Working For Free As An ESL Teacher: Don’t

This is going to be a different post than many of my previous ones. I’m going to talk about a major problem that permeates the ESL industry. Teachers who don’t understand their value. A complaint that is often thrown about is that teachers are many times underpaid for the work they are doing. But, I’m going to go into why this is a problem that we have brought on ourselves and why you should change your mindset when it comes to the work that you are doing for companies.

Work – to perform work or fulfill duties regularly for wages or salary

What do I mean by working for free?

It’s very simple. Doing work that is outside of your contract or not in your required list of duties for no compensation. Let’s look at a few examples of this before we go further into this issue.

Example 1:

You are an ESL teacher for a university in South Korea. A student comes to you and asks if you would be willing to tutor them after school hours. You agree. But, when the topic of payment comes up, the student says that he doesn’t have the money to pay you but asks if you will do it anywise because he really needs to pass his tests.

This would be okay if you really love what you are doing and don’t mind volunteering. But, are you willing to do this for other students? Are you willing to spend many hours tutoring students for free? If not then why are you willing to let guilt or the idea of benevolence con you out of what in any other circumstances would be work?

Example 2:

You work for an online company that has a clear contract. You are there to teach classes and when you teach classes you get paid. It doesn’t talk about extra work you are required to do or meetings you are required to show up for.

The company asks you to attend monthly meetings so that you can improve your teaching abilities but lets you know that these meetings are not paid. Though they say that they are optional, they also drop hints that they want you there such as “if you come to these meetings you can advance within the company” or “you will become a better teacher and your students will really love you for it”.

Great! But, this is work. You signed a contract as a freelance employee and the company is asking you to perform the work the same way a salaried employee would.

Here are two different examples both of which have the same outcome. You are cheapening the value of your skill and giving people your time for free. Not only this but why would employers pay people more when so many people are willing to give up their time for free?

They won’t.

How can I get my true value?

First of all, you need to understand the value of the service you are providing.

If you are in this field because you want to make a difference then that is great and I applaud you. However, what you are doing is trading your time and skill for money. Unless you are on a strict volunteer basis then that is work. You don’t have to work with your only purpose being money. But, the service you are providing is an extremely valuable service that in many cases can provide your students with the opportunity to increase their earning potential by many magnitudes. You are teaching a skill of great value to your students in an industry that is worth over $40 billion as of 2018 (source).

If it’s not about money then why are the schools and companies that you are working for charging such fees?

This is a major industry and you are a key component that makes this industry move around. Without teachers, there are not classes. In many ways, you are one of the most vital pieces of this industry.


Don’t be scared to speak up if you think you are getting into a contract that is below what you should be getting paid. The worst that can happen is that you are denied what you ask for. Turn them down.

The one thing about this industry is that there is a shortage of teachers in many markets throughout the world and the schools need you. Many schools have been conditioned that teachers are willing to work for scraps so they may not be willing to negotiate and the thing is, they are right. But, it doesn’t have to be you working for scraps as there are schools out there that are willing to negotiate and are willing to pay more.

Value Time AND Money

Two different teachers are working at the same school. One is working 15 hours a week making a bit less than the other that is working 30 hours a week. Who has the better gig?

The teacher who is working only 15 hours a week may be making less money but in the end, has significantly more time to pursue outside ventures such as private tutoring which can provide significantly more income than would be made at the school.

Time is of vital importance. When a school asks you to spend extra time at meetings, doing administrative work, or other work-related activities they are taking up something that you can’t get back. You can make more money in the future. You can’t make more time.

With everything, a school asks you to do outside of what is in your contract and your agreed upon responsibilities, you have to ask yourself, is this worth my time. If not, value your time more than what they are pressuring you into doing.

Don’t Let Guilt Guide You

“You are doing such a great job and your students love you so much and you are doing such a great thing for them”.

Great! Pay me.

Don’t let administrators at schools or students looking for free tutoring session guilt you into providing services for free or at a reduced rate. You can be assured that if you work for a private school they aren’t doing anything for free.

Guilt is thrown around a lot in this industry and the idea that you should be benevolent just because you are doing something good for your students is a common tool that employers and administrators use to get more work out of you. Don’t let them. If something is not in your contract then you don’t have to do it. Period.

If you want to do the task because it is something you enjoy and you are getting a value other than money out of it that is one thing. But, if you don’t want to do something and aren’t getting paid or are being underpaid for it then don’t let guilt be what makes you do it.


Don’t undervalue yourself as an ESL teacher by working for free or below your true value. Don’t let employers who are making millions of dollars guilt you into adding value to their business or their school for nothing in return. This industry is built around that in many ways and nothing will change if we as teachers don’t. Some of these are cultural factors and some of these are the expectations that have been set because of the free and undervalued work teachers have given away in the past. Don’t do it. Remember that you are contributing to a $40 billion dollar industry. This is big business. Don’t undervalue yourself because you better believe that the people employing you aren’t undervaluing themselves.