Lessons Learned: 2.5 Years Teaching ESL Online

Hello, my name is James Heywood and since the beginning of 2013 I’ve been teaching ESL online, on a full-time basis.

Since that time, I’ve logged almost 4.500 hours online, teaching a mix of Young Learners and adult students. This month, I’m moving on from online ESL teaching to pursue a new project. I think it is a fitting time to share some lessons learned with other teachers who may be interested in teaching online.
Please feel free to get in touch in the comments section of this blog. I’m always happy to field individual questions.

My top lessons learned after 2.5 years of teaching ESL online:

#1 Set your prices at a rate you can live off and live with 
When I first started teaching ESL online I was tempted to undercut my prices in order to attract my first customers. Be careful! As we’ve discussed before on this Blog, your first students will become your most prolific source of future students. Price information will be one of the first topics discussed between existing and prospective students. If you undercut your prices below a living wage, it will be difficult to climb out of this rut in the future.
#2 Bend over backwards for your first students
We all know that finding students as an independent online ESL teacher is difficult. We’ve discussed strategies on how to find your first students before. Keep in mind, that your first students will be the word-of-mouth source for your future students. Do your best to make their experience incredible. Answer emails promptly, provide homework, and try your best to adapt lessons to their needs and goals. And remember if you’re teaching Young Learners, your ultimate customer is the parent!
#3 Don’t get buried in technology
In today’s exciting world of EdTech it sometimes feels necessary to stay up-to-date on all the latest blogs releasing the latest news in educational technology, especially if you are teaching ESL online. My advice is: don’t. Follow just one or two blogs and most importantly, find the 3-4 pieces of technology you need to deliver your business and master them. Stay in touch with blogs to find out about new releases, but do it every now and then. Here’s my suggestion for the ideal teaching ESL online technology ‘stack’:

  • Videoconferencing system: Zoom.us (basic accounts are free and it performs incredibly well)
  • Payments: Paypal, it’s basic and simple, and your students will know how to use it. Fees are a bit higher than other payment gateways, but before going through the integration pain, it’s a great way to get started.
  • Communication and file sharing: Gmail and Dropbox or Google Drive
  • Lesson content and homework / self study: Off2Class (shameless plug!)

#4 Learn from others 
Although teaching ESL online is a relatively new field (people are always amazed when I mention to them what I do for a living!), there are some great bloggers out there. I got some great pieces of advice when I was starting out from:

#5 Focus on finding your customers through Offline channels first
It might seem paradoxical that I’m suggesting finding your students (for an online business) through offline channels, but I am! At the beginning of my venture I spent quite a bit of money on online advertising. I found it quite difficult to differentiate myself from the hundreds of other options students have when picking an online ESL teacher. My first students came from relationships that I had developed from being an offline teacher. If you are lucky enough to have relationships with students, use them to get your first online students. A personal recommendation is the easiest way to differentiate yourself from other online ESL options.
About the author:teaching-ESL-online
James Heywood is an online ESL teacher and has been teaching ESL online (on a full-time basis) since early 2013. After years of teaching in language institutes and private schools, he started the transition to online in late 2012. He has taught a variety of ESL students including young learners, adults and adolescents in one-on-one and group settings. Off2Class (ESL lesson content for private ESL teachers) was launched to provide lesson content resources targeted to teachers running their own private tutorials.


  • Bob says:

    April 16, 2015 at 6:10 am

    Thank you for this post, I am just starting out in teaching online and any information and advice is welcome. I will be looking through your other posts too!

    • James Heywood (Off2Class) says:

      April 16, 2015 at 6:26 pm

      Hi Bob,
      Welcome to the world of online teaching. I hope you enjoy looking through our blog posts as we have tried to share as much information as possible that is relevant to online teachers.
      Best wishes,

  • Emma Segev says:

    April 16, 2015 at 12:17 pm

    Great post and great tips James! Thank you very much for the shout-out. I wish you and Off2Class every success in the future. Emma

    • James Heywood (Off2Class) says:

      April 16, 2015 at 6:21 pm

      Many thanks for your kind words Emma. We truly hopr to make a real difference for teachers in ESL and truly offer a product which becomes the go-to for online teachers. It’s an enormous challenge, but as online teaching grows, the opportunities for teachers increase. It’s an exciting time to be in ESL education.
      Best wishes,

  • Maria Bossa says:

    April 16, 2015 at 3:01 pm

    wow… What you have been doing is awesome! I’m sure you will succeed in your new project, as well!
    Smiles from Argentina,
    Maria 🙂

    • James Heywood (Off2Class) says:

      April 16, 2015 at 6:23 pm

      Hola Maria,
      Many thanks for your kind words. And yes, I really hope that Off2Class continues to grow as it is at the moment…
      Best wishes,

  • Roberto Trigas says:

    April 16, 2015 at 4:00 pm

    Thank you for the tips. I have just started teaching online, and like you say, my main problem is finding students. I advertise in Google, Facebook, Google +, etc but it is very slow and painful. Great blog, thanks

    • James Heywood (Off2Class) says:

      April 16, 2015 at 6:24 pm

      Stick with it. And I stand by my words. Get the first student at the correct price and make that student happy. That student will become your advertising campaigner and your student base will definitely grow.
      Best wishes,

  • Hazel Madrigal says:

    April 17, 2015 at 2:02 am

    Thanks for this post. It brings light to teachers who wish to hop on the boat of online teaching. I have been teaching since 1985 but never online and I am considering it for the summer months. I am owner of an English academy but all my students pass so summer can get pretty long.
    Any suggestions on how to begin planning or starting?

