Friday, April 14, 2006

Hints for Private Lessons

I do a lot of private lessons, both company classes and private students. By private, I mean I have no company between me and the student(s). No middleman. This does not make me rich. On the contrary, I get more for teaching corporate classes for my employer.

What it does give is freedom. I pick the text, come up with a syllabus and course outline in consultation with the student. I pick and choose students and am pretty selective, so I don't have to deal with time-wasters.

A few things I have learned, or had the importance of reinforced. This is for real lessons. If you get someone who wants to do nothing but sit and shoot the bull, and you want to do that, go for it. None of the below applies. I have seen people do that and get paid for it. (No prep, no materials, no nothing. In a lesson I saw like that, a guy sat and ran his mouth without stopping for an hour and the 2 girls just giggled and barely said anything. Doubt they understood anything either, but I saw him get 3000 yen. Never saw them there again either, so probably not a path to long-term profit.)

  • Set feasible goals, both for the medium and long term. If you don't it guarantees disappointment for the student, and an aimless hit or miss course. This is obvious for most, but don't lose focus of it. Readjust or reevaluate it occasionally. Ideally, you need a way to measure if you and the student have reached it. BE SPECIFIC! Many students will come with a vague "I wanna speak fluently" etc. Define "fluently" and design a course and materials to support that goal. Oh, you did interview your student to find out all of this and other important information during the first meeting didn't you?
  • Charge for trial lessons. Unless you do it close to home or work, you are spending your time and probably paying transportation. Some students get a lot of free "lessons" by taking numerous free trial lessons. Charging discourages this. You are doing it to make money I assume? If not, then give 'em all free.
  • Make sure to set a finite term for your course. You can always extend it, but I would start it at about 3 months or less. This helps you set and stick to goals, and gives both you and the student an opportunity to end the lessons if either needs to do so. Otherwise, they will go on and on and you will start losing focus of the purpose. Reevaluate your objectives each term.
  • Many don't want to pay your transportation costs. Too bad, make them pay or come to you. These can be significant.
  • 3000 yen per hour is the standard fee. Do not charge less! First of all, people will think something is wrong with your underpriced service. This is Japan, remember. You could charge more, and for evening work when demand is highest, you should charge more. If you work for a good business school, you get at least 4000 yen per hour for an average 2 hour class after 6pm. You are losing money at less than that unless you are just looking to fill a empty slot on you schedule.
  • Be professional, be on time. Do what you say you will do. Be friendly, but remember, these are paying customers, not your buddies. Most people, both teachers and students want it that way.
  • I haven't been doing this, but I may start as it is costing me money. Charge some price for same day cancellations. You can be flexible, but you don't want to show up and wait for an hour for someone who decided not to go, and never bothered to tell you.
  • Don't forget, copies, materials, time--everything you do to prepare for a lesson is an expense. It is not going to be 3000 yen per hour pure profit. Do lessons at a cafe? Who pays for your coffee? That's an expense. Print ads? Have a website? Expenses. Download and print lesson materials from the internet? Ink and paper. Belong to a TEFL that charges to download lessons/lesson plans? Who pays. Now, why would you charge LESS than 3000 yen per hour?
  • Be available for students outside the lesson (by e-mail generally, and by phone for somethings. Don't worry, it is rare that anyone abuses this.) That doesn't mean you have to give all your time away, but helping people with problems or questions is part of the job. I have free services I provide to students, but unfortunately, few take advantage of them. A hour or so a week is enough for many to acquire or improve a language, they incorrectly believe.
  • Don't be a language whore. Use your education, training, or experience to guide them in studying and learning English. Don't be tempted to do anything and everything they want, even if it costs you a customer. If someone insists on strict grammar correction at all times when speaking---and many will, don't waste your time. (Of course if you are a sadist or a grammar nazi, then you might be interested in doing it. Good for getting rid of students who are not working out. Maybe.)
  • There are 4 skills needed to master a language. Address as many as possible, though in the lesson it will likely be mostly speaking.
  • Your biggest problems will likely be keeping people motivated and getting their focus OFF form and grammar. This is almost aways true in Japan, but is often made worse by the eikaiwa schools whose teachers know no better.
  • Forget word-of-mouth referrals. This occasionally happens, but a very large number of people want the fact that they are studying English kept a secret. Berlitz had problems when someone accidentally violated this top secret policy.
  • Teaching company classes on your own? Remember, this is income and is taxable.
  • Keep good records of everything.
  • Again, either the student pays for everything---all your expenses---or you do.
  • Perhaps slighty off topic, but do not use Hotmail as it exists for any business-related purposes. You may need a record of your correspondence, and Hotmail deletes any saved sent messages after 30 days. This can cause a real problem if you need evidence of original correspondence for any reason. Yahoo is ok, just check message sent to the spam folder often, as Yahoo tends to put spam in the inbox and valid e-mail into spam.
  • Of course, all of this assumes that your visa allows you to do it.
  • Cash. Credit opens a can of worms. People forget, some may sorta intentially forget and not return. I used to allow payment once a month AFTER 4 lessons. I was never cheated, but people don't always remember well how many lessons they have had due to cancellations etc. There are ways around these problems, but the best is cash on the barrelhead.
These are some things I have learned. Other people may have different ideas, but don't ever believe this nonsense you read online about some guy getting rich from private lessons. It ain't the bubble economy of the late 80s and early 90s anymore. I never met anyone even then who was getting rich in this business. Don't quit your day job.

Sept 12 2006 update: If you have to travel, I would recommend setting a price of 4,000 yen per hour, or a minimum of 1.5 hours (at 3,500 or so per hour.) It is not worth 3000 yen or 3,500 yen to travel 30 minutes each way to teach for one hour. A waste of time. You won't get a lot of students at 4,000 per hour, but you want want many (any?) at a lower rate if you are traveling. And, need I say it again? ONLY A FOOL CHARGES LESS THAN 3,000 per hour. You aren't doing it for a profit at that rate. I have been a fool like that before. I learned my lesson fast.

Again: Set a time limit with a realistic goal. Don't let it become shoot the bull session with you simply robotically (and idiotically) doing nothing but correcting unimportant grammatical errors. (Although lots of "students" want this. Do you? Just how braindead do you want to become from this job? And what will this do to help a student become communicative in a reasonable period of time?

Don't accept a student with no clear goals. "I wanna speak English" ain't a clear goal. A short-term goal is extremely improtant as it give you and the student a focus and also helps you to measure how effective your teaching is (since you cannot really test a student). I will not even bother with students who cannot come with, nor stick to a goal.

Cash on the barrelhead. Extend no credit! IF someone forgets the cash, politely wait while they go to the ATM and get it. (I have one student who owes me 9,000 yen and has for 4 months because she took a new job and we haven't been able to arrange another lesson.

Keep all receipts for tax purposes. Teach at Starbucks and buy coffee? You can count that as a business expense if you keep the receipt.

One other thing, many people either do not understand you clearly in the first meeting or assume what you agree to is all window-dressing horse manure. I put things in writing now---goals, materials, lesson type etc. This helps prevent someone from agreeing to a goal, or type of lesson etc, then the first reall class expect to sit and shoot the shit, or expect 100% grammar-nazi correction when you already agreed that this would not happen.

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