A teacher, when they know their craft, is something extraordinary. To be able to sit down with another human being and tease the right amount of attention out of that person to focus on the very tasks and discussions that will help them grow is nothing short of miraculous. Everybody teaches! Parents teach their children, the media teaches the population and friends teach friends. But not everybody is good at teaching. Parents for example are very haphazard in the effectiveness of their lessons. They may find that their children are learning perfectly well from them, but not what they are told, rather what they are shown. Children learn much more through examples than words. They will hear the words from their parents but then look to their parents to see the reality of how such words are to be applied. So, there are two lessons, the theoretical one and the practical one. Equally so most people can become a 'professional' teacher. They simply need to go through the course of training. However, how well they absorb the pedagogical theories and manage to bring them over to practice is another matter.
The world is full of professionals that are good enough; they get the job done. One of the big debates in the educational field however is how to value and reward master teachers. It is basically a bit of a conundrum; because once a teacher reaches a level of mastery they most likely did it because they love teaching and no monetary gain will draw them away from their calling. So the status quo continues and in most countries there is not much difference in the wealth of master teachers and regular "good enough" teachers, unless that is, those master teachers are also entrepreneurial.
Now the insight I will share in this series is not just for master teachers. It is for any online language teachers that are serious at becoming great and getting rewarded for the increased impact they can have on their students. There will always be a percentage of teachers who are smart enough to make good financially but instead decide they would like to dedicate all their time to teaching those who need it most. That is highly commendable and I was that way inclined for a long time too. However, teachers have the right to options and I believe the option of making good in your career so your family and yourself are looked after in the long run should be available, as it is to people in most other highly impactful professions.
So let's get down to brass tacks! As a teacher you are subject to the same economical principles as anybody else trading a product or service. Purists don't like to think this is true, but at the same time complain about schools and institutes being too "business orientated". Well, they are that way for a reason. Although I agree some of them have completely lost the plot and hired marketing professionals from other industries who have made a mess of things, we will get into that later. Let us first look at the basic economic principle of supply and demand.
Supply and Demand
It may seem that the tutoring/teaching space is very crowded at times. Particularly when you look at the online market. Additionally, any companies that serve in this space are fairly young or young wings from older education providers. The former is in the majority though. Which makes for slim pickings when it comes to online work. Over the last few years, I have seen the conditions for online language teachers take a sharp dive in regards to benefits, policy and of course wages. Many of the newer providers actually offer the worst in terms of payment. But even some older providers have been able to have a steady flow of teachers fill their ranks while offering very low rates. So as in the case in most of these situations, where the people lining up at the door to get a job are almost as many as the ones inside an "If you don't like it leave!" attitude takes over. After all, the owners of these companies are just businessmen, after all, most of them have probably never spent more than a couple of days in front of a classroom.
Gloomy isn't it? Well if that is your view of reality I want to show you the other side of the picture. These companies, whether they have more applicants or not, can only be so good at marketing their service. Additionally, they have many pitfalls providing a service that smaller operators can avoid. It is a lot easier nowadays to market someone than something. That is why so many brands have social media ambassadors now; you cut out the middle man by becoming an independent operator and your own brand ambassador.
Have you ever tried posting a job advertisement before? I have! I was recruiting for a small language school back in 2010 and posted a little ad on one of the online job boards. I received well over a hundred applications and was receiving a steady flow in the following months after that. That wasn't even for an online position, that was for an in-person placement where they would have to fly to a foreign country if they were accepted. You get the idea!
Now, have you ever tried posting a little ad to get some new students? Some of you have. If you got an overwhelmingly fantastic response from that you are in the minority.
Does this mean that there are more teachers than students? No, not at all. It means it takes more effort to get customers than it does to get applications from potential employees. There are still far more students who can afford to pay a premium than all the EAL teachers combined. Even the lousy ones with $5 certificates and bad drinking problems 😄, no sorry, don't be that person (but we will come back to them later). Let me throw a few numbers into the bucket for comparison.
There are currently more than 4 million millionaires in China, these are the millionaires we know about, the reality is there may be double that amount. Now I am just using China as a strong example, I will explain how this applies to the whole EAL market in a moment. For now, let's take the UK as an example as a source of teachers, motherland to the great English language. If we took 40% of qualified teachers out of the school system there, those who teach Preschool, Primary, Middle School, High School, College, Special Needs etc. if we took all of them out of their jobs and shipped them over to mainland China, leaving all the poor British kids without any tutor between them, we would only just fulfil the private language tuition needs of their children.
Ahh but it is not the upper-class demographic that is hungriest for private tuition, is it? They can afford to send their kids to the UK for fancy private schooling or to international schools in China, it is the middle class that makes up the greatest demand. When you think "middle-class' you may think of somebody struggling to make ends meet, and worrying about the bills coming in. That isn't the definition of middle-class. The definition of middle-class is somebody who has excess capital above their basic needs and can allocate it towards what they think is important. What do middle-class Chinese think is most important? Their children's future! It is no secret that the focus there is on giving your kids the BEST education humanly possible. Many young Chinese children study for at least 8 or 9 hours a day, double that of most children in developed Western nations. The same can also be said for South Korea.
