When I first heard about teaching ESL online about 3 years ago, I was intrigued but didn’t know what this type of role entailed. Back then, VIPKid only had 3,000 teachers – now it has over 90,000 teachers and 700,000 students. As a whole, online tutoring companies worldwide have received over 2 billion dollars in fundraising from investors since 2010.

At this point in time, most online ESL companies hire native English speakers both with and without formal classroom experience, making it a great option for a variety of people looking to make money from home. When I first started, some of my concerns included:

  • What does it take to be an “online ESL teacher”?
  • Is this role right for me?
  • Once I start, is this role sustainable and does it have long-term potential?

While some markers of success as an online ESL teacher are similar to other jobs in education, others are distinct to this position. After 3 years (and hopefully many more), 3,000 classes, mentoring hundreds of prospective teachers, and reading through other experiences and research, here are some traits and mindsets, in my opinion, that facilitate success and work well with this field in 2019.

Whether you’re a prospective, current, or veteran online ESL teacher, my hope is to help you think about your personal traits, goals, and circumstances and reflect on whether this job is a good fit for you.

Please keep in mind that there will naturally be some variations from company to company and any specific individual’s personal experiences. I chose these areas because they largely are not innate and can be cultivated and strengthened through effort. I’m always a proponent of having a growth mindset! 🙂

1. Being Self-Driven

There is a lot of autonomy overall in this field – you are in control of your schedule, hours you aim to work each week, and professional development. Some companies require a minimum number of hours per week while others (such as VIPKid and Gogokid) have no minimum per week – either way, it is always up to you whether to open or close any given time slot. This element of choice can be a positive or negative thing depending on whether you’re someone who treads very carefully or jumps in too quickly and ends up biting off more than you can chew.

Online ESL teachers are given a blank slate upon which to open (or not open) slots – one of my favorite perks of being an independent contractor

In terms of professional development, many companies offer workshops, secondary positions, etc., but the onus is on you to research and sign up for opportunities as they come. This may seem daunting to some and exciting to others, but either way, there are many resources and people available to help (such as me!). Please reach out if you want personalized guidance on starting or leveling up your online ESL career!

2. Patience

Patience is a given when teaching, but this area applies to both in and outside of the online ESL classroom. During instruction, students learning a new language require more processing and wait time than most teachers initially expect. Parents value teachers that allow their child to speak and maintain a positive attitude.

In terms of the field in general, the experience of building a full schedule tends to be different from a traditional teaching position. Rather than being thrown in on the first day of school with a full-time schedule, teachers in most online companies may need to take some time building a reputation to parents and the company as a responsible teacher that will show up to class on time and prepared. Which leads to my next point…

3. Punctuality

One thing is consistent across the board with online ESL companies – being on time and being aware of your time in class.

Class times have a clear start and end time (usually 25-28 minutes) and even being a few seconds late can potentially result in penalties, depending on the company. This means being cognizant of when a class starts and mindful of what is going on during class relative to the time.

If a teacher has tech issues that result in tardiness or class absences, there are specific company policies to address those situations.

While that .1 second did not penalize me, we are reminded to not be a split second late…

This area did not come naturally at first, but by aiming to enter the classroom at least a minute (if not more) before each class, I’ve avoided any late penalties for the past 3 years!

4. Flexibility and Openness to Change

As mentioned earlier, the field of online ESL is growing rapidly with fewer established guidelines precedents compared to most other education career fields. As the number of companies, teachers, and students grows, as well as the research and experience of online ESL classes, changes are inevitable.

Within any given online ESL company or even on a larger scale, changes in technology, curriculum, and/or policies tend to happen quickly and with little notice. Fortunately, there are a variety of companies to choose from, so if one starts to change in a way that you don’t like, there are other options available. On a similar note to being self-driven, keeping up with changes to the field of online ESL will help you be one step ahead. One great way to do that is to subscribe to this blog!

