KEEPING ENGLISH LANGUAGE PROFESSIONALS CONNECTED
Finding Success in the ELT Freelance Industry
The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted and accelerated the changing nature of many industries, the English language teaching (ELT) industry included. Declines in international student enrollment at universities in various countries caused some ELT professionals, whether out of choice or necessity, to question their career trajectory or pivot within the field. One result was more ELT professionals gravitating toward freelance work as a new challenge or new income source.
The benefits of freelance work include increased flexibility, the ability to explore new paths within the industry, and a chance for professional growth and development. Yet, there are inherent challenges. Following, I share suggestions I’ve learned in more than a decade of freelancing about what to consider before venturing into freelancing and how to plant “seeds,” which, in time, could produce fruitful opportunities.
A person, throughout their career, will transition through various “seasons,” depending on their ambitions and goals, as they take into consideration how their work responsibilities fit in with their life outside of work.
Author Ramit Sethi (2021) identifies three career seasons: growth, lifestyle, and reinvention. He notes that no one season is better than another and throughout their career, a person may shift between seasons multiple times.
In the season of growth, a person prioritizes advancing in their field, through promotion or job-hopping. A person in this stage isn’t afraid to put in extra hours to achieve their goals and has a clear vision for what they want to achieve professionally.
In the lifestyle season, a person wants to achieve balance between their work and life. Their priority is to focus on building or strengthening their life outside of work, which could include a greater emphasis on family, travel, or hobbies.
In the season of reinvention, a person desires to reinvent themselves professionally, which could come in the form of starting a business, getting an additional qualification, or changing their field entirely.
Freelance work can fit well into any of the seasons. If you can identify the career season you are in, or want to be in, it will help you determine which type of freelance work best fits into your lifestyle. For example, a young person who is highly motivated professionally and has few responsibilities outside of work may have the time and energy to build their own brand. The thought of this to someone with more family responsibilities, however, may be exhausting.
Joining vs. Building
After you assess your career season and what role you want freelance work to play in your career and life, you should consider whether you want to join or build. Joining involves taking on a short- or long-term freelance contract with a company or organization that is already established. Typically, with an ELT background, this could be something like curriculum development, online tutoring, copywriting, assessment creation or marking, or translation. The advantage of joining something already established is that the work is usually straightforward and described in a contract, with an agreed upon pay scale and set terms and conditions. Alternatively, building something, whether that be a social media channel, tutoring business, or writing a book requires more up-front time commitment without immediate compensation and more risk. However, if successful, it provides more opportunity for reward, both professionally and monetarily.
What to Do?
Equally important is thinking about what to do. This isn’t something that you can or should decide on immediately; rather, it is a process of exploration. I encourage anyone interested in freelance work to think about what types of freelance “seeds” to plant, knowing that some will grow but not all will be fruitful. For example, you might try out online tutoring and realize that teaching online isn’t something you enjoy. You might find that, instead, venturing into curriculum development provides the right fit. You’ll never know until you try!
Consider a Venn diagram, with one circle being what you are good at, another what you enjoy, and the last what there is demand for. In an ideal world, at the intersection of these three circles would be a sweet spot, the perfect freelance job that is highly in demand, enjoyable, and where your talents lie. In the real world, however, it’s unlikely that this dream job exists—or at least not right away. We can, however, build our own Venn diagram, starting with the most important consideration: what there is a demand for. Registering on a freelance website like Upwork or Fiverr will give an indication of what type of freelance work is out there and the pay range. Understanding what’s in demand is essential, and I would argue that if someone focuses only on what they enjoy or are good at, success is unlikely.
The second circle to add is what you’re (moderately) good at or what you can learn to be good at. It can be hard to identify what might fall into this category, and from my experience, when asking people what they are good at, many people can’t produce an answer right away. Yet, as educators, we have so many transferable skills that we can hone; there are many free resources, such as LinkedIn Learning, where you can learn others.
The final category, what is enjoyable, is initially the least important. Of course it’s unpleasant to think of doing something that isn’t enjoyable, but enjoyment is relative and, after all, this is a job, not a hobby. I encourage you to find something that is tolerable now but that has potential to bring joy in the future. When you get better at something, develop your skills, build a reputation, and become known among your peers or clients, the enjoyment factor increases exponentially. To give an example from my own freelance experience, many years ago I planted a few seeds in curriculum development and copyediting, but the seed that ultimately ended up growing and producing the most opportunities is what I initially enjoyed least—coaching students on standardized test prep. As I became better at it, built a client base, celebrated successes with my students, and made a name for myself, more opportunities opened up. I was able to travel internationally to teach test prep workshops and branch into other aspects of test prep development. Though I began with somewhat negative feelings about test prep, today it is one of the things I most enjoy in my freelance work—because I gave it a chance.
The Value of Experience
As I mentioned before, planting a lot of seeds is essential. This initially could involve increasing your presence on LinkedIn or telling your professional network that you are looking for freelance work. It could mean underbidding on a contract or volunteering in order to get experience. It could mean saying yes to something though you’re haunted by imposter syndrome. Gaining experience will prove invaluable to your learning and development and help you assess what you are good at, what you enjoy, and if there is a skills gap you need to close. Though the work might not be lucrative at first, the experience will prove valuable. As you gain experience, you’ll be able to be more selective and focus on what brings more enjoyment or more money, if that is the end goal.
Here are some suggested steps to follow to get a start in the freelance world:
- Assess what career season you are in and what you want from freelance work.
- Decide whether you want to join an already established organization or build something of your own.
- Create an account on Upwork and Fiverr and investigate the type of freelance work available and the compensation for it.
- Identify if there is a skills gap between what is in demand and your skills. If there is, use free resources like YouTube or LinkedIn Learning to upskill.
- Tell your professional network about the kind of work you’re looking for.
- Say yes. Say yes again and again. Plant seeds and know that some will turn into opportunities down the line, and others won’t.
- Be patient. Learn and grow as much as you can.
Freelance opportunities abound in today’s economy. Finding the right fit will take consideration, effort, trial and error, and patience. And, in the end, it can result in fruitful and rewarding opportunities.
Sethi, R. (2021, November 19). Career seasons: Choosing a role based on the lifestyle you want. I Will Teach You to Be Rich. https://www.iwillteachyoutoberich.com/career-seasons/
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