By Amy Lightfoot, Rani Rao Innes, Martin Sketchley

21 May 2013 - 15:55

Teaching English is more than just a 'gap year' option - it's an entrepreneurial opportunity (Image credit: Mat Wright)
Teaching English is more than just a 'gap-year' option - it's an entrepreneurial opportunity. ©

Mat Wright.

The ELTons are the only international awards that celebrate innovation in English language teaching. Ahead of this year’s award ceremony on 22 May, we asked three entrepreneurs how they built their own English language teaching (ELT) businesses.

Amy Lightfoot has built her business as a freelance teaching materials writer and teacher trainer. She offers this advice to people considering a freelance career in English language teaching:

First, figure out what you’re good at and what you want to do. Do teachers respond well to you in training sessions? Do you enjoy writing materials? Are you good at planning and executing projects?

Next, get to know people. Speak to people at conferences, get some business cards made, and follow up leads, no matter how small. I’ve learned to just ask. I’ve had quite a lot of work with the BBC, including a nine-month temporary role as an English language teaching writer last year. That all originated from approaching one of the editors at a conference in 2008. The work I did with them also enabled me to specialise in writing digital materials, and I’ve since worked on several really interesting projects, including writing a mobile-phone based animation series for the British Council in India.

Don’t forget your own professional development. I’ve done several courses over the years, and I’ve noticed that all of these investments have paid off: adding a new course to my CV always seems to lead to something new.

Finally, look for links with other fields and industries. The skills you develop when working in English language teaching relate to so much more than just private language schools or global publishers. Being freelance, despite the occasional frustration and unpaid holidays, really is about being free; you’re free to make your own choices and steer your own path.

Rani Rao Innes is managing partner and lead trainer of Link Communicate. She divides her time between the UK and India, where she says there is huge demand for English teaching and training.

I’m in the fortunate position of running workshops for companies, schools and colleges. Having left India for a master’s degree on a British Council scholarship in 1978, I returned three years ago to make Bangalore my second home. I now spend more than six months here, as work has increased beyond my wildest hopes. I have not publicised or seriously marketed my business. I have no agent. It has been mainly word-of-mouth. There is such a demand for experienced and committed trainers both in companies and at schools that in the past two months, I’ve conducted 25 workshops.

I started my business with a few cold calls to companies and schools. My strategy was to offer a sharp price cut for a pilot programme suggesting they try me out and then we could decide how to take it forward. Some were happy to see me right away; others asked me to send emails or come back with appointments. Some of my emails went unanswered. Interestingly, the director of one famous international school who had no time to see me when I called on him, called me a few weeks later asking if I could please spare a few minutes for a chat. He had heard of the training from the principal of another school! The best promotion, I believe, is word of mouth.

Martin Sketchley is an English language teacher and examiner who develops workshops for a range of organisations. He writes about how online resources have helped him to improve his skills and grow his business.

I found that English language teaching-related websites such as Dave’s ESL Café and ESL HQ were really helpful when I first started teaching, particularly the forums to ask for advice. I learnt so much about teaching young learners and was keen to contribute. I’d advise other English language teachers to think about how social networking can strengthen their brand. When I joined Twitter, I initially called myself ‘@msketchley’ but then changed to ‘@ELTExperiences’ after realising that my name was not as important as my brand. It’s also quick and easy to say.

Online networking doesn’t have to be separate from face-to-face networking. I set up my blog during my masters in English language teaching and found that I started gaining more and more interest from other ELT bloggers as well as publishers. The blog also allows me to engage with other teachers. When I spoke at a big English language conference last year, I met many people that I knew already via Twitter or who already knew my website.

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