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The Business of ESL Teaching
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More and more people want to study English these days. In fact, more and more people need English. Talk with many second-language learners, and they point to school, career development, and self-improvement as only a handful of reasons for language study. They also talk about frustration, having studied for months or years with little progress. Their goals, both short and long term, remain beyond reach.

I begin with the above because, as a teacher, I'm similarly frustrated. Students come to me on a daily basis with years of formal study, yet also with an inability to communicate. Perhaps past teachers didn't have the experience. Perhaps past teachers didn't have the right training. Perhaps past teachers didn't have the sense of responsibility or motivation to move students from point A to point B.

Whatever the reason, the market is currently changing. Students are more cautious to sign up with a school or an instructor. They are also much more demanding in the progress that they make. And when expectations don't get met, the students soon go elsewhere.

All of this means that teachers need to provide a better service, especially freelance teachers of English (or another language).

Here are a few problems and solutions:

Need: The teacher must provide a smooth, well-planned lesson that introduces key language. The language selected for the lesson needs to target the specific weakness of the student(s).

How #1: In order to target the needs of the student(s), you should provide an entrance interview. A short discussion of ten to fifteen minutes (with or without picture prompts or some other realia) can reveal strengths and weaknesses in the various skill areas. It also gives you the chance to find out likes, interests, etc. Don't just run a canned, generic lesson plan for beginners, for example.

How #2: Improved lessons come through study, trial, and reflection. All three are necessary to improve your craft as a teacher. Reading articles, books, and talking with other more experience teachers all count as study. You must also take these ideas and test them in the classroom. Lastly, what worked and what didn't work must be considered, so that you always make steady improvement.

Need: The teacher must improve the service offered. If you meet once a week for one hour, provide no feedback, and no opportunity for outside questions and/or practice, then students won't progress as quickly. They also may feel the cost of the class and the value derived from it aren't equal.

I'll put it another way: Would you sooner return to a restaurant that hustled customers in and out, or would you sooner return to a restaurant with attentive staff who wanted you to enjoy the dining experience?

How #1: Providing students with your personal email is one option, which allows them to contact you with questions. Few students use this option, but it's comforting to know when something does arise, they can seek your help.

How #2: It's generally a good idea to set goals for students to work towards. In general, when asked what they want to accomplish, students give vague answers like, "I want to improve my English" or "I want to work abroad."

Answers such as these prove impossible to measure, which can be discouraging. If you sit down with students, discuss realistic short-term goals, then motivation remains higher. In addition, you have repeated opportunities to gauge what your student needs, and incorporate materials and activities that provide a unique service.

Need: The teacher needs to provide professional, neat materials. Students aren't educators, so they lack the ability to measure sound pedagogy and lesson quality. This proves especially true in the early teacher-student relationship. (Later, progress determines student satisfaction.)

How #1: Use a textbook. In addition, don't photocopy the pages for the student. As most textbooks cost $20 or $30 for roughly six months to a year of material, then purchase a book for the student (or ask him to buy one). It's a small investment which lends an aura of professionalism. What's more, don't cram the book with old papers, photocopied worksheets, etc.

How #2: Provide neat, professional materials as supplements to the lesson/textbook. Dog-eared papers, handwritten worksheets, or worksheets quickly typed up and printed and filled with typos similarly look unprofessional. The message conveyed is poor preparation on your part, banging something out on the computer only minutes before class with little thought to the students.

These are but a few proven ideas that I have used to gather and keep students over the years. As an administrator in a language school, I have also implemented these ideas with measured and positive results.

I'll close with a final comment on the business of teaching a foreign language: The more you know about your students, the more personalized the lessons you can provide. This moves your students to their personal goals more quickly. It also improves loyalty and lifetime value, because the students are less likely to go elsewhere. Put simply, another school or teacher doesn't know their needs as well as you.