If you want to give private English as a second language (ESL) lessons in Mexico and be successful at it, first you need to know how much to charge and second you need to know how to avoid the pitfalls that commonly drive private ESL teachers out of business quickly.
Private ESL classes with a native English speaker are highly prized. You can charge 100 to 150 pesos an hour for classes. You’ll need to work 17 to 25 hours per week in order to have enough money to live on, depending on how much you charge.
At first this sounds like a really viable option to make a living in Mexico. The problem is that Mexicans operate differently than we do up north of the border and some of their common actions result in your not getting paid. Before you begin teaching private ESL classes in Mexico, review and implement the solutions to the following five pitfalls and the un-pitfall listed below.
Pitfall Type 1: Skipping and Skipping Out
- 1A. Students are habitually and randomly late.
- 1B. Students fail to arrive but never call to cancel.
- 1C. Students disappear but owe the teacher for classes already given.
Mexicans are famous for being flexible about time and appointments. This custom is fine when it’s friends getting together and another thing when it’s you sitting somewhere waiting to give a class to a tardy student. Since it’s culturally acceptable to be up to 30 minutes late, students will feel perfectly justified to roll in the door whenever they want to. You can’t rely on asking them to be on time because many students will just be insulted by the request.
An equally as common but much worse cultural habit is that of never calling to cancel when students can’t make an appointment. People just don’t show up. This is an expensive waste of time when it comes to private classes. Often the people who choose private classes choose them because they are too busy to take a regular course at a language center, so the problem of tardiness and absence is even more pronounced in private ESL classes. Again, asking students to “please call to cancel” is not a viable solution. Students will be offended by your request and may fail to show up ever again, just because you embarrassed them.
Another thing that private students often do is discover that they can’t pay for classes that they’ve already received. In this situation, they just avoid seeing you ever again. This may not be premeditated, but the result is still the same: you without your money.
To avoid problems with students skipping class and skipping out on payments, you need to set up the ground rules ahead of time. When the student is requesting that you give classes, the power balance is in your favor. Students have to agree to your terms or they won’t get what they want. If you were to forget to set up the ground rules and find yourself facing the common problems above, it would be too late because the power balance would be shifted in their favor. If they owe you money, they have the power, not you.
The ground rules should be clearly listed on a sheet of paper. Have an original and a copy ready. Give your students the original and have them sign the copy, which you will keep. In Mexico, the signed copy has a special note on it. While signing, the person writes “I received an original” or “recibí original” then dates and signs the paper. This way there can be no excuses later.
The ground rules should say that the student agrees to pay for each class/week/month — you and the student can decide on the appropriate time span — of classes in advance, that the student will be charged from the start of the scheduled class time to the end, even if the student arrives late, and that the student will be charged for all classes not canceled a minimum of 24/48 (you decide) hours in advance.
List your obligations on the same sheet. The teacher’s obligations include beginning the class on time, planning a class that uses the full scheduled time, canceling a minimum of 24/48 hours in advance if necessary, and giving a receipt for payments so that the student has proof of exactly how many classes he or she has paid for.
Pitfall Type 2: Misunderstandings about Payments
- 2. Students and teacher disagree on whether or not the student has paid for certain classes.
If there is a misunderstanding, Mexicans often just quit rather than discuss their concerns. Often the foreigner has no idea why the Mexican student suddenly disappeared. In fact, in Spanish the word discutir, which loosely translates as “discuss,” has a very negative connotation and is better translated as “argue” or “fight.” Most Mexicans will avoid conflict at all costs.The Solution
Design a simple calendar system so that both you and your student will feel comfortable tracking hours taught. Have the student help you to “check off” classes given on a class-by-class basis.
Pitfall Type 3: The Private ESL Teacher is Viewed as a Friend
- 3A. Students use class a time to chat with a friend in Spanish.
- 3B. Students expect their teacher to translate documents for them as a favor.
- 3C. Students want to meet for class in a restaurant, so who pays?
Once Mexicans have spent some one-on-one time with someone, even in a work relationship, they feel that they “know” each other, and that means that a friendship has been formed. This is not necessarily bad; in fact, many a good friendship has been formed between teacher and students. Students are excellent sources of information and referrals for teachers who are new to an area. Students also bring into play their networks of friends and colleagues who may also want to study English with the teacher. The problem comes when the teacher is taken off guard and either accidentally insults the student by thinking and speaking in “business terms” when “friendship terms” are required, or when the teacher feels obligated to work for free doing favors such as translations.The Solution
Think ahead about what you are willing to do and what boundaries you need to divide work and friendship. Decide what you want to put in the ground rules when you start classes. For example, you may decide to put down that you charge for all translations. Still, the ground rules aren’t as vital as having thought the situation through ahead of time. You’ll be able to give polite, appropriate answers when any of these issues come up.
Pitfall Type 4: Parents of the Student
- 4. Parents bring their kids for help with their English homework, then sit and listen in.