So, how big is the middle-class in China you ask? 400 million people. 120 million households with 180 million children that need tuition. Oh, and most likely some of their parents need tuition too, because, let's face it! The education system in China 20-30 years ago wasn't doing a great job in terms of EFL results. So, 180 million children and all the teachers in the UK combined, of whom are not all EAL teachers, amount to around 500,000. Let's bring over all the teachers from the USA, we now have another 3.8 million. Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Ireland - have I missed any? All those together (including all the professors and counsellors in Canada, sorry couldn't separate the data) makes an additional 1.48 million. In total, we have around 5.8 million teachers.
I am failing to mention three important things, that all the aforementioned countries have a DEMAND for teachers, of the 5.8 million teachers available only a small fraction are EAL teachers and of those EAL teachers, not all are skilled enough to get real SLA (Second Language Acquisition) results from their students. In fact, on this last point, the current statistics on LOTE (Language Other Than English) programs show that less than 5% of students that start learning a foreign language actually continue to threshold level (where they can independently communicate).
Wow, okay, sorry about that. A whole lot of statistics there. But, in a nutshell what all this means is that:
1. There is a crazy inherently unfulfillable demand for EAL teachers in China alone. This is not including all the other emerging markets with almost equally impressive swelling middle classes and new millionaires.
2. Highly effective teachers are very difficult to come by (remember 95% of students are failing in LOTE programs).
3. As mentioned previously, there are a limited number of providers serving in this space, particularly online and they are almost all young companies.
Supply (teachers) --> Providers and Platforms (choke point) --> Demand (students and parents)
As an additional point, it is worth mentioning that the majority of potential clients still don't feel that comfortable paying for services online. One of the reasons the Chinese market has become so enticing is because they have gotten ahead of the curve as online consumers and more specifically as online students.
Supply (limited) --> Demand (growing every year as more people get used to learning online)
Now, I have discussed just one economic principle that if properly understood can help you better approach your rates and value in the marketplace. Let's see how this translates to a competitive advantage.
Source your students directly, deal with them directly and you can operate on a much more effective level than impersonal larger players. If your client views you as a professional teacher who has a high success rate and they feel comfortable with you they will not want to consider going with somebody else.
I experienced this time and time again when I was a larger operator. We had a language centre and when a teacher left us we would find a portion of their students simply didn't want to continue. We had to make a procedure where if a teacher left, the management and head-teacher would meet with concerned parents and assure them of our continued commitment to their children. The parents were worried they would be handed a teacher that was sub-par to their previous one.
Many online providers have a policy that teachers should not share contact information with students. They often use the excuse that this is to avoid students trying to get free lessons from the teacher or harassing/stalking the teachers; but in reality, it is because they are afraid the students will work out a direct deal with the teachers. Now in truth, this is fair enough as the company has put money into marketing, sales, R&D and overheads that the teacher did not have to put in for. It is worth noting though that the only parts of this equation that teachers really need to learn to start serving the same students are marketing and payments. The other skills such as curriculum R&D, sales, scheduling etc. usually come naturally to teachers; if not, it only takes a little study and practise to get reasonably good at these.
I remember talking to my sister way back in 2013 about some online teacher directories that were operating in Australia. They originally had a model where they would have the classes purchased through the directory and then the teachers would receive payments through the directory upon successful completion. However, it didn't take long for this business model to be proven unviable. As the teachers were meeting in person with the students and losing a percentage of their pay to the directory they would usually only have the first package bought through the directory; all subsequent purchases were made directly to the teacher. So the directories changed their business model to a finders fee system where it would be a once-off commission (larger than before) but then afterwards it was all between the teacher and their student.
The reasons this hasn't happened in the international online teaching space is:
1. Accepting payments from different countries is something many teachers haven't navigated before. It takes a bit of trial and error and quite a bit of research to get a system that works well for you. When compared to a direct bank transfer this is a barrier to entry. However this shouldn't be a reason, a few weeks testing and trialling a system and a few dollars spent will have this challenge done and dusted.
2. A lot of teachers do not speak the language of the countries these online platforms are operating in, do not understand the culture and have no networks there. This makes finding students difficult. Even finding students in their own country can be a challenge for many let alone internationally. Often the issue is that new online teachers have no idea of which country to target and who their intended demographic is.
The major take-away point here is that the students may come to you through the company but they usually stay on because of you. 80% of the education is YOU and the other 20% you can mitigate. Things like community, branding, status etc. that brands are better at can also be done by you. Although that is a topic for another day. For now, just be aware of these first two barriers to entry, marketing and payments, and be ready to tackle them head-on, if you haven't already.
Additionally, remember that most of the EAL market has not been tapped into yet and those customers the current online platforms are able to covert are only a fraction of what is available. So, put together a marketing strategy, charge what you are worth and make it easy for potential customers to trust and feel comfortable with you!
In the next part of this series, I will discuss another economic and sales principle, that of Perceived Value.
In the meantime, I invite you to the comments section to discuss any point of interest and of course brainstorm together with your colleagues. But most important keep shining, sharing and succeeding so that you can fly high and inspire!