So You Want to be an Online English Teacher

Tired of scrambling to find an English teaching job at a school that doesn’t rip you off, drive you crazy or generally browbeat you into submission? Many teachers think that the online route is the way to go. Of course, the idea of staying at home and making money just by sitting in front of your computer sounds really attractive. However, after a number of years of checking out this field, it’s a lot less straightforward than you might think. Every day more and more companies pop up promising lots of students and “easy money”.

Let’s take a quick look at some of these companies and how they work. Remember, most of the companies are actually more interested in taking a commission from you than providing an educational service, and many will offer you incentives if you sign up more teachers, which means more competition over available students. Some sites use their own platform and others allow you to use whichever communication method you choose. Some have a fixed pay rate, while others allow you to fix your own hourly rates. It is often really hard to find how much commission these companies take, as the rates are hidden on the websites in the terms and conditions, and not published in a clear way. Some companies are web-based only, while others also have an app, or are primarily smartphone-based. The latest fashion seems to be to offer immediate availability for chats with any native speakers online, and not really proper lessons with qualified teachers.


One of the biggest players on the scene is Italki, based in China. They have the advantage of allowing you to connect with students and correct their mistakes (for free) therefore advertising yourself as a teacher. It has a kind of community feel to it, with a division between community and professional teachers, and also the chance to do free language exchange in many languages between members. You write your profile and students can see your qualifications and feedback from your students. You can also write professional articles on different aspects of language learning, which is another way to promote yourself. Their website has been recently revamped and also has an app. You can fix your own rates, message your students and the site will display the lesson time in the student’s correct time zone, hence preventing misunderstandings over the time of the lesson (very important). There is a clear policy for cancellations and lesson changes (another issue which can cause heartache- there’s nothing worse than wasting your day waiting for students who don’t show). Lessons take place on Skype and the student will only receive your user ID only once they have paid up. The payment is made in ITC (italki currency that they buy using a credit card) and you then transfer these to your PayPal account, minus the 15% commission.


Another interesting website is Verbling, based in San Francisco, which uses Google hangouts for English lessons, and other languages too.You can sign up there and get your own profile page, where students can find you and book classes. They even have a new feature, which enables “tandem lessons”, where students take a lesson with a partner at a discounted price. As with italki you have a calendar where you show your availability and your qualifications. You can also fix your own fees here, (same 15% commission)  but again remember that there is a lot of competition. If you pitch too high you won’t get many customers. Verbling also has a community chat where you can join with potential learners, divided into beginners, intermediate and advanced, and have impromptu chats with them- I thought this might generate some paying customers, but was disappointed.


VerbalPlanet also offers languages other than English, and you can choose which platform you want to use for your lessons. Pretty much the same system as the previous sites, they charge 15% commission, and ask you to give feedback on the students, who also rate you. You can upload materials onto the site, and you send an invoice to the student for payment, which goes into Paypal. A weird feature of this site is that you have no indication of how many students frequent the site or how they pick you as opposed to another teacher. 


Cafetalk is a Japanese outfit offering different kinds of online lessons, including English, Japanese, origami, guitar, piano, and others. Again you create your profile after being accepted as an online teacher and you then fix your price and have different ways to promote yourself on the site and attract students. Again the company has a detailed system of feedback both by teacher and student, and a system to remind both parties of the imminent lesson (very useful if you are busy and working with several websites, and tend to forget). The company will, of course, take a commission- the website states:”Tutor fees start off at 60% of the lesson price and increases depending lesson sales with the highest possible fee percentage being slightly over 85% (may be subject to change). Payment initiated every month* on the 15th to your Paypal account (or bank account if you live in Japan or Korea).” I have had sporadic students from this site, all very pleasant, but I didn’t really promote myself a lot on the site, so maybe I could have gotten more. The interface of the website is very nice, and their support people are very responsive and helpful.


