD/hr (or maybe, even more) from someone who learned them the hard way!

Independent online English teacher
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This post is written for Australians and New Zealanders but all of our information can be used by teachers worldwide. We use affiliate links, which earn us a small commission (at no cost to you, see our Disclaimer) but always give you the best impartial advice based on first-hand experience.

Table of Contents

Note: In this article (and others that I’ve written), the focus is on young adult/adult TESOL students as this is my personal experience, but these concepts are universal to teachers from all fields.

If you’re new to online ESL teaching, read my “How to Teach English Online” guide. 

What are my online teaching options?

Employed teacher

You can apply for a job with an international (and much less often, a domestic) company (or school) who pays you an hourly or class rate. This is where I (and many other teachers) started. It is good for those who are lacking experience and/or time …but usually pays the lowest of all your options.

 In this situation, they do all the student acquisition and you simply have to be ready and waiting to teach at the allocated time. Some provide the lesson plans and curriculum, while others require you to prepare this. Classes are given to all age groups and from every country in which there is the internet infrastructure and demand.

As there are literally hundreds of companies, we cannot cover all aspects of this but I have found that the average rate internationally is ≈$29-42 AUD/hr and teachers are offered an average of 10 hours per week (but varies VERY WIDELY as is just a general guide). 100% online roles domestically are rare but attract salaries of ≈$50-$75AUD/hr (or more) for those with postgraduate qualifications and/or many years of experience. Tutoring falls somewhere in between for those without these higher qualifications.

If you’re interested in a job, I’ve compiled the most comprehensive list of online English teaching jobs for Australasians available anywhere!

Freelance teacher on a marketplace platform

A marketplace is exactly as it sounds – an online platform where teachers can market their services to students who are looking for a teacher.  Preply is one the largest international marketplace platforms, with more than 100,000 students. Outschool is a US based platform for young learners (K-12) with an increasing presence in Australia. 

Unlike doing it yourself (where you make 100% of the profit), the marketplace platforms take ≈10-30% of your profit. You pay for the convenience of easy access to students/parents but must often abide by strict rules around contacting students directly (so as not to ‘poach’ them) and cancellation/refund/admin policies vary greatly.

You can make more money than if you were to work for a company as you set your own, higher, rate. You only pay a portion of your income for the facilitation of a connection between yourself and your student. They are essentially providing the shopping centre and you are setting up your store in hopes that someone will stop and buy. If you want to dip your toes in and ‘give it a go’, marketplaces can be a good place to start – but for the most freedom and maximum hourly rate, you’ll need to go out independently.

Independent freelance teacher

Advertising your teaching services to students directly without a third party platform or marketplace is my definition of an independent freelance teacher. Not only will you be free to teach what you want to who you want (while charging up to $100 AUD/hr or more), you will build the skill-set to run a sustainable and successful business.

The main difference between independent freelance teachers and those employed by someone else is that in order to succeed, freelance teachers need to don a new ‘hat’ – that of a small business owner. It can look different for each teacher but will likely involve a website and/or a social media presence that attracts students to your classes online. You’ll then need to convert them to paying students, or as I want you to now consider them, clients. 

Many teachers find this a strange and uncomfortable change, but I want to assure you that by keeping an open mind and embracing these ideas, you can build a teaching business that is both profitable and allows you to give fully to your students. It has been by far the best decision that I made in my career.

There are three main business skills that I have helped me succeed as a freelance teacher during the past decade. Let me share these with you now.

freelance teacher
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What skills do I need to be a successful freelance teacher?

A business mindset

I used to cringe a little every time I read something that started with discussions around mindset. “My mindset is fine, I want to find students!” is what I’d think to myself. Yet, when I reflect on what has lead to my greatest breakthroughs as a freelance teacher, they were almost all related to the way I perceived myself, money and business. 

I’ve also found it helpful to consider even one freelance class a business and to see it needing a seperate mindset entirely, but for you it may be more naturally complementary, depending on your personality.