    • James Heywood (Off2Class) says:

      April 17, 2015 at 2:17 am

      Hi Hazel,
      Thanks for dropping by. We’ve now written 15 blogs posts that cover a lot of what you need to know and think about to get into online teaching: https://www.off2class.com/category/blog/
      All you really need to know is that it doesn’t happen overnight and the first student is the most important to your business. If you currently teach in person, then the best thing to do would be to move a few of these students online before summer. If you can do this, I think you’re certain to be able to kickstart your online teaching career.
      Best wishes,

  • Rajdeep Sinha says:

    April 17, 2015 at 4:48 am

    Though I am teacher and have been in profession for last 20 years yet I ‘d like to learn more and more about teaching English. English has bee my second lsnguage for last 35 years. Whenever I have to start a fresh batch of students I always introduce myself to be a perennial student first .

  • Henry says:

    April 21, 2015 at 5:04 am

    James, you may be interested in our recent survey of around 400 private tutors which looks at all aspects of online tuition, such as pricing, technology used, benefits and challenges. Here it is:

  • Matthew Barnes says:

    April 22, 2015 at 4:45 am

    I have been tutoring biology online since March 2013 after 25 years of tutoring face-to-face in Oxford – and have now completed about 2,000 hours of online tuition. I am currently teaching about 50 hours per week to students all over the UK and worldwide. Unlike most of the rubbish that I read about online tuition I agree with everything that you say above – the trick is to utilise your existing contacts and to keep it simple. Almost weekly I receive notifications about some more ‘new and exciting online teaching platforms’ as more people jump on the bandwaggon, but all that you need is Scribblar and Skype (and a lot of experience and ability at what you are teaching!) My students don’t care about the delivery platform – they care that I am an excellent biology tutor and really know my stuff. It is a great way of life – I can teach anywhere that there is a broadband connection and I make pots of money. There was a lot of initial resistance from clients who ‘preferred face-to-face’ (without even trying ‘online’!) but that is evaporating fast. This is the 21st century way of teaching and people had better get used to it!

  • Lyn says:

    April 28, 2015 at 10:22 am

    Thanks James! It’s a wonderful blog. I’ve been teaching online for more than 3 years. The tips you’ve mentioned above are very useful and informative and I can personally prove that following those tips will help you become a satisfied and successful online instructor. Hope to read more beautiful articles like this. 🙂

    • James Heywood (Off2Class) says:

      April 28, 2015 at 5:24 pm

      Hi Jocelyn,
      Many thanks for your positive feedback.
      Best wishes,

  • Nuala says:

    August 25, 2015 at 2:22 pm

    Many thanks James for your coaching on becoming an online ESL teacher! As someone thinking about venturing online you answered a lot of my questions. I really liked your enthusiasm about the world of online teaching and your honesty with it….ie. it will take work to get fully set up but the rewards are worth it. The lesson resources in Off2Class are great; interactive, educational and user-friendly for both teacher and student . I particularly love the homework resource related to each lesson; it’s really useful. Thanks again and keep up the good work!!

    • James Heywood (Off2Class) says:

      August 27, 2015 at 12:31 pm

      Hi Nuala,
      It was a pleasure to meet you and I hope that you take the plunge into online teaching soon.
      Best wishes,

  • Mirelle Nascimento says:

    August 27, 2015 at 12:22 pm

    I really enjoyed the demonstration yesterday! Your tips are incredibly helpful and I hope we keep on exchanging information and so on. Congratulations on the well-developed materials and helpful pieces of advice.
    Thanks a lot. I wish you and your team the BEST!

    • James Heywood (Off2Class) says:

      August 27, 2015 at 12:31 pm

      Hi Mirelle,
      Many thanks for your feedback. I wish you good luck with your adventure into online teaching.

  • Lynne says:

    January 27, 2016 at 4:42 am

    Working as a volunteer on an English teaching message board, or forum for just a few minutes a week gives you a much better ROI than advertising, you also get a warm fuzzy feeling. 😀

    • James Heywood (Off2Class) says:

      January 27, 2016 at 4:02 pm

      Hi Lynne,
      Thanks for your comment. Would you recommend any English teaching message boards or forums in particular?
      Best wishes,

      • Lynne says:

        January 28, 2016 at 5:30 am

        Mine of course! LOL
        Joking aside, the Learn English forum, which I run, is a bit different, but qualified teachers are welcome to volunteer.
        There are lots of others to choose from. I think it depends on what level of involvement you want. We require a commitment of an hour a week, but there are others like: Aardvark, Dave’s ESL Cafe, One Stop English etc. If you are consistent, kind, and helpful, you can develop a nice learning network of your own.