5. Providing Engaging but Student-Driven Instruction

Teaching strategies themselves will be the topic for another post, but many online ESL companies and parents prioritize ample student talk time (usually at least 50% student talk for lower levels and 70% for upper levels) and do not want lecture-style instruction where the teacher is the star of the show. Speaking and conversational practice is key to learning a new language, and especially with 1:1 lessons, differentiating to your student (or students at companies that offer group classes) is crucial. I personally love the emphasis on student output because I really enjoy asking questions and listening over having to speak loudly and keep the attention of a classroom.

At the same time, however, there is an emphasis on still being an engaging teacher. While that COULD mean peppy and highly energetic, it does NOT have to be that way at companies that offer 1:1 instruction. Being an engaging online teacher could be asking personal questions to the student, using interesting props, adding humor, chanting, or a host of other strategies that keep young learners interested in the lesson.

Many times I’ll use simple props and let my student’s particular interests drive how to use them.

6. Enjoying Teaching and Understanding Kids

While this may seem obvious, online ESL teachers come from all backgrounds and may not have as much B&M classroom experience or specific experience with teaching kids (virtually or not). How much experience or knowledge in teaching pedagogy an online teacher needs varies widely from company to company and is a topic I’ll review in a future post.

While the parents of online ESL students have high expectations and want to see their students actively learning, most also understand that kids do “kid things” sometimes and are not robots that follow every single command 100%. If a student scribbles on the screen a little bit, shows you a toy, etc., those are great ways to engage them in their interests and doesn’t automatically need to be discouraged! If they are continuously distracted, however, most companies have different positive reinforcement techniques (such as reward systems) to help redirect in a friendly and developmentally-appropriate way.

This student likes to draw, so for his reward system we spend a small amount of class time talking about the drawing to practice different sentence structures.

7. Having a back-up source of income/savings/etc.

Personal experiences vary widely and many teachers have successfully used teaching ESL online as their primary source of income for years. However, similar to other positions such as Uber and Lyft where you are an independent contractor, as well as the volatility of ESL companies, having some back-up source of income, savings, a second household income, etc. allows for greater peace of mind when choosing to enter this field.

Just about all online ESL teachers at this point in time are independent contractors and therefore no working hours are guaranteed. The lines between independent contractors and employees can be blurred at times, but generally our role entails less job security than the average position.

When I was single, I taught early in the morning and did Home and Hospital teaching/independent tutoring during the day. I was looking into School Counseling as a career change, but once a secondary position and other life changes occurred, I transitioned to working full-time online. I now live in two-income household, but I still keep up other marketable skills in case my online ESL positions were to be discontinued.

Whether you are a prospective or current online ESL teacher, reflecting on these and other areas can help you assess whether this field is right for you and your situation in life.

Have any questions? Were there any other areas that I missed? Leave a comment below!

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  • If you’re a current or prospective online ESL teacher looking for personalized guidance finding your niche in teaching ESL online, please contact me at introvertedonlineteacher@gmail.com, through this from, or on Instagram.
  • Ready to apply to VIPKid? You can apply here and enter my referral code IVANA0001, then email me for 1:1 mentoring and guidance. For more info about VIPKid, check out my FAQ.

Sincerely,

The Introverted Online Teacher

15 Comments

  1. I loved reading this! So many teachers, including myself, wonder about how these side hustles work. Thank you for sharing!

  2. Thank you for this post and for your blog, in general. I am considering online teaching and help navigating the possibilities from someone actually doing it is so helpful! I am curious about the pay and would like to learn more about that. Thanks, again.

    1. Hey Caroline! I’m glad you reached out and am excited to help you through the VIPKid application process! For anyone else reading, pay can vary from company to company, but the companies I work for (VIPKid and GoGoKid) pay on average between $18-25/hour depending on type of class, experience, and demo lesson performance.

  3. I love your recommendations about punctuality. Do you find it is hard to get into classes on time if you are booked back to back?

    1. Great question! Fortunately, classes for VIPKid and GoGoKid are 25 minutes so there’s a 5-minute break in-between each class. Occasionally class goes over, but never more than 28 mins, so it only takes a few clicks to get from one classroom to another 🙂

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