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.

Review: All of the Above

Dorothy Zemach is an ELT professional with extensive experience in a variety of areas. Many teachers have used her materials in the classroom; I did so in the first two years of teaching English in Colombia. She is the go-to person if you want to learn about self-publishing. If you are interested in that, keep an eye on the iTDi website for one of her future courses. When she advertised her latest book All of the Above: Essays on Teaching English as a Foreign Language on social media, I knew that it would be worth reading.

Dorothy Zemach: All of the Above

My first impression was that All of the Above would be similar to Scott Thornbury’s Big Questions in ELT, which is another title I recommend to teachers, since both books are collections of unrelated shorter texts. There are some key differences, though. While Thornbury refers to other resources in his book, Zemach’s essays are much more personal and the content is based on her own experience. I’m happy to say that I think it works very well and makes for an enjoyable read.

All of the Above comprises sixteen essays and three additional chapters dedicated to games, so there are a lot of takeaway points one can get from the book. I’d like to use this blog post to comment on a few ideas that made me think about my work as a teacher.

What I really like about the book is that Zemach refers to various teaching contexts in which she has worked. She points out that some teaching approaches may not work equally well in all environments. Having fun in the classroom without any tangible results isn’t ideal, and some students may actually learn useful language through drilling activities. That reminded me of Lighbown and Spada’s book How Languages are Learned, which mentions that gifted students are capable of reaching a high level of English even when their teachers use what many of us would call outdated methods. I’d say this is a good moment to promote the idea of doing meaningful activities in the classroom and providing the learners with feedback on the language (the focus on form approach).

The book also takes a look at tools that can help people improve their written texts. I agree with the author who says that students should spellcheck their documents before submitting them. I do so myself when I write blog posts or send important emails, so I advise my students to use that as well. Zemach then shows screenshots depicting some ridiculous corrections suggested by a grammar checker to warn against using that tool. I think that depends on the kind of software one uses because the spelling and grammar checker utilised by Google Docs is genuinely good. It’s not perfect and I wouldn’t rely on it at all times, but I find it helpful in my online classes. It can give the students immediate suggestions related to grammar, which can provide some good opportunities for learning.

When I read ELT literature, I’m very happy when I encounter practical tips that I can use in my professional life. I have some experience with changing jobs and attending interviews, but All of the Above provided me with an important recommendation I hadn’t thought of before. The author suggests that teachers ask about the institution’s policy on absences during the job interview. That immediately brought back a memory of a situation that took place right after I’d started working at a language institute a few years ago. A colleague of mine asked me to sub for him due to having a doctor’s appointment, and I agreed. Unfortunately, the teacher was then told off by the director for making unauthorised arrangements and the substitution request was declined because of a difference between our hourly rates. My attempt to help my colleague out inadvertently created a bit of an issue, and I wished I had asked about the policy beforehand.

My favourite essay in the book is called My dear. The author says that there are benefits to using social media for professional purposes, but it also causes some issues that should be talked about. This passage of the essay describes a rather curious phenomenon:

Clearly, that is not how everyone uses Facebook, or I wouldn’t get so many strangers sending me the “Hi” messages. Often, in fact, that is the entire message—“Hi.” From someone I don’t recognize. I have no idea what sort of response they are expecting. Do they want me to stop in the middle of my work day and respond with “Hi” as well? Do we then move on to “How are you?” and “Fine, thanks, and you”? But why? Why would we (two virtual strangers, with nothing more in common than that we both teach English) do that?

To put it simply, some people don’t come across well on social media, and that includes English teachers too. I’m aware of cultural differences, but I expect people to have at least some basic sense of decency when communicating online. Some private messages and public posts make me wonder how that individual talks to their students and whether teaching is the right profession for them. I don’t mind being perceived as rude when I don’t want to waste time on conversations that I’m 100% sure won’t get anywhere. Apart from the ‘Hi’ people, I tend to get ‘friends’, who you can read about on the ELT Planning blog, and other interesting characters. I’ve even had to block a few users when I didn’t feel comfortable with the discussion at all.

Zemach highlights the fact that invasive chats are initiated mainly by men. That is related to another huge issue because there seems to be a fine line between being an awkward stranger and something much worse. It’s not a secret that women often receive inappropriate messages on social media, even on supposedly professional platforms such as LinkedIn. I have no idea why someone would think that online harassment is a good idea, but there are people like that out there.

The author suggests that the culture of chat messages should receive more attention in ELT materials. It certainly makes sense to use authentic or made up chats in the classroom and analyse them. In addition, I often communicate with my learners through WhatsApp, and when I get a message that could make a bad impression on someone, I address it in the subsequent lesson and provide the student with some examples of more appropriate language that could be used instead.

There are plenty of other thought-provoking ideas in the book, and I think everybody interested in ELT will probably find something useful in it. The book is also well-written and easy to read, which is exactly what you would expect from a title written by an experienced author and editor. If you enjoy reading TEFL-related essays, Dorothy Zemach’s All of the Above will make a really nice addition to your digital or physical library.