Want to teach ESL online? Here’s what to expect

Imagine rising in the pre-dawn hours and teaching English to a student half a world away.

Sound far-fetched? It’s not. For a growing number of native English speakers, teaching English to Chinese students online is as normal as making a cup of joe and watching the morning news.

The demand for this service isn’t likely to go away anytime soon. In fact, it’s probably going to increase.

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Three Ways Quitting Social Media Will Improve Your Freelance Business — and Your Life

How valuable is your social media presence? Is it feeding your business, or is it distracting you from improving it?

These are questions only you can answer. But, they’re worth asking, especially if you’re a freelancer or you’re thinking about becoming one. Cutting down your social media activity, or deleting your accounts all together, can help you preserve three key resources you need to succeed in business and in life.

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3 Key Skills for Being Your Own Boss

How many times have you wished you could be your own boss?

It sounds great in theory, but just try it. You’ll find that it’s not easy.  That’s because being your own boss forces you to take more responsibility for how you spend your time, your resources and your energy.

To be successful, you must master three key practices: Self-care, mental hygiene and self-discipline.


When you work for yourself, you can’t afford to treat yourself poorly.

No one is going to rescue you when you run yourself into the ground. No one is going to pick up the slack when you’re incapacitated by stress, depression, anxiety or all the other uglies that come with working yourself stupid.

Believe me, I know. As a recovering workaholic, I’ve flirted with disaster enough times to know that overwork will put you out of business in no time flat.

Do yourself — and your business — a favor: Invest in your own self-care. Keep reasonable, regular hours. Make sure to get plenty of water and exercise. Hold yourself to high expectations, but also set limits.

Self-care is essentially business care. You have a responsibility to keep yourself healthy and sane.

Good Mental Hygiene

You also have a responsibility for keeping your office clean. This applies to both your physical and your mental space.

The physical part is easy: Eliminate clutter, leave the desk clean at the end of the day, maybe vacuum once in a while.

Tending to the mental space is a little trickier. It involves monitoring and correcting the attitudes you have about work and life in general.

Here are a few basic rules to keep your office mojo from going sour:

  • Don’t drag in negative attitudes.
  • Show up to work at the same time every day, and keep a regular work schedule.
  • Respect your attention and avoid needless distractions that fragment it.
  • Don’t attack other people when things go south, and don’t attack yourself, either. The first rule of freelancing: I’m the boss. The second rule of freelancing: Don’t beat up the boss. 

All these things give you control over your work environment, and that’s a privilege few people ever have. Unlike the workaday folks, you control your workspace culture. Seize that power responsibly by keeping your workspace free from destructive attitudes.


Self-employment is a study in self-reliance. If anything’s going to get done around here, you have to do it yourself. That includes invoicing, bookkeeping, professional development and everything else.

This is where the rubber meets the road. If you’re going to write freelance, you first must be able to discipline yourself. You’re the boss now, so you must act like a boss. Set expectations and call yourself on the carpet when you don’t meet them. Constantly evaluate your own work and decide where you need to improve. Seek out professional development and challenging “stretch” assignments.

All this is hard. Really hard. But, if you learn how to be a good boss to yourself, you’ll never have to work under a bad boss again. That’s worth the effort, right?

The Bottom Line

Being self-employed makes you take more responsibility for your life. That’s a challenge, but it’s also a gift.

We’re often reminded that with great power comes great responsibility. But, the reverse is also true: With great responsibility comes great power.

Photo credit: Gratisography

The Freelance Files: Issue 12


My last post described the necessity of considering new opportunities, no matter how far they deviate from your original business plan. So, I guess it’s only fitting that this edition of the Freelance Files starts with another example of the same principle.

I launched my freelance business a year and a half ago thinking I’d focus mostly on news reporting. This summer, however, a client offered me some instructional design work. Since then, I’ve been researching High Reliability Organizations, or high-hazard organizations that sustain near-perfect safety records for long periods of time, and how the principles of high reliability can be adapted for the healthcare industry.