It can be uncomfortable to have parents sitting around watching you give class to their children. Sometimes the children get nervous or remain extra quiet, avoiding asking questions. Sometimes the teacher ends up being divided in their attention, being a “host” or “hostess” to the parent (giving something to drink, making the parent comfortable) and a teacher to the student. Sometimes the parent becomes an adjunct student.The Solution
Of course it’s appropriate that parents wait while their children receive classes. Additionally, there is a lot of potential for positive interaction among teacher and student/s. In order to control the situation before you find yourself in an uncomfortable position, think ahead and have a place ready for the parent. If you have the space, set the parent up in an adjoining room so that he or she can’t interfere with the teacher-student dynamic.
Pitfall Type 5: People Everywhere Invite Themselves
- 5A. Students of drastically different ability levels want to have class together.
- 5B. Neighbors and acquaintances ask for classes, but the teacher knows they wouldn’t be committed and/or couldn’t afford it.
- 5C. People ask the teacher to give classes to their children (this is only a problem if you’re like me and don’t like to teach children.)
All of these problems listed under pitfall type 5 have something in common. It’s not immediately obvious until you’ve lived in Mexico for a while and learned that you can’t say “no” to Mexicans because they get very insulted. On the other hand, you don’t want to waste your time giving classes to people who won’t stick with it or can’t afford it.People often picture a private ESL class as a relaxed, fun experience (which it should be), but they tend to ignore the specific techniques that the teacher has to employ in order to make it such. Often someone will ask you to give a class and others will overhear and invite themselves for the same class. It puts you on the spot to give an answer. Since it’s Mexico you can’t say anything vaguely like “no,” so you have to say something else.
Since you can’t say “no,” here are a few suggestions to handle the problems discussed above:
- 5A. “That would be lovely. I’d like to give you classes. I always give my students a test to see what topics I should cover with them. Whenever you want, I’ll give you the test, then we’ll see what topics we can cover.” The less you want to give the student(s) classes, the more you would stress the test. I bet they’ll go along with the conversation, but never actually come for the test. If they actually call your bluff, you’ll have to invent a placement test, but at least you’d have a leg to stand on when you suggest that they receive separate classes.
- 5B. “I’d love to give you class, stop by some time and we’ll set a schedule for you.”
“This month I’m working on a huge translation project. Let me know next month and we’ll set a schedule for you.”
“That sounds good. To make it more affordable, I suggest that three or four people take the class together and split the cost. It’s more fun that way, too, because we can play more learning games.”
- 5C. “I’d really like to give little Carlos/Maria classes but I don’t know how to give classes to children. You know how it requires special techniques to prepare and give classes to children so that they learn and enjoy them? I’m really not qualified, but I thank you very much for thinking of me. It’s really an honor. I only teach adults, though. Thank you very much. It’s a nice idea. I like little Carlos/Maria a lot and I want the best for him/her, so it’s too bad that I’m not qualified. Maybe some time, if he/she has specific questions about his/her homework you could bring him/her over to ask about the homework. Thanks so much. I’m really honored that you thought of me, but I only teach adults.” (You could use a slightly shorter version of this if the person isn’t easily insulted, but there are a good many Mexicans who just can’t take a “no,” and you’d be wise to work as many “thank you”s as possible into your response.)
(Non-)Pitfall 6: Finding Responsible Students who can Afford Classes
It’s hard to find those people who are really dedicated to learning a language and will commit the time and money that it takes to consistently attend classes month in and month out. Without this commitment level you won’t have a dependable income. In fact, even if you want to give private classes, it’s often smart to combine some hours of teaching in a language institute (in the morning, for example) with some hours of private classes (in the evening, for example).
Obviously, you could put signs up in your neighborhood, at stationery stores and near high schools and universities around town, advertising ESL classes given by a native speaker. In some cases it’s smart to try to form small groups. With groups, the cost to individuals goes down and you have a better chance of keeping the group going over time. Another good strategy, if you know how to work with children and enjoy it, would be to advertise just before summer vacation when people are planning their children’s summer activities.
As with everything in Mexico, you get the best results through a network of personal contacts. As you go about your daily business, take the time to talk to people. As a native English speaker you will frequently be asked if you give private classes. Write down people’s phone numbers if they are interested and keep all of those numbers together so you can call people and offer them classes when you are ready to start or have an opening in your schedule. “Rich” or college-educated people are the ones that are the best contacts. They might include your doctor, your insurance agent, your neighbors, or students of another expatriate who has to stop teaching for one reason or another.
Sometimes you get in touch with a contact who wants to share classes with his/her coworkers. You can travel to the person’s place of work and give an hour or two of classes to a group of people in a conference room after they get off work. These classes often pay well, yet are relatively relaxed because people are doing it for personal and professional enrichment.
Teaching private ESL classes is a rewarding experience if you can fill your schedule with responsible students. Your students will generally be easy going and motivated to learn, you can set up a schedule without a commute, and you’ll get lots of good contacts to help orient you in Mexico. In order to make sure that you can enjoy the benefits of teaching private ESL courses in Mexico, the most important concept to grasp from this article is: charge before teaching.
The series: How to Make Teaching English in Mexico a Reality