Planning for Financial Ebbs and Flows


ESL is a field of highs and lows. When it comes to the financial part of the job, though, I have to admit that it's mostly lows. I consider myself pretty good at managing money, but I've had some times when things have been ridiculously tight (I mean ramen-eating, heater-on-60, going-into-credit card-debt tight.) Now, don’t get me wrong. I have been blessed. I know that I am indeed getting paid more than I would working as a Walmart checker or doing some other minimum wage jobs. However, the issue I’ve often had is that I don’t get enough work, or even more frequently, the work isn’t consistent. The continuation of my classes usually depends on how many students enroll and how many decide to renew. During certain times of year, students just don’t want to take classes. As a result, my paycheck gets cut in half. I’ve also had the situation where I have potential places to work, but the jobs are so spread out that I can’t possibly work at all of them at once.

I have spent a sizable chunk of my career figuring out how to make enough money so that I can continue doing what I love. In today’s post, I’m going to share with you some of the strategies that I have employed in order to make ends meet.

1) Plan for lean times. One of my biggest mistakes during my first year of teaching was not realizing how much my hours could change. When I first got hired, I had 30 teaching hours per week, so I was busy, but doing OK. Within 2 months, however, my hours were cut down to 12 per week due to the approaching holidays. Half of my guaranteed pay was gone. ESL/EFL is a field of ebbs and flows. Each month that you are doing well, put away a little extra. Even if that’s just $5 a week, it can make a big difference.

2) Pick up administrative hours. In my experience, most ESL administrators are doing a job and a half. As such, they often get overwhelmed and need assistance. Though they don’t have the budget to hire someone full time, they often can hire someone for special projects or short periods of time. Inquire with your program director to see if there are any administrative hours available. If not, consider suggesting a short term project that fills a need (such as an ESL-resource inventory, an update of all current computer software, or an audit of school records for completeness.)

3) Find a "side hustle." My teaching colleagues and I have done all kinds of side jobs to earn extra money-everything from home renovation to Uber driving. Not all side jobs are equal, though, so I advise that you choose wisely. Consider driving distance, hours, the longevity of the job, and the pay versus the amount of effort that you have to invest. Below are some of the jobs that have worked consistently well for me or a colleague. I’ve focused on things that are at the very least tangentially related to English, education, or both. Some of these take a bit of investment, but can pay off in the long run.

  • Consider private tutoring of students from high, middle, or elementary school. Every year in late November/December and late April/May, I've found that an absolute panic breaks out among parents who realize their kids are failing. These times of year are often when some adult ESL programs start to wind down, so it’s the prime time for you to offer your services. Consider leaving your name and information with a local school’s guidance counselor or with the head of a school’s PTA. You can also tap into any home school networks many of which are connected to churches. Contact the local home school coordinator in your area or connect with a local home school support organization. I have some words of advice with primary and secondary school tutoring though. First, make sure to pick schools which are near where you live unless you are very desperate for money. It’s diminishing returns if you have to drive all over creation. Second, don’t overstretch yourself. Pick subjects that you feel comfortable tutoring and for which you need to do a minimal amount of planning. No need to add more to your plate than you can handle.

  • Consider teaching/tutoring other subjects or test prep. This one is an extension of the one above. Tutoring math, science, social studies, or another subject can give you more opportunities to earn money. I’ve found that people will pay especially well for SAT/ACT math as well as tutoring for the SSAT(the private school entrance exam.) You can always work with a local test center like Sylvan, Kumon, or C2 education, but I find that they woefully underpay you. If you can find a way to get clients on your own, it can really help. To tutor children and teens, tap into the same networks I mentioned above. You can also post yourself on Craigslist or on flyers at your local Starbucks, Panera Bread, community center, or church. Below is a list of the most common tests and the people and organizations you should contact to advertise your services.

SAT/ACT high school counselors, PTA, home school groups

ASVAB military recruiters

SSAT middle and high school counselors

GRE/GMAT local universities or community college

LSAT local universities or community colleges

As a side note, usually ASVAB and SAT/ACT English/Reading aren’t too difficult for most college-educated individuals. However, the LSAT, GRE, and GMAT require some review and preparation. You can charge more (around $40-50 per hour depending on the market where you live), but you have to invest more time in preparing.

  • Consider editing. If you are a detail-oriented person, this might be a possibility for you. The best options to begin with are editing papers for students connected to local universities. Many colleges have writing centers, but you can also consider advertising on your own by posting flyers around campus. You can also consider editing books for people who want to get their work published. Be aware that there are different levels of editing, so be clear about which type you do (copy editing, proofreading, etc.) There are numerous sites where you can advertise yourself as an editor. Some of these include Editor World and UpWork .This type of work is not always steady, and it can be hard to make a name for yourself on the web. So, do your best to establish personal connections especially at the beginning.