If you’ve been a teacher for a while, you are likely to identify strongly with ‘being a teacher’ and a teacher mindset, which may (or may not) include:

  • Strong principals for teaching as a selfless, noble, and financially inclusive;
  • Teaching that centres on helping underprivileged or disadvantaged students;
  • Teaching as a not-for-profit profession, unspoilt by business and/or capitalism.

If so, you may struggle with the idea that you need to increase your prices and say “No” to students and parents that cannot afford to pay. Consider:

  • Acknowledging and embracing your altruism by volunteering to teach English online casually or offering a weekly group class for free or at a reduced rate, but also having a seperate, profitable business as well. It doesn’t need to be an either/or proposition. You can do both and still make enough money to thrive.
  • Asking yourself how much MORE time and energy you would have to give to your students if you were financially secure in your freelance business by charging students who are happy to pay a high maximum rate?
  • With ≈40–50% of teachers burning out within the first five years of teaching, consider if the currently accepted teaching mindset is sustainable?
Or, you may embracing of business but perceive yourself as..
 
  • Someone who lacks business skills such as sales and marketing or finds the idea of selling themselves or their services terrifying/overwhelming;
  • Someone who is afraid to ‘put themselves out there’, to use social media or to build a web presence;
  • Lacking confidence or feeling like you don’t deserve $100+ AUD/hr because of ideas from your previous experiences and/or upbringing. 

I’ve written about my own freelance challenges over the years (including chronically undercharging due to my low-income upbringing and a healthy does of insecurity) and this process can take time plus some trial and error. Sales is a skill that you learn by doing. You can build a business from a small roster of private students, slowly and without dancing around on TikTok.

It’s completely possible BUT you have to have the mindset that: 1) You will commit to starting a freelance business; and 2) You believe that you will make it succeed.

If you identify any of these potential obstacles in yourself, it’s definitely worth taking an hour (why not right now?) to sit down in a quiet place and write down what your current mindset around teaching and business is and any fears or concerns before moving on to the next step. Challenge yourself to clearly identify what in your mindset is holding you back. Once you know this, you can begin to work on it and to seek out others to help. Reach out for coaching if you need a hand. I’ve overcome these challenges myself and worked with many teachers in the past two years to overcome them too.

With or without a coach, if you are wondering if you can start your own freelance business, the answer is YES YOU CAN. 

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

"Student as client" sales approach

I’ve briefly mentioned sales and of all the skills that lead to freelance success, this is #1.

Instead of benefiting from a team of people (including salespeople) who are connecting the student to the school/company/institute and to you directly, you’re going to have to go out there and find a way to connect with potential learners and sell them your services. You’ll need to start looking at your students and/or their parents as your business clients

The issue is that many teachers have a perception of sales as an ‘icky’ practice that is best to be avoided – yet it really doesn’t have to be. That’s why I mentioned mindset first. If you have the mindset that sales is bad, you’re going to struggle to sell your very valuable and important services.

Let me re-iterate that. You are offering an AMAZING service that potentially:

  • helps minds to grow, expand and foster life-long learning habits;
  • helps promote feelings of personal achievement and fulfilment;
  • offers lucrative future career promotion with a tangible increase in salary for each year of their working life;
  • offers opportunity for immigration or emigration and a better quality of life for themselves and their family;
  • leads to studying at the university of their dreams;
  • …plus much, much more!

Some of the value that your teaching offers is tangible, while some is more abstract.

In my experience, the more that you consider value for your clients rather than simply learning outcomes for your students, the easier that the sales process will become. It’s a simple equation: the more value that you can provide, the more that you can charge. 

There is a lot of dubious advice out there about sales and much of your success will depend on your personality and style, plus a huge dose of persistence and learning from your mistakes. In my experience, the only way to become a good salesperson is through practice, but spending time to highlight specific and measurable value for your clients beforehand means that when the time comes to speak with them on a Zoom call, you can more easily justify your rates. Take some time to consider your value.

