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Finding Your Teaching Niche

Finding Your Teaching Niche

I’m a member of a Facebook group for IATEFL (International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language). In December, 2015, I made an open poll and asked

“What kind of class is your first preference to teach?”

I waited until almost 60 teachers answered before making the pie chart below. I’ll be the first to admit that this data may lack a bit of accuracy. Regardless, there is definitely something worth noticing and discussing—if you want to earn money teaching ESL online or selling your ESL books, services or programs.

I left out preferences like “content-based lessons based on video lessons” because it’s highly unlikely that ESL students will ever wake up and type that into Google or YouTube, looking to solve a major problem. This pie chart represents four types of ESL lessons that students understand as solutions to their problems and are ready to pay for. These four lesson types can be easily marketed. (If you’re like lots of teachers, you hate marketing. Let’s make your life easier, not harder…)

The most obvious data is our green giant.

55% of the teachers and material writers polled said their first choice is “conversation.”

22% said they prefer Business English lessons.

Just 11% chose both pronunciation and ESL exam prep.

Even though I am part of the 11% that prefers to teach ESL exams, I still completely identify with the green majority. When I started teaching in 2008, it hardly felt like work. Yeah, of course I needed to figure out how to explain grammar, but it was just so fun! Bring on the smiles and feel-good fuzzies.

Honestly, though, if you wonder how to get students, then you really need to pay attention to what students are ready to pay for. The less you need to convince them, the easier your life is.

How many students are ready to pay for conversation? There is high demand. Students know what “conversation” is and they can easily understand how they benefit by paying for those lessons. It’s good for freelance teachers to have “an easy sell.” Even really advanced students want to improve their conversation skills. Hell, even for me as a native-speaker, I enroll in courses to improve my speaking skills. Are we ever really done? It’s easy to jump on the “conversation” bandwagon.


Here’s the limitation of trying to make a living just teaching “conversation” (especially online). Because so many teachers and schools already offer it, if you join the market with more conversation lessons, you just blend in. Immediately.

Blending in is good for surviving in the wild. However, when you need to figure out how to get students and keep your schedule full so you can afford to be a freelance ESL teacher or writer—well, then blending in is like death. After all, students can’t pay for your ESL service if they don’t remember you.

Also, when you offer ESL conversation lessons (which are already available in outrageously high numbers) your potential students have the luxury of being far, far pickier. I have talked with more than one teacher who has a profile at an online school. For them, it’s career suicide to raise their lesson prices because competition is so fierce. Students won’t pay your prices if they can easily get the same thing from another teacher!

I love teaching ESL conversation but I didn’t build my online career on it. Nope, my little corner of the internet caters to students who need higher TOEFL iBT scores. Then, I discovered to raise TOEFL iBT speaking scores, accent reduction (pronunciation) is an essential component. For that, teachers need to be comfortable teaching for exams AND teaching pronunciation.

It is a high-demand area. I have ESL exam students popping out of the woodwork. “Can I take lessons?” Our email inbox is packed. “When can we start?” My YouTube videos are covered in requests for help. “Can you help me?” And my “Other” inbox in Facebook? Dear World, please forgive me for not even looking anymore. “I have to study for TOEFL. Will you talk to me?”

Just this morning, I taught another group class about improving listening skills for TOEFL iBT and the students were the ones dropping hints that they would take private lessons with me if only I would offer. Hey! I’m already part of the 11%! If only you would offer!

How many ESL students need to take an exam at some point in their lives? I don’t know… But… Is it crazy to estimate over 80%? There are literally millions of ESL exam students every year. Just like you, they don’t actually know what the exams are all about. When reality hits them, they wish they started getting ready for speaking and writing tests yesterday… Most students who are ready to pay are the ones who have gotten trapped. They tried to get their score alone, but they’re stuck in the mud, and they need Teacher Tow Truck.

So where are all the ESL teachers who are ready, willing and able to teach those students? Cue the chirping crickets. Students don’t just feel all alone when they’re studying for an ESL exam like TOEFL iBT or IELTS. They effectively are all alone. Why? Refer back to the pie chart… The blue slice.

If you want job security and motivated students, the solution is really obvious. Get ridiculously good at teaching effective lessons that actually change students’ accuracy when they speak spontaneously.

I’m warning you, you need to know what you’re doing. Students who become Serial Test-Takers for TOEFL iBT and IELTS end up knowing more about the tasks than some of the people who wrote test prep books for major publishing companies (unfortunately, that’s not a joke). But there is a solution for knowing an exam inside and out, as well…

Join a teacher mentoring program that fosters legitimate expertise without sabotaging your students’ progress and keeps you motivated during the tough times.

It is well worth your investment, I promise.

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