Ever thought about going it alone?
Teaching Thai students at your own house or apartment can be a very lucrative business if you manage to hit it right. I've found from experience that many Thais are willing to pay anything from 500 baht to 1000 baht an hour for a native-speaking teacher to give them lessons and guidance in conversational English, grammar, academic and business writing, and TOEFL preparation, etc, etc. (simple conversation practice is still the choice of the vast majority however).
Many teachers are understandably nervous about going down the freelance route because technically it is illegal work. You don't have a teaching licence or work permit. You're not paying taxes. But we're not talking about someone teaching from a bricks and mortar language school with a high-profile, clearly visible shopfront. This is you offering a few hours teaching to an individual or a bunch of willing students in the privacy of your own room. No one is going to bat an eyelid provided that you keep a relatively low profile. Back in my freelance teaching days, I even had a chief police officer as one of my private students. He would come to the house twice a week for a couple of hours conversation and he loved studying with me! We became great friends and I used to love to listen to his stories of how his team would go about tracking down Thai credit card fraudsters and con-men. It was as much an education for me as it was for him.
If you are looking to rent a house in order to set up a private teaching business, then you need to pay attention to location. The house needs to be relatively easy to find, because you'll need to give directions over the telephone once customers start hearing your name and getting recommendations that there is a 'good teacher' living in the neighborhood and offering English lessons. If your Thai language skills are not up to scratch, you'll need to ‘recruit' a Thai friend or Thai partner to deal with enquiries. Nothing will lose you customers faster than you insisting they have to speak English on the phone. Many Thais will struggle through a few sentences and then eventually put the phone down.
Personally, I've always taught private lessons from a house. With a house, you can easily convert a spare bedroom into quite a nice learning environment by furnishing it with a whiteboard, a table, a few office chairs and one or two tasteful prints on the wall. I also used to put up lots of photographs of my family and snapshots of life back in England. Thais love looking at photographs and they were a great way to initiate conversation practice.
Teachers who have tried to teach from their studio apartments never seem to do as well business-wise. There's something a little tacky about conducting a lesson in full view of your bed and your dirty laundry basket, but perhaps that's just me. With a house you can keep your living and working areas totally separate.
Going back to the importance of location, it's generally the middle-classes and above who are going to form your client base (in other words, those who can afford your fees) so you want to be on top of them or at least near them. No one is going to travel miles and miles every week for a two-hour lesson - it doesn't matter how good a teacher you are.
I've known several teachers specialize in becoming a ‘mobile teacher' - very often with a motorcycle to improve their mobility. Mobile freelance teachers will target a specific area or large housing estate giving private lessons to housewives during the day and their children after school. This kind of approach to freelance teaching can be very successful, but considerable time can be wasted going from lesson to lesson. When you teach from home, the onus is on the student to be there at the agreed time and it's always going to be possible for you, the teacher, to squeeze more students into a working day. A typical daily schedule with five ‘blocks' might look something like this.
9-11am, 11.30-1.30pm, 2.00-4.00pm, 4.30-6.30pm, 7.00-9.00pm.
Once word gets around and you earn the reputation as a decent and reliable teacher, you'll have little problem filling these blocks at the weekend but during the week it may be a different story when kids are at school and parents are out either working or shopping. You might want to consider reducing your prices a little for ‘off-peak' study.
Teachers always have difficulty in deciding on and fixing a price. We all figure we know what we are worth, but it's sometimes difficult to look your prospects in the eye and tell them how much you want for your services. You have to become ruthless. It's as simple as that. Bear in mind I am going back a few years, but I used to charge 500 baht an hour for a one-on-one lesson, 700 baht for two students and 900 baht for three. I would probably charge considerably more than those rates if I ever started the business up again. For me, time is the most valuable commodity. There is never enough of it. And if someone is going to take up an hour of my time, then I need to be paid well enough.
Keeping the above student rates in mind, it makes sound business sense to encourage individual students to find a friend, better still find two friends. The teacher ends up with more income, the students get a cheaper price per head, and it's far easier to teach a group than it is to teach one student alone. Everybody's happy. Everyone's a winner!
Insist that students pay for at least ten hours in advance. Thai private students are notorious for canceling lessons at the last minute and you need to give yourself some kind of security. Tell students you will allow them one cancellation per ten hours provided they give you 24 hours notice. In reality this is easier said than done because very often a bond does develop between the teacher and student and the students become friends rather than customers.
I once had one student - a lovely girl - cancel at the last minute on four successive Saturday mornings, with her excuses becoming more and more pathetic each time. She must have cremated her grandmother at least three times! In the end, I decided to refund her money and basically told her to find another teacher. And I swore it would be the last time that students viewed me as a ‘soft touch'.