  • Be a part-time linguistic mentor (ie English or foreign-language-speaking nanny.) This option is not for everyone. It works especially well if you live in another country where parents will pay lots of money to have an English-speaking babysitter. In the US, you can often find a demand for educated, English-speaking babysitters among the families of diplomats or those in the US on work visas. Ask around to see if there are any companies that have a large number of employees hired from abroad. I’ve found any companies that are branches of Japanese companies (such as Toto, Hoshizaki, etc), large multi-nationals, or any company hiring a large number of Java Developers are a good start. If you can speak a foreign language (especially Chinese, Spanish, or French), you can work as a foreign-language nanny. To find one of these jobs, start with local parents' groups or churches. You can consider leaving your name and information at several local preschools as well. As a side note, it’s possible that you may be asked to provide references and proof of first aid/CPR certification, so do your research, and be prepared.

  • Create materials/e-books. If you consider yourself especially creative, this one might be a great option for you. There are a number of sites where you can post material that you have created. Teachers Pay Teachers is the most popular, but there are others. In terms of books, creating an e-book isn’t overly difficult, but it does take time. In a future post, I will share the details of how to go about doing it. Know that this avenue of getting extra money often doesn’t produce immediate results even if you already have the materials ready to go. You will need to spend a significant time advertising personally and via social media to create a market for your products.

  • Be a public speaking coach/presentation consultant. You would be surprised how many people struggle with creating quality presentations and delivering them. For this option, I suggest offering packages of 1-2 consultations focusing on the delivery of the presentation and (if you feel qualified to assist) the content. To find these jobs, check with your local universities especially those that have a high number of professors or graduate students from other countries. You can also find some of these jobs through businesses that hire a large number people from abroad.

  • Be an audio book narrator. Do you often entertain your students with your great sense of humor or your animated expressions? This option might be a possibility for you. Organizations such as Upwork or ACX offer you the possibility to read the novels and non-fiction works of authors. You can get paid by the hour or more often, you get paid in royalties depending on how the book sells. This job takes a bit of investment to get into, but can be worth it in the long run. This article provides specific details on the process.

  • Pick up some online lessons. If you find your own clients, this option is fine. However, if you are working with a company from abroad like VIPKID, this is a potential job, but I think you can do much better. The pay is dismally low ($14-16 per hour) for these lessons, and the companies often require that you teach at odd hours of the day and night to match the schedules of their students. You could make more money offering to organize someone’s closet ($25 per hour) or by finding your own online students through Craigslist, social media, or personal connections.

  • Do training or workshops for other teachers or parents. Some of the teachers I talk to are very intimidated when I mention this suggestion. However, don’t underestimate yourself. If you have a particular skill that would be useful to other teachers, you should share it! Start by doing some free workshops or ratining at a local conference or even within your school. (If you go to your academic director and ask to do a workshop, he/she will most likely say yes.) After you’ve had some practice, you can offer training on an ad hoc basis and develop a clientele. If you have great skill (or to be honest anything more than above-average skill) in working with technology, there’s a big market for your services even among non-ESL teachers. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve gone to a conference and seen a teacher or administrator freeze because he/she didn’t know how to handle a technological issue.

  • Be an educational blogger. If you like to write and feel that you have an interesting perspective to offer, this choice might be for you. A number of sites allow you to create free blogs. Word Press is one of the more popular ones, but there are many more. You can also create a Youtube channel and offer educational ideas that way. I enjoy blogging, but know that it does require some commitment in the form of regular posts. It also is not the best way to make quick money. You have to develop a following. Then, you can get money through ad revenue.

  • Create your own English conversation club. Though I personally haven’t tried this one, I know someone who created a club that met monthly in the back room of a local restaurant. She charged everyone who came $5 at the door for the lesson and time to chat with others. Her advertising was done on Meetup.com. The amount that she earned off of each lesson varied, but after some time, it was a source of consistent income for her. The lessons were relatively informal. The trick with this one is finding a location that you can use for free or low cost. Sometimes local libraries will let you use their spaces. Often your best bet are coffee shops or restaurants with extra rooms in the back that they don’t mind you using.

The list above is just a few of the many possibilities available. Hopefully at least one of these ideas will work for you. Do any of you have any other ideas? I'd love to hear them, and I'm sure our other readers would too.

So intrepid teachers, take heart. You can support yourself, and do what you love. It just takes patience, creativity, and ingenuity-traits that you, as a teacher, have in abundance.

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