Main takeaways from my first year of freelancing

When I moved to Medellín a year ago, I decided to make a major change in my professional life and quit my stable job at a language institute. I became self-employed and started to offer my services to institutions, private students, and teachers. Now that I have some experience under my belt, I’d like to share a few thoughts on the pros and cons of working as an ELT freelancer in Colombia.

Medellín, Colombia

Freelancing has many benefits
Working as a teacher for Centro Colombo Americano was great in terms of gaining teaching experience, but I wasn’t happy with being underpaid and having few opportunities to develop professionally. Freelancing allows me to focus on work that pays better and helps me learn new stuff. In addition to working as an independent contractor for International House, I run my own online courses and offer consulting services. I’m now involved in a variety of activities, which is much more fun than repetitive work at a language academy, and I feel that I’ve learned a lot about a few areas of ELT that I hadn’t paid attention to before.

Being proactive is crucial
Since I have no guaranteed number of working hours, it’s all very simple. The onus is on me to find my own clients, which means that I have to keep in touch with a lot of people. Freelancers are recommended to have more sources of income, and there are some pretty good reasons for that. Companies may cancel their English programme, students get a job that prevents them from attending classes, etc. It’s important to be ready for that eventuality and know how to find a way to replace that lost contract.

Word-of-mouth recommendations are extremely helpful
So far, I haven’t had to use any third-party services to find my private students. When I started freelancing, I simply contacted a number of students I had worked with before and offered them advanced English courses delivered through Zoom. It seems that personal recommendations are very powerful because once I managed to get my first students, I started receiving messages from their family members, colleagues, and friends who would like to be taught by me. This makes me very happy since I can keep teaching classes completely independently without relying on a platform that charges a commission.

I like having a flexible schedule
Since I’m not an employee anymore, I can choose when and how much I’m going to work. When I’m too busy, I simply tell the institution or individual who is contacting me that I’m not available at that moment. I can also decide to take a day off anytime I want, which is great. Since I don’t have a fixed schedule, I’m flexible when it comes to rescheduling lessons in case something unexpected happens. Having more freedom is one of the main reasons I made the decision to go freelance. I was actually in talks to teach at two local universities, but both of them require their teachers to work on Saturdays, which would have clashed with my other projects, so I chose to become self-employed instead.

I can teach the way I want to
Working with private students is amazing! I don’t need to follow a syllabus written by someone else; I analyse the individual’s needs and create a course just for them completely from scratch. It’s great to be able to spend time on areas that tend to be neglected, such as teaching listening skills; I follow John Field’s advice to do that, and it works pretty well. I’ve also enjoyed running group courses based on TBLT and the Dogme approach. Being fully in charge of choosing and designing course materials is one of several advantages of working as a freelance teacher.

Teaching isn’t the only thing one needs to pay attention to
When I was an employee, I would just sign my contract and let the language institute deal with the rest. Since I work as an independent contractor on what is called contrato de prestación de servicios, I’m responsible for following local laws and regulations when it comes to taxes and social security. I needed to get a tax identification number (RUT) and sign up for health insurance and pension as an independent contributor. I highly recommend that you check out this Sponge Chat with Nicola Prentis in which she stresses the importance of thinking of your pension. TEFL is usually seen as a short-term career, so this topic isn’t that often talked about.

It can be done only with the right kind of visa
Freelancers tend to have various sources of income, which means that you need to hold a visa with an open work permit. There are two popular ways to achieve that here in Colombia: You can stay on an employee visa (type M) for five years and then get a resident visa, or there is a shortcut for those with a Colombian partner since that kind of visa allows the holder to work as a freelancer. I’ve also seen reports of people successfully obtaining the new digital nomad visa, but that one is more about being able to stay in the country for more than six months. Digital nomads can freelance as well; however, they can’t work with clients based in Colombia since their income has to come from abroad.

Being ghosted is very common
I’ve been involved in quite a few chat or email conversations in which the other party simply disappeared for no apparent reason, even when they have accepted to join my course or use one of my services. It seems that some people believe that ghosting me is a better option than being honest and telling me that they have changed their mind due to my hourly rate or something else. While it’s not that surprising in case of institutions and strangers from the internet, it’s very disappointing when it’s done by someone I’ve known for years, and it inevitably sours the relationship. This has made me focus more on quality rather than quantity, so I prefer to work with a limited number of clients who are genuinely interested in attending my lessons or consultations.

It’s necessary to set clear rules
When you don’t use a middleman to assign classes to you, it’s up to you to arrange everything with your students. Being too nice is a disadvantage because the fact that someone says they will pay you doesn’t mean that they will actually do it. If you want to avoid chasing payments and having uncomfortable conversations, you need to make it clear to your students how things are going to work. You may have to set deadlines for payments and decide what to do in case of cancellations. It’s important to make sure that the process of getting paid goes as smoothly as possible.

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