How to Teach English as a Freelancer in Bangkok
Create Your Own Job in Thailand
It is relatively easy to get a job teaching English in Bangkok and this is the path that most people take. However, full time teaching has a number of drawbacks. For one, the pay is low. The typical English teacher is paid between 350-500 Baht (US$10-15) per hour. Hours are typically long, and split schedules are common. What starts as a grand adventure may soon become a grueling drag.
However, there is another way—freelancing. Freelance teachers teach private lessons on their own, typically in their own home or in the home of a student. These opportunities pay more than jobs, are more relaxed, and are usually more fun to teach.
While traditional full-time work is easier to get, a freelance business can be more rewarding. Unfortunately, there are no recruiters or one-step solutions to becoming a private teacher. You have to do the work yourself. This can seem intimidating. However, by observing the following steps, it is possible, within five months or less, to establish a solid income exclusively from private lessons.
Step 1: Live Cheap
Living cheap is the first step towards establishing life as a freelancer. By starting with a modest lifestyle, you take the pressure off. It takes time to build a business. The less you spend, the less stress you experience as you slowly acquire students. It may take four to five months to establish a decent income from freelancing, so plan accordingly. One solution is to arrive in Thailand with five months living expenses. Living frugally, it is possible to exist comfortably on about US$400 a month.
The keys to living cheaply are:
- Find a cheap apartment. Avoid the Sukhumvit Road area, as this is the most expensive in Bangkok. It is far better to live in a Thai neighborhood. Look on the Thonburi side of the river or in the neighborhoods around and north of Victory Monument. Do not pay more than 4000-5000 Baht per month. See our Cheap Accommodations in Bangkok: Long-Term Rentals for more information.
- Eat on the street. Street vendors offer excellent food that is extremely cheap. Avoid restaurants.
- Forget taxis. Use buses, boats, the sky train, and the subway to get around.
Step 2: Get a Weekend Job
Unless you've got a big stash of savings, it will be necessary to start with a job. Actually, even with savings it is a good idea to work part-time, as a job is a gold mine of potential private lessons. When looking for work in Thailand, the key thing to remember is that the first impression counts more than a resume. No matter what your fashion preferences, dress like a banker for the interview. Once you get the job, you can loosen up, but look as conservative as possible for the initial contact. Check out sites such as Ajarn.com for job listings, the Bangkok Post for classifieds, or stroll into one of the many schools in the Siam/Sukhumvit/Ratchadamri areas.
It is possible to support yourself in Bangkok with only a part-time weekend job. Weekend jobs have several advantages. For one, they pay more per hour. Most teachers do not want to work on the weekends and thus most schools have a constant need for weekend teachers. While normal Monday-Friday hours typically pay 350-500 Baht per hour, weekend jobs pay 500-800 Baht per hour. By working a full weekend schedule it is possible to cover your bare bones expenses with only one or two full days of work! This leaves the remaining five days open for private students.
Step 3: Build a Reputation
Once you have the job, the next step is to build a reputation as a skilled and enjoyable teacher. The quality Thai students want most from their teachers is "sanook" (fun). Thai students love enthusiastic and energetic teachers who make learning fun. Forget using boring drills and grammar lessons if you want to attract private students.
Instead, consider using "effortless" teaching techniques that emphasize natural learning. Techniques such as Total Physical Response (TPR), are research-proven methods that are both active and enjoyable. Investigate these websites and invest in a few books. Doing so will set you apart from other teachers and their endless "listen and repeat" drills.
Step 4: Add Privates
After a few months of teaching, let students know you are available for lessons outside of class. Some employers have no problem with this—but others do, so it's best to be discreet. Actually, if you establish a reputation as an fun teacher, students will approach you without prompting. In your casual conversations with Thais, let them know you are a freelance teacher. Do not try to pressure or sell them, just mention the fact. I have received many requests for lessons just by mentioning that I was a teacher. With a minimum of effort, you will soon build a sizeable number of private students.
Since you are only working a job on the weekends, you have maximum flexibility for setting up your these "privates". Take an organized and professional approach, treating your private classes as a small business. Try to observe the following guidelines:
- Small Classes: Instead of teaching one-on-one private lessons, it is better to teach small groups of three to five. Small groups are easier to teach and are much more interesting for both the teacher and the student. Also, a small group allows you to make more money per hour while charging each student less, so everyone wins. The typical charge for a private lesson is 500 Baht or more per hour. Instead, consider charging each student 250-300 Baht or more per hour, with a minimum of three students per group.
- Pay Up Front: Do not get in the habit of letting students pay as they go. This quickly becomes an exercise in frustration—you'll soon feel more like a collection agent than a teacher. Rather, require students to pay for lessons one month in advance. Alternately, you could imitate the language schools and require students to pay for a ten week "term" ahead of time. Be sure to give students a receipt upon payment. To encourage advance payment, you might offer a 10-20% discount for those who pay two (or more) months in advance.
- Location: There are a number of options for class locations. One option is to teach privates in your apartment. Buy a small table, a white board, and some chairs and you are ready to go. Be sure the apartment is clean! Another option is to teach in a student's apartment. Many students prefer this option. Of course, if this requires a sizable commute on your part, raise your rates accordingly.
- Schedule: To prevent burnout, establish a strict schedule from the start. Pretend you are running a private school and ask yourself: What hours do I want to be "open"? When do I want holidays and vacations? What types of classes will I teach (conversation, business English, TOEFL, beginners only, advanced only, adults, kids) and what will I not teach? How many hours per week will I teach? Be firm and clear about this. It is far better to specialize and establish a clear market for yourself. Let potential students know exactly what and who you will teach and when you are available—what days and what hours (including planned holidays and vacations). Following this practice establishes you as a professional and will build trust with students. It's easy to jump at every opportunity that comes along—but this leaves you with an insane schedule and no focus—a recipe for misery. Better to turn down a few opportunities than become burned out and overwhelmed.
Step 5: Quit your job
Over time, your private business will grow through word of mouth. Eventually, income from freelancing will exceed income from your weekend job. At this point you can safely quit the job and devote your energies to private teaching. By remaining organized and focused, you will build your income, remain flexible, and have a great time teaching. And that, after all, is the point of freelancing!
Expat Community in Thailand
There is a large expat community in Bangkok—and a huge demand for English instruction. Since the money is not great (compared to Japan/South Korea, etc.), many of the expat teachers are short-timers looking to extend their stay in Thailand. The upside is that an organized and serious freelancer can quickly build a following of students through word of mouth.
For More Info
The largest and most comprehensive website for English teaching in Thailand. The site has an extensive job board, plus general information about living and teaching in Thailand, including freelancing. The job board contains mostly full time positions, but many schools will be interested in part-time or weekend teachers as well. It is best to call or visit schools in person when seeking work (dress conservative and bring a resume). Thais are notorious about ignoring email.
A.J. Hoge currently has a Masters degree and over many years of English teaching experience. He lived and taught in Bangkok, Thailand.