It’s fascinating stuff, actually. I get to dig deep into the research and discover how organizations function — or fail to function — in the face of complexity, tight coupling and constant change. In the course of my research, I’ve learned about the causes of the Challenger space shuttle explosion, and I’ve learned how standardized communication models from the commercial aviation industry can be used to reduce preventable accidents in a medical setting.

Sometimes, while digging around in an electronic database, you stumble across something poignant or humorous, too. So far, my favorite quote is this one from a Naval officer describing life aboard an aircraft carrier:

“So you want to understand an aircraft carrier? Well, just imagine that it’s a busy day, and you shrink San Francisco Airport to only one short runway and one ramp and gate. … Make sure the equipment is so close to the edge of the envelope that it’s fragile. Then turn off the radar to avoid detection, impose strict controls on radios, fuel the aircraft in place with their engines running, put an enemy in the air, and scatter live bombs and rockets around. Now, wet the whole thing down with salt water and oil, and man it with 20-year-olds, half of whom have never seen an airplane close-up. Oh, and by the way, try not to kill anyone.”

Who said organizational theory was boring?


Teacher’s Corner

When I’m not writing, I’m up before dawn teaching for VIPKID, a Beijing-based education company. Honestly, when I earned by teacher’s licence in 2007, I never thought to myself, “Hey, I bet I could use this to teach English to Chinese kids at 4 a.m.”

The places you’ll go, right?

It’s a wonderful gig, though. Most of my students are regulars now, so we have a good rapport. One of my students, whom I’ll call Howard, loves dinosaurs. Another student, whom I’ll call Judy, always comes to class with her stuffed animals and her best smile. It makes it well worth the 3 a.m. start time.

VIPKID has generated a lot of buzz lately stateside. It recently raised $200 million “to expand into new markets and broaden its academic offerings,” Bloomberg reported in August. That means the demand for teachers will likely remain high. If you’re interested in giving it a try, use my referral link to get started. It’s a pretty rewarding way to earn $14 to $22 an hour.


Resilience, or the ability to absorb the unpredictable without being broken by it, is a key characteristic of high reliability organizing.

The concept applies to individuals, too, I think. So much of life happens without or control, consent, or even our ability to predict it. Resilience is a key strategy for surviving all that lifecan hurl at us. Or, as John Dewey once observed:

“Life is interruptions and recoveries.”

Have a good weekend, friends.

Opportunity knocks. Should you open the door?

When you’re a first-year freelancer, you can’t afford to turn down opportunity.

I mean that quite literally. You have to eat and pay bills, right? Having a plan for your business is good, but a plan alone won’t put food on the table. And since your first year of full-time freelancing is unlikely to bring you wealth, it’s a good idea to at least consider every chance that floats your way, no matter how far afield it might take you from your business plan.

“The First-Year Freelancer,” shares tips and lessons I’ve learned in my first year as a solopreneur. Join the conversation on LinkedIn or Twitter.  

This can be one of the frustrating aspects of being a solopreneur. You think you have a course mapped out, and then the dictates of necessity and circumstance require you to find an alternate route.

However, when you learn to roll with the punches, this can become an exhilarating part of being a freelancer. You just have to rekindle your appetite for adventure.

Opportunity, unexpected

My own brush with the unexpected happened in February. I got an email, out of the blue, from a startup company asking me if I’d like to teach English to Chinese children online. They invited me to apply to their company and, out of curiosity, I replied that I’d be willing to give it a try.

The opportunity with that particular company didn’t work out, but it got me thinking. I did a quick search for similar outfits and found VIPKID, a reputable company with good reviews from teachers.

I was hesitant to apply at first. I’d launched my freelance career to be a writer, after all. If I started teaching, would that mean I’d failed as a writer?

Eventually, though, I changed my frame. Having another oar in the water would make my business stronger, not weaker. I studied to be an English teacher, so teaching was another skill I could leverage to my advantage. Besides, it wasn’t like I was signing my life away. Teaching for VIPKID was, I figured, a small, reversible bet. The company contracts with teacher for only six months at a time. If I did one contract and found it wasn’t for me, I could walk away and nobody would be the wiser.