An extremely weird Chinese website is called VcCoreThey are a great option if you are not really interested in being a “real” teacher but just looking to make a quick buck. They pay $20 for 30 minutes but be warned. You have to use a wired internet connection, download their horrible software to your machine and can only use Windows. In addition, they frequently make you update and reinstall. You will be basically lecturing to large groups of Chinese students, who will not interact with you at all, and in many cases will not even have a microphone or camera. So it is like talking to a brick wall. But they do pay on time.

Some more companies to teach English online

Then there are a bunch of sites which pay a fixed (usually rather low rate) such as Cambly ($10.20 an hour), Lingoda ( €8.50 an hour), Skimatalk ($15 an hour) Ziktalk (starting in June this year), Topica Native ($10 an hour) and TutorABC ($8 an hour. These would be fine for beginning teachers looking for experience and not averse to slaving long hours over a hot computer, but of course, the pay is really bad for experienced teachers looking to make good money.

Smartphone-based online English teaching

With the world domination by smartphone come apps that offer mainly conversation practice only for students on the go. These are becoming more and more popular in Asia, particularly Korea and Japan but also in China and Taiwan. Students are not looking for a formal lesson, over skype with grammar and assignments, but just an English speaker with whom they can practice their speaking skills. Enter apps such as NiceTalk which pays people $10 an hour just to chat with students over the phone. You don’t need to have any teaching qualifications. But I found the connectivity to be an issue and the app didn’t seem to me to be very dependable. You might have more luck (or patience).

This is by no means an exhaustive list, since new companies are popping up all the time, and companies also disappear. I first taught for a company called English Cafe in 2010, which was wonderful as it had the community feel of italki, and paid well, and also allowed me to teach classes of 4 students. It was my first sortie into the online teaching world. But sadly it is no more, and since then many companies have figured out they can make a ton of money both at the expense of students and teachers. Finding students tends to be our main problem, and companies know that and exploit it to the full. Finding potential students if you go it alone (by scouring social networks etc) is possible but hard going, and there are many more students who think you will teach them for free than students who want to pay.

There are also websites not specifically dedicated to language learning, but offering tutors in many fields, such as Buddy School, which describes itself as an online tutoring platform. It is US based so you probably won’t get many ESL students, but if you want to help students with Lang Arts homework maybe it’s worth a try.

Going it alone as an online English teacher

So can you find students without using one of these platforms? Theoretically, the answer is yes. You can spend hours trawling groups on Google Plus and Facebook and trying to make contact with potential students. You can set up your own website and Facebook page and try to get likes. But remember that Facebook likes are not paying students. And if you don’t know squat about Google ads, clicks or generating revenue you won’t get paying students. Students will sign up for classes and cancel and you won’t get paid. They will sign up and get confused about the time zone, and you won’t get paid. Some teachers find that it’s worth paying the commission the websites take in order to prevent these kinds of problems. Other teachers develop their own marketing skills and manage to build up a paying student base. But be well advised- this demands marketing skills and is a completely different profession than just being a teacher. So be prepared to work hard and spend many hours if you go this route.

Technical issues when working as an online English teacher

You may think that if you are at home with spare time then teaching online is a great way to make easy money. Theoretically, this is true. But if you have a lousy internet connection, small kids or noisy roommates or neighbors, then maybe this is not going to be the case. You cannot demand that everyone in your house be quiet for interminable amounts of time. If you have a room where you can sit quietly and undisturbed for long periods of time you might be able to make a lot of money. But if you share your living space with others, this will not be the case. If your livelihood depends on having a good internet connection, you had better have one. If a lesson is cut off due to poor sound, you can’t very well demand the student pay you, or he won’t be leaving good feedback on your profile.

Also, your technical skills will come into play too. How much do you know about Google Docs, RealtimeBoard and Zoom? There are many ways to share your screen and many online teaching tools you will need to master if you are going to stand out from the thousands of other online teachers already out there.

So, by all means, go ahead and take the online route, but do your homework and you might even find it an enjoyable and lucrative experience!

Ruth Sheffer began teaching English as a Foreign Language in a high school in Jerusalem at the age of 24. After raising her family, she and hubby took early retirement and set off to discover the world. She blogs about her experiences.

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