  • IELTS lessons says:

    April 7, 2016 at 1:48 am

    Some great advice here, particularly in utilizing offline networking for getting students and about not undercutting your prices at the start. It’s hard to get students in the beginning, but that shouldn’t turn into such a headache later.

    • James Heywood (Off2Class) says:

      April 7, 2016 at 4:40 am

      Thanks for stopping by.
      It’s almost a year to the day since I wrote this blog post and I believe that it still offer some valid points. It is challenging to obtain students, but you must do it first. Too many people who want to start teaching online expend too much energy into the nice-to-haves. If you don’t have students, you really should stop building your website, making Youtube videos, and focus on what will actually make you money: students! All the rest can and will come later.
      Best wishes,

      • IELTS lessons says:

        April 7, 2016 at 6:02 am

        I’ve been building up my site first but that’s partly because I don’t intend to pick up students for another four months. I currently have an offline teaching job and intend to transfer into the online world in the summer. In the meantime I figure it couldn’t hurt putting time into making a nice website.

  • Sunil says:

    April 26, 2016 at 8:20 am

    Just started teaching IELTS/TOEFL/PTE online, and i would like to share my experience and helpful comments are solicited.
    1. I have great difficulty in finding students.
    2. Psychologically, i believe that most of the students have a feeling of being short-changed as compared to classroom coaching.
    3. An assignment given in a classroom is considered to be absolutely normal but, online, if you ask your students to complete a task which requires, maybe, 20 minutes and as a trainer, if you are not visible, there is a feeling of disconnect.

  • Bob Lejkowski-Clark says:

    July 25, 2016 at 6:15 am

    It is a year since I was the first comment on this blog. I can still be found on italki but a lot of my work now seems to be coming from word of mouth. A word which many advisors use is specialise, and I have specialised but don’t turn down too many other gigs at the moment.
    Don’t be afraid not to accept a student if you don’t feel comfortable with them!
    I use paypal to receive money, but be careful as you will probably need to upgrade to a business account once you start making regular money.
    I have found, in my experience, that there seems to be very little return on websites, facebook pages, youtube videos and blogs especially considering the cost in terms of time and money. (I have probably been doing it completely wrong.) My best return was on a satisfied student who recommended me to his friend, who recommended me to his girlfriend, who recommended me …..
    You do need a good source of materials and this is where sites like off2class come in. Especially materials that you can adapt.
    Remember that teaching online is not the same as teaching in a classroom. Sunil was asking about an assignment which the student spends 20 minutes of the lesson working alone – why not set them up and let them complete the assignment for homework and then continue with it in the next lesson. As a 1:1 teacher you are being paid for your time and experience. Not to complete assignments in lesson time!
    After 15 months, I think I am now in a position to support myself fully. Focus on students first – remember to contact old students if relevant and ask them either if they would like lessons or for recommendations to new students. You can offer them sweeteners. (Free lessons – if necessary.)
    Don’t forget to give added value, be flexible if you can. I have had a nice lesson planned and the student says “Hey, I need to polish a job letter today.” What’s the problem? Put your lovely lesson on hold until next time and help your student today.
    Apologies for the long post, but hopefully some things may help some people.
    Best wishes

  • Sabah Adlai says:

    August 8, 2016 at 3:59 pm

    Thanks to all,who share their experience and ideas, I appreciate it.
    I am willing to start my online teaching, but my prior thinking is to use Skype.I intend to teach critical language, like Arabic language.
    Do you think going in person to prompt your business is a good idea, like visit the Department that Arabic one of their language taught there.
    Any suggestion really appreciated!
    ESL& Arabic instructor
    MA of Arts in TESOL

    • James Heywood (Off2Class) says:

      August 10, 2016 at 11:02 am

      Hi Sabah,
      It’s hard to say what is a good idea or not, since different things will work for different people. However, it is very important to ‘get your face out there’ and of course people love a personal approach. You need to find the person who can make the business decision, and talk directly with that person. There’s no use talking to the people who think that English lessons would be a good idea… you need to speak with the person who can sign off on you and implement your teaching course.
      So yes, talking in person is always great… as long as you are talking to the right person!
      Best wishes,

  • Susan Duffy says:

    February 17, 2017 at 2:07 am

    My comment is really for Lynne (as she mentioned the idea) but welcome ideas from anyone. It’s regarding volunteering on English Forums….I teach English in Hong Kong and am keen to offer my time. Where do I look/who do I contact?
    Many thanks

  • Caroline Smith says:

    December 19, 2017 at 3:01 am

    Thanks, helpful little article! Great post! I have read some of your blogs and I found all of them very much expressive and easy to understand. Very useful information and great sources for new ideas.

    • Kris Jagasia says:

      December 19, 2017 at 3:51 am

      Thanks for stopping by Caroline!

Leave a reply

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *