Maria and I sit at her dining room table and practice hosting a dinner party, working through the difference between “What do you want?” and “What would you like?”
Her oldest daughter married a man from the U.S. and now lives in Nebraska. From her apartment and home-run business in Medellin, Maria strives to improve her language to better communicate with her new in-laws.
Maria is one of my nine regular students for clases particulares—private English lessons that I give in individuals’ homes, office buildings, or neighbouring cafes.
For an EFL teacher in Colombia, private lessons are crucial. They help to supplement what I earn from private institutes; but relying them on them for income is a gamble.
For an EFL teacher in Colombia, private lessons are crucial. They help to supplement the income I earn from private institutes, and allow for more weekend (or travel) spending. Upon meeting someone new, they often request private classes, eager to improve their English. But as with many academic pursuits outside of university or work, potential students often lose interest. In Colombia, many people view studying English as a hobby. It’s the same in the U.S. for native English speakers; unless a foreign language is required for employment, language learning is viewed as an extracurricular activity, like picking up the acoustic guitar or playing in a kickball league.
Take Valentina, for instance. When I arrived to Valentina’s apartment for our third class, she answered the door in her towel. She regretted to inform me that she had been mixed up about the day of the week, even though we talked two days before. She promised to call me later about rescheduling. But given a problem with her car, her vacation planned with her boyfriend, and a baby on the way, I doubted I’d hear from her again. I didn’t.
Relying on private lessons for income is a gamble. While I’ve met with several students consistently, several times a week for multiple months, others drift in and out of interest.
Here’s how to maximize your one-on-one time and keep students engaged:
In Medellin, communication about clases particulares operates by word-of-mouth. I share my phone number openly, and receive a few messages every week over Whatsapp along the lines of, “My friend’s brother’s co-worker gave me your number, and my uncle’s girlfriend is interested in private language classes. Cuanta cobras? Como es tu disponsibilidad?”
Attending language exchange events has also connected me with several students. If you’re easy to reach and charge a reasonable rate, word will travel.
Charge an appropriate rate
In my first week in Medellin, I met an English teacher who charges different rates for classes according to the student’s neighbourhood. In other words, she charges more if she suspects you have more money to spend. This is a no-go. Just as you can rely on word-of-mouth to advertise your classes, you can expect the same grapevine to notice your varying hourly rates. Ask around—what do other native teachers charge?
I charge less than most other gringo teachers, and for that reason I have more students. But the key is to not charge too little. Be sure to factor in time and transportation. Travelling 40 minutes on the Metro for a short one-hour class can feel like a waste of time. And unless the student meets you in your neighbourhood, the first hour’s rate should cover the cost of your transportation.
Assess potential students' skill level
Get to know your student before the lesson. I like to ask them a lot of questions over the phone (in Spanish). That way, I can better plan the first class. My list normally looks like this:
• What are your language goals?
• How will you use English in your life—in travel? Work?
• Where have you studied English in the past? When did you study, and for how long?
• How much time has passed since you’ve last used the language?
• What do you think your language level would be? Beginner? Advanced?
• What are you already doing to study English, and how will you practice on your own time, outside of a private class?
If they aren’t totally stressed out by this point, I try to get them to speak a few lines to me in English. I had one student claim to have reached an advanced, near-fluent level. He only hoped to improve his pronunciation and intonation, yet the line fell silent when I start asking questions in English. Ask potential students to introduce themselves with a few lines in English so that you have a better idea of where to start.
Organize your materials
Begin with a simple list of teaching aids, according to students’ level and language goals (writing emails, business communication, or simple conversational skills, etc.). I share resources with students via Google Drive. With a separate shared folder for each student, we can both review what we studied the previous class, and add resources to the folder for the student to reference in their own time.
Plan two classes in advance
I like to give my students a clear objective: Today we’re going to work with prepositions of place and pronunciation, and next class, we’ll take a look at prepositions of time and do a few dictations. It keeps the short session we have together focused, while reminding the student that there is more to learn.
I would hesitate to spend too much time creating a long-term syllabus for individual students. You never know when someone’s going to cancel, move or lose contact.
Confirm meeting times
Sometimes my mind slips, and I forget to check-in with a student before our regularly scheduled class. These are the moments where I find myself waiting in a bank office building’s lobby for nearly 30 minutes, or in a parking lot at 6 a.m., alone, as the sun rises, or at someone’s door just as they’re getting out of the shower. We’re human. We’re forgetful. But checking in with your students the night before class with a simple, “Nos vemos mañana?” serves as a reminder that this is your work (and not a casual lunch break hang-out). You’ll secure your schedule and set off for a productive one-on-one session, another class sure to follow.
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