The major concern for prospective online English teachers is usually “how do I find a student?” The thinking goes on the lines of, I’ll get a student, then I’ll work out what to teach them. Finding students this way means you’re likely to end up teaching some kind of general English lessons which are usually harder to plan because there’s just so much you could teach them, and you’ll get lower rates of pay because you’re teaching something very general.
First, decide what to teach
We advocate flipping the traditional approach on its head. First, decide what you’re going to teach and then find students to teach this to. And to ensure high rates of pay, what you should teach is something highly specialised. This gives your teaching time a high value to the student, and high value equals high rates of pay. It’s what we call Niche English.
Put yourself in the student’s shoes: imagine you are a Japanese doctor carrying out medical research at a university in Tokyo but, to carry out your work effectively, you need to understand the latest published papers in English-language medical journals, and understand seminars delivered in English at medical conferences held around the world. If you could find someone to teach you the English necessary to understand the language in medical journals and in seminars at medical conferences, you’d be prepared to part with a lot more cash than if you were being taught how to order a meal at a restaurant. A 10 week course in Medical English would be a high value product. The teacher teaching it would be filling a much-needed niche.
Niche English Courses
What other English language niches are there? Well, the list is potentially endless. Here are a few ideas for niche English courses:
• Academic writing courses
• Exam preparation courses
• Legal English
• Medical English
• English for airline cabin crew
• English for computer scientists
• English for Spanish speakers
• English for football players
• Giving presentations in English
• English for engineers
• English for taxi drivers
• English for customer service representatives
What niche can you fill?
I’m sure you can come up with many more niche English ideas. In fact, why not carve out a niche based on your own personal skills, experience and knowledge? Do you know a little of another foreign language? What work experience do you have? What special skills or hobbies do you have? Do you have a bit of experience working in medicine? Do you know a little Thai? Then how about offering a course in Medical English for Thai doctors and nurses. I focus on teaching English to Russian speakers, because I know a little Russian and I understand a bit of the culture and history of the place because I used to live in Moscow. But I’ve recently taken on a more specialised niche, preparing 17 and 18 year old Muscovite students for their school-leaving examination in English, examinations which, because they determine whether or not they will enter one of Moscow’s top universities, are life-changing. This makes my lessons high value, and the parents of these students will pay premium rates.
Free from the tyranny of the physical
Physical language schools have a major disadvantage compared to the online English teacher: their student catchment area is limited by physical distance. Within that catchment area, too few people will want such a highly specific English course, so it won’t be economically viable to a language school. However, online teachers aren’t constrained by physical limits. Online teaching means we can teach anyone, anywhere. And because we often teach on a one-to-one basis, it means we can aim at highly specialised niches. And because of social network groups and special interest websites geared to specific groups of people, it means they can find us, and we can find them.
Exam preparation lessons are another highly lucrative area to focus on. Every year, millions of people all around the world are taking English language examinations, so it’s big business, with some language schools charging high fees to prepare students for these exams. Students are willing to pay these high rates because success on these exams can change their lives. They can determine whether or not they gain entry into university, whether or not they are granted work permits and visas to move to another country, and whether or not they climb the next rung on a career ladder in a multinational company. Exam preparation is therefore a high value product.
There are a wide range of internationally recognised examinations for English: IELTS and TOEFL results are used by universities in English-speaking countries to determine whether or not an applicant’s level of English proficiency is good enough for admission to a course; TOEIC and FCA are also widely recognised as measures of a student’s communicative competence. There are also English exams related to business English, such as the BEC and the BULATS. There are also examinations related to specific professions, such as the Test of Legal English Skills (TOCLES). Go into any book shop in Thailand and check out the English language section: you’ll see shelf after shelf straining under the weight of coursebooks dedicated to helping students prepare for these exams. You can help them too.
How to find students
So, you’ve decided what to teach. Now you need some students to teach it to. And the thing about teaching a niche is that it’s easier to find students. If you were to teach general English, where would you go to find your students? Essentially, everywhere, so your voice gets lost in the crowd. But if you’re going to teach a niche, then you have a much more focused market to aim for, and you can find those groups through the Internet: special interest groups on social networks such as Facebook and LinkedIn are a great place to find students, as are non-English-language social networks such as Vkontakte in Russia, Mixi in Japan and Weibo in China. This is particularly the case for exam preparation: there are social network groups, discussion boards, discussions on YouTube and websites full of students crying out for help preparing for exams. All it takes is for you to spend the time to get involved, contribute to discussions and get yourself known, and you will find people contacting you for lessons.
Niche English teaching is a win-win-win.
• You win because you get paid more for your time.
• The student wins because they learn English that is highly specific to their needs.
• The English language teaching profession as a whole wins because teachers act as specialists, not generalists.
So decide what you are going to teach. Think about what you know, think about your experience and think about what you want to teach. Decide on your product, then offer it to specific groups of people who really want it, and who will pay high rates of pay for a high value service.