How To Get Online ESL Students

I’m excited to welcome fellow online ESL tutor, Chris Rush onto the Smart Online Tutoring blog to share his wealth of experience from tutoring online for the past 8 years. Chris is now part of the Off2Class team and helps other online ESL tutors get more students, save time and become the best online tutor they can be.


Here’s the full video interview or if you’re in a hurry, you can read Chris’s answers to my questions about tutoring online in the article below:

How do I get started with tutoring English as a Second Language (ESL) online?

It’s easy to get stuck in the planning phase but the longer you get stuck there, the less likely you are to ever escape! Teaching ESL online is a relatively simple process. To get started you need a computer, a camera and Zoom to have a conversation. It’s easy to get overwhelmed and make it more complicated than it needs to be. The focus should be ‘how quickly can you get one student’, rather than researching websites, making a logo, thinking of a catchy name and creating social media profiles. 

Make the distance of time between deciding “I want to do this” and getting your first piece of income as short as possible. The important thing is to get one student to purchase one lesson. The faster you can do that the more likely you are to have success.

There are free or very inexpensive solutions to the tools you need, such as Zoom which has a free plan and Calendly which integrates with Google calendar. Both are free but whatever tools you choose, just choose quickly and go for it. A modern laptop with a webcam and a good internet connection is also necessary. 

Websites and other tools are important and powerful to help you grow a business but shouldn’t come first. When getting started, focus on getting your first student. Then when someone pays you for your first online lesson, you can now say “I’m an online tutor”.

How do I get my first student?

At lot of tutors set up a free trial on their website or social media. They send out a message encouraging people to ‘Book a free trial’ in a non-personal way with copy and paste emails or social media posts. You as the tutor know your trial lesson is valuable but “Free” is not valuable or appealing to potential students. It can also be seen as just a sales pitch and can result in no shows.

A better way to get your first student is to do it manually and individually. Start with your network. Who do you know who might know somebody who may need to improve their English? Who do you know on Facebook who’s a friend (not a stranger) who you can send a personalised message to? This is scary because we’re risking rejection and we can’t copy paste the free trial script and hit send. We need to actually communicate with people on a personal level.

Friends and family support you with online tutoring

When making that first connection with a non-native speaker:

  • Ask them how they’re doing (what’s going on in their lives)
  • Tell them what you’re doing (tutoring online)
  • Ask if they’d like a 20-minute conversation where you can help them with their most common mistakes.

If you’re contacting a native speaker like a family member, ask:

  • "Would you be willing to share what I’m doing with your community or network?" 

It’s difficult because someone might say no! It’s uncomfortable because we might get rejected but this approach is what’s going to lead to the results.

In summary, to get your first student you need to contact people you know, make extra effort, don’t be salesy or spammy and don’t be afraid of a “No” because you might get a “Yes!”

You might get a yes

How does a new teacher find the right materials for teaching ESL online?

Traditional textbooks are not suitable for online tutoring. You want everything to be on the screen. Lots of people want to work for tutoring companies because it’s all done for you, including the lesson materials. The issue it that there’s a hefty price to pay in terms of relatively low wages compared to what you can charge as an individual. And you can get lost in the volume of other teachers on the platform who might not be offering as high quality tutoring as you are.

Unlike the tools you need to tutor online, there are not many options for the actual lesson materials you’re going to use. There are not 10 different competitors that have all the ESL materials you need in one platform like Off2Class.

Off2Class was created 5 years ago specifically for online EFL tutors with nothing but lessons. Today Off2Class has become a one stop shop for teachers with lessons materials, homework assignments connected to the lessons and a placement test.

Off2Class Placement Test

All the errors collected from the placement test are connected to the lessons in the library that fix the errors so you don’t have to ask “what am I going to teach”. It’s all there.

Off2Class Classroom Materials

For a payment processor use PayPal. For a video software use Zoom unless you’re somewhere where Skype or WeChat works better. For a calendar use Google Calendar or Calendly. What do I actually teach? That’s less easy, especially for new teachers. This is why Off2Class was created.

How does Off2Class work?

As the tutor, you login to an Off2Class lesson on your computer, your student logs in to the same lesson on their computer and the lesson slides are synced. When you press next slide, it automatically changes for the student.

Off2Class offers the following support:

  • Video tutorials
  • An active and supportive Facebook community
  • Weekly webinars
  • Teachers notes, which the student doesn’t see. These notes give you the answers, tell you the purpose of the slide and also what the next slide is.
What’s the Off2Class free plan?
  • Access to 150 lessons from the most popular categories, which are designed for online and in person tuition. 
  • Access to the placement test 
  • Up to 20 student accounts
  • No time limit

Off2Class introduced a free plan so that more people can have access to the content, and it meets a need for those who are interested but not sure if online tutoring is right for them. It’s also suitable for those without a teaching background or a certificate to teach ESL and can be used in communities to meet the needs of those who want to learn English as a second language. This will be enough for some tutors but if you want more lessons or more of the placement test, you can upgrade to a paid plan.

Can Off2Class be used with an online whiteboard like BitPaper?

Yes. In addition to Off2Class, other tutors use online whiteboards like BitPaper and will have a browser open with two tabs, one with Off2Class and one with BitPaper. It can be useful to use a whiteboard to complement your online lesson materials, record the content from your lesson and demonstrate learning to your student.

What should I do now?

Eat the frog (do the most difficult thing first). Find the student before you do anything else. If a student says "yes let’s meet next week", this contextualises things. You won’t spend time pondering logo colours and it forces you to prioritise what’s most important. 

Eat the frog

If that’s too uncomfortable, do the following first:

  1. Get a Google account and a Google Calendar
  2. Set up a Calendly account to schedule lessons
  3. Sign up to a PayPal account
  4. Get a headset
  5. Sign up to a free Off2Class account

Then get a student!

In order to have success with online tutoring, you need to have students coming through your door. That’s where your focus needs to be when getting started, not on your tools. 

Top tip for your very first online lesson:

Do a test lesson with a friend or family member, ideally a non-native speaker but it doesn’t have to be. You could pair up with another new tutor and practise your first lesson together.

If you have any questions about Off2Class you can click on the chat widget on the Off2Class website or join the Facebook group where there’s a community of other tutors and Off2Class users to help and support you. You can also ask your questions in the comments box below this article and to encourage each other, why not share how you got your first student. If you don’t have a student yet, go eat that frog!

Matt Thompson

Matt is an online English tutor and founder of Smart Online Tutoring. He's a big fan of technology and when he's not teaching or helping others with their online tutoring businesses, you'll find him on the badminton court.

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