Teaching on italki

First, I have to be honest: I’m not sure it’s worth it. It depends on your goals, your time, and your residence.

If you aren’t familiar with italki, it’s basically a community-centric online platform that allows language teachers and language learners to find each other for lessons over Skype. Students can also tap into a wide range of resources: finding language exchange partners, starting discussions, writing notebook entries and having them corrected by native speakers. Most features of the site are free, but to sign up for a class students have to purchase “italki credits” with a credit/debit card or a paypal account. After each lesson the credits are transferred to the teacher’s account and, when they withdraw them with *their* paypal account, transferred into their local currency (minus a 15% site commission). The site has professional teachers (who must have and upload a teaching certificate or related education degree) and community tutors, who can only offer informal tutoring. All-in-all, a pretty smooth operation with minimal room for error and complications.

The pros are pretty obvious: as long as you have a decent internet connection you can teach anywhere you want – at home, in a cafe – and travel time is basically eliminated for both parties. You have access to students from all over the world, across all time zones, so you can decide when you would like to offer lessons (instead of having to schedule them after the work day or on the weekends). If students cancel last minute or don’t show you still get paid, or you can decide at your discretion with the student to reschedule. You can offer only the classes you want to teach (which means you can also experiment around, or develop certain specialities) and look at students’ profiles before accepting a scheduled lesson. For linguist students, it would be a great way to test theories or see first-hand how adults actually learn language. For people trying to break into teaching, it’s a low-stress way to gain more experience and build your resume.

But the cons: I probably get twenty “can you teach me for free?” or, “will you be my language partner?” messages a week, despite having quite clearly at the top of my profile “I am on italki *as a teacher* and not currently interested in language exchange”. If your native language is English, you will get spammed pretty bad (or at least it will feel like it). Finding students takes a bit of time, as does arranging lessons and answering questions, at least at first. You have to provide all you own material, and thus preparing for class also takes time. But you can’t really factor this time into your rates because there is a decent amount of price competition on italki, at least for the more popular languages (like English). There seem to be a lot of experienced US and UK teachers on the site charging $16-20 per hour for classes – which isn’t really a living wage in those countries. Community tutors generally charge around $12-15 per hour – which I guess is good-ish money for a college student, or a teacher residing in a country with lower wages. So basically, price competition and the global aspect of the site favor teachers from regions with lower incomes (for example, local Russian teachers earn $3-6 an hour, but the average for a Russian teacher on italki is around $8-12, so basically all Bishkek Russian teachers should just quit their jobs at the London School and work online), and disadvantageous for teachers with more experience and from higher-income regions. If you are a native or near-native speaker of a less popular language, then you can basically take monopoly of the market – for example, there are eleven Turkish teachers, and all of them charge $20-35 per hour, which is more than they would earn in Turkey, and not bad for a country where that covers a nice dinner for two.

Some people teach on italki as a full-time job, other people just a few hours a week. I do see some teachers charging much more, but for specialized classes. If you happen to be versed in computer programming, finance, real estate or some other sector *and* have a teaching certificate *and* be located in a region where wages are lower or you are currently unemployed, then italki would be a great option, as there are a lot of professionals on the site looking to improve their English for international business.

I signed up for italki planning to do mostly editing and college guidance counseling (two features they are thinking of building into the site). But most students aren’t on the site looking for those things. I do some editing (conference paper abstracts, personal statements for grad school), but most students who contact me really just want to work on their speaking skills for work in international companies or academic exchanges. Interestingly, I’ve ended up with mostly Russian and Chinese students. Even if we only speak English to each other, they are more comfortable working with me (and found me through the teacher search tool) because I speak their native language. I’ve also ended up with a lot of academically-oriented students, perhaps because I emphasize that in my own profile. However, I’ve taught a lot in the past, but it doesn’t feel like development for me, and prepping for different classes takes time away from other things I’d value more. So once I’ve built up a certain level of experience on the site, in a month or two, I think I’ll limit my classes offered to only editing, college guidance counseling, and teaching through the book that I just wrote (a great way to work out the kinks!).

In short, if you have both a teaching certificate and some kind of academic or professional speciality, or if you are residing in some out-of-the-way region where there isn’t a lot of part-time work or the salaries are too low or people aren’t interested in paying for it, or if you want to build up your teaching experience for a long-term career, then italki could be a good option.
Kyrgyztsan doesn’t really have a local-international community forum and online classifieds section, so if you want to teach or work part-time here, it’s going to take a lot of networking, or you might be lucky and just happen to know someone who knows someone who needs exactly what you’re offering (which is how I ended up teaching private classes to the head of international affairs and editing English correspondences at a university for a wage I can deem legit). Most NGOs won’t/can’t pay for short-term work due to the extremely complicated system of payments and permits, and a lot of programs are winding down anyway. There used to be a lot of free programs for English learning and educational exchanges abroad, so most people aren’t willing to pay much for English teaching (I knew a college student at the London School who was offered $4 an hour to tutor). So, yes, if you’re residing in Kyrgyzstan as a language student or traveler or research fellow and would like to make above the minimum wage in your home country, then italki is a good idea.

So, if you do decide to teach on italki, some notes:
– When you create a profile, include all the languages you know. This is how almost all of my students found me.
– Find a niche or a speciality. Choose one to three things you can offer and that you are interested in working on. Discussing politics and the news? Academic editing? Business English for Marketing professionals? Pronunciation? Teaching Kids through storybooks and videos?
– Decide: do you want to create a standardized curriculum (more time at the onset), or plan every class as you go along (more time overall)?
– Create a fall-back list of discussion topics and activities to use during a lull in your lesson.
– Be really firm. You will get a lot of requests to do language exchange or give away your services for free. If the person offering is a teacher with the same experience as you, then maybe. But some college kid who’s never taken a course in linguistics, much less taught – probably not.


7 thoughts on “Teaching on italki

  1. Pingback: Week 10 of Loving Somali: No more advice, please. I just want to love languages. | Loving Language

  2. I totally agree with your post. I take language lessons myself on Italki & thought it would be a good idea to offer a few English lessons as a Community Tutor per week. However I live in the UK & already have a reasonably good job. The rates for Community Tutors for English less commission make it not worth it for people living in the UK. To get a lot of interest, I’d need to work for less than the legal minimum wage which isn’t worth my while. I may as well ask for a few extra hours in my regular job. I’ve booked myself onto a TEFL course so I can bump my rates up, but still it’s not as much as I expected. A bit disappointing if you live in a country with a high cost of living.

    Liked by 1 person

    • According to a friend I have working at italki, students will still come if you set higher rates, especially if you have a very good profile (as some associate higher rates with higher quality); it is, however, a bit of a gamble


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