I used to have students pay for ten hours in advance (rather than 20 or 30) because it gave me time to evaluate them. Are they serious about learning or are they forced to study by well-intentioned parents? Did the student start the lessons with the best intentions but are now becoming bored and fidgety? Do you dread the moment when your private student rings the doorbell? After ten hours, you can always come up with an excuse not to teach them anymore. "Sorry, I have to work at the office on Saturdays from now on" is still my time-honored favorite.
I once did a 30-hour course with a middle-aged businesswoman who wanted to hone her business writing skills. She was a joy to teach. She was full of questions from the moment she arrived and sat down. And it was a topic I was only too happy to offer guidance with. The lessons used to fly by. Disappointingly, this kind of student is in the minority. Most of your requests to teach will be from adults who are false or rank beginners, or parents wanting you to teach their very young children or their teenage sons and daughters. You're a better man than I am if you want to take on children. Children need room to run around and make a nuisance of themselves. You just won't be able to keep kiddies entertained in the average-sized townhouse.
Teenagers, especially males, are the worst students of all. I've had parents knock on my door and beg me to take on their little teenage Somchai, who hasn't spoken to anyone in over two years ever since he started sprouting facial hair. Why on earth do they think he's going to talk to me? "Sorry but I'm fully booked right now" Take it from me - when you're facing two hours in the company of a bored, self-conscious teenager swiveling aimlessly in his chair and looking at everything in the room except you - five hundred baht an hour suddenly seems nowhere near enough.
So you've got your house or apartment, and you've got your room set up and ready to go. Where are the students going to come from? The marketing is invariably always the most difficult part. The most effective way I've always found is the simple notice on the garden gate. When you've found your first half dozen customers, word of mouth should carry you the rest of the way. Unless you're a crap teacher of course.
Handing out flyers in the street or door-to-door leaflet delivery never or rarely works. Statistics show that the feedback is often less than 1%. In addition, you'll have to pay someone to do the distribution for you. Unfortunately, leaflet distributors and reliability are not entirely synonymous and it's a fair bet that most of your two thousand flyers will end up in a ditch somewhere, and you'll be left sitting at home wondering why the phone never rings. This actually happened to me. I paid a bunch of local layabouts a few hundred baht each to deliver a couple of thousand flyers door-to-door. The following day, a neigbor rang my doorbell to tell me where the flyers had all been dumped.
One very effective form of advertising I came up with was to have large stickers made up advertising my teaching services. I then paid the local songthaew drivers 200 baht each to put the stickers where their passengers could see them. I got a lot of phone calls as a result.
On a final note, don't underestimate the potential of small businesses in your particular locale to become clients. You might want to target small office firms and companies with say fewer than 10 employees for your leaflet distribution (it you go down that route). It can be quite appealing for smaller companies to put together a group of 4-5 people if a) your home is relatively near their office and b) you can gear lessons towards their particular line of work. But again, be ruthless! If the boss of the company rings you up one week and says "sorry we don't have time to study because we are preparing for an overseas exhibition" and the next week it's another excuse - you are better off knocking it on the head.
Good luck with your freelance teaching business. Some teachers make a great success of it and others fail miserably. You will need to be smart, professional and friendly and you will certainly need to have some business acumen. Negotiation skills will also come in handy for those times when you want to charge a thousand baht an hour and your customer had budgeted for a couple of hundred at most.
I know a guy who flew in from Japan with the sole aim of targeting the rich Japanese housewives (and their kids) in the Sukhumwit 33 / Thonglor areas. Not only was he a decent teacher, but he could also speak fluent Japanese and knew the Japanese culture inside out. Within six weeks he was creaming 70,000 baht a month from students gained purely by word of mouth. And he always seemed to have plenty of time for himself. It can be done!
At the other end of the spectrum, I worked with a Canadian lady who tried freelance teaching as a way to supplement her full-time salary. She set herself up with a couple of private Thai students - both female business-owners - but made fatal errors of judgment. The students didn't have a clear objective of what they wanted out of the lessons (beware of the student who says "just give me conversation") - and business owners are always busy. They will often do a couple of sessions to lead you into a false sense of security and then those horrible last-minute cancellations start creeping in. Before long, the teacher finds that their heart just isn't in it. Your heart needs to be in it if you want to be a successful freelance teacher.
I haven't charged students for private lessons for quite some time, however, last year I made the decision to improve my spoken Thai. So I found a lovely middle-aged woman who owned a small shop and had plenty of free time on her hands. And a year down the line, we still meet twice a week. I teach her English and she teaches me Thai in a reciprocal arrangement where no money actually changes hands. It works very, very well. I mention this because it might be something to consider if your objective is to study Thai and you don't much care about making extra money.