Maintain accurate documentation

Finally, while admin may not be your favourite activity, you need to be “on top” of the admin of your business, especially as it grows. If you really hate this part, consider hiring a freelance admin or virtual assistant from a site like Airtasker to do it for you. 

Here are a few main documents that are crucial for me:

A profit and loss spreadsheet
It doesn’t have to be too complicated and can be a simple Excel spreadsheet that records:

  • How much students have paid and when (and who owes what);
  • All income that comes in (minus any fees/charges);
  • Every expense that you’ve made for the business (I record this monthly).

You’ll be particularly grateful for this one at tax time. This guide from business.gov.au includes a free profit and loss template and some good general advice.

An invoice template

A free template from Office is all that you need. Make sure it clearly gives your banking or other payment details. This guide from business.gov.au is a good starting point too.

A cancellation/no-show and payment policy
Again, it doesn’t have to be complicated but needs to state the terms of which your students agree to give you notice of cancellations and when payment is due.
 
This article from the WA Government on how to write a cancellation policy is a helpful place to start. I’ve always allowed free cancellations up to 24 hours in advance but they forfeit the class fee for anything under 24 hours, unless it is a genuine and one-off emergency. 
 

Life happens and the longer that I work with a student, the more relaxed I am with cancellations. For other students (and parents), I find that if I am not strict about this early on, they will try and push the boundaries. I suggest making this 100% clear from the beginning and saving yourself major headaches later on.

The same applies for your payment policy. I’ve always made sure my students either pay up-front for class packages (preferred) or pay for all classes by the final day of each month. I am very strict about these rules up front and relax only once we have built a reliable and trusting relationship over time. Having these documents will both protect you and make the expectations clear for everyone. Just as we often set these expectations on the first day of term, so should we in our business.

Note: I am not a financial advisor and therefore this post should NOT be taken as financial advice.  If you need professional assistance, please contact your accountant or lawyer. I accept no liability or responsibility to any person for actions taken as a consequence of information provided on teachenglishonline.com.au. [Disclaimer]

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Am I ready to become a highly paid freelance teacher?

As you can see, there are a number of skills involved in running a successful freelance teaching business. Although they might seem overwhelming, let me assure you that they really aren’t. 

Before you start, take some time to appraise your current mindset and identify any obstacles or limiting beliefs that may stand in your way of running a business. Just writing them down and acknowledging them diminishes their power. You can then begin to replace them with a new concept of yourself as both a teacher AND a high value professional business owner.

This doesn’t need to involve changing your existing values at all. That’s one of the best things about running a business. You can run it any way that you want and to lead with the values that are important to you. Just know that you’ll build a successful and sustainable freelance business faster if you’re charging what you’re worth.

This concept can be repeated as a written brainstorm regarding your value and the corresponding hourly rate. Once you perceive your students as business clients who benefit from the value that you contribute, you’ll see that you’re not just selling them something they don’t need (like this season’s latest sneakers) but you’re offering them something of real and tangible value and benefit that will remain with them for the rest of their lives. You’ll need to find your ‘sales style’ but it doesn’t have to been icky at all.

Finally, having a few pieces of clear administrative documentation ready to go from the beginning will make the whole process easier, smoother and more profitable. Hire someone to help you and/or seek out professional advice to get you started on the best foot if you want to get going quickly but free templates and time spent on websites like business.gov.au are invaluable. 

Ask around your networks for teachers who are currently successful freelancers and ask for their advice and support. Or have a look at my coaching page and express your interest in a coaching Power Hour. I’ve been where you are and work with teachers regularly to make their freelance teaching business dreams a reality. It might take a bit of trail and error (and a dash of patience) but there is a savvy business person waiting to emerge once you’ve got the right mindset, approach and tools.

When are you going to start?

If you’re an experienced freelance teacher, do you have any advice for others?

Comment below!

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