I applied and was accepted. It wasn’t a moment too soon, it turned out. A few weeks later, I got word that a major project I was working on was going to be temporarily suspended. While one profit center slowly dried up, I was able to gradually ramp up the new one. This allowed my business to survive a lean time that could have otherwise ended me. Taking that opportunity probably saved my business, and I think it’s one of the smartest things I’ve done as a freelancer so far.

Teaching ESL has been a tremendous boost, financially and otherwise. The pay is good and the students are awesome. Plus, I get to build connections with people half a world away. Not bad for part-time gig work. With luck, this experience will itself become something I can leverage in a variety of ways later down the road.

Tools for analyzing opportunity

Obviously, not every opportunity will be worth pursuing. It’s like playing gin rummy. You can’t hold on to every card that passes through your hands. You have to discard most of them, actually. In other words, you’ll have to say “no” a lot more times than you can say “yes.”

How do you decide which opportunities to pursue? Here are some factors that I’ve found can make the choice easier.

  • The compensation. Money isn’t everything, but it can be an excellent tool for quickly winnowing out unprofitable opportunities. This is particularly important in your first year as a full-time freelancer. You can pursue low-paying passion projects after your business takes off. Right now, though, you need to make money. Job offers with paltry pay are ones you can easily cross off the list of possibilities. The exception would be opportunities that offer substantial other benefits, like important exposure or a chance to create a real portfolio-boosting piece. Just be sure the you can afford to take this lower-paying gig without breaking your business.
  • Your existing skill set. Offers that dovetail with your existing skills are worth considering. The caveat, of course, is that these must be skills you’re actually interested in developing. Just because you spent a summer installing chemical toilets in the Adirondacks doesn’t mean you should accept similar work if you absolutely hated it the first time around.
  • Flexibility (or lack thereof). Flexible opportunities — the kind that give you greater control over how much you work and when — are often preferable to ones with rigid requirements. Flexibility allows you to pursue multiple leads at a time, increasing the chance that at least one of them will become a strong income source.

The Bottom Line

Opportunity comes in many forms. Part of being a good businessperson is knowing which kinds of opportunity to pursue. This is where rubrics come in handy. They help you analyze a possibility and decide whether it’s in your best interest to follow.

I won’t claim to be an expert in this field, but I’m a lot more savvy about it that I was a year ago. Constant growth: It’s one of the challenges — and gifts — of the freelance life.

Further reading

Most of what I’ve learned so far, I learned by reading excellent books. Here are two that helped me make decisions in my freelance career.

“Making a Living Without a Job” by Barbara J. Winter. This book really got me off the ground. It has a ton of great tips on choosing, building and sustaining multiple profit centers.

“The Startup of You” by Reid Hoffman. Granted, this book is geared toward 9-to-5 folks, but it has useful insights for freelancers, too. The idea of small, reversible bets came directly from this book.

Photo credit: Gratisography

Want to avoid drifting into mediocrity? Start journaling

“The First-Year Freelancer,” shares tips and lessons I’ve learned in my first year as a solopreneur. Join the conversation on LinkedIn or Twitter.  

Home office? Check.

Laptop? Check.

Business cards? Check.

Personal journal?

When you’re piloting your own ship, it’s important to have all the tools necessary to do the job. A journal is one of them. Mine has kept me motivated and on-track more times than I can count. It also helps me avoid the slow drift into mediocrity, the death knell for any self-guided venture.

I’m currently using two journaling techniques for my professional life: Daily Success and WAWD. The latter is a semi-regular exercise I use to assess my long-term trajectory, and the former focuses on more immediate concerns. Let’s break both of these down.

Daily Success

I usually start my morning by defining what success will look like in the coming day. What would my best self do today? What do I need to accomplish to count the day a success?

My work life is always evolving, so every day’s list is a little different. A typical day’s list might look like this:

  • Be highly engaged and present for each ESL class I teach this morning.
  • Get my writing work done by 2 p.m. so I have time for a walk.
  • Plan tomorrow’s classes with special attention to increasing student output.

This exercise helps me get my head screwed on straight in those critical first hours of the day. I can also review it at the end of the day to see where I’ve hit my targets. This practice helps me see where I am making progress and where I’m consistently falling short.

Success is always a moving target, and its definition changes depending on my priorities in the moment. For that reason, it’s important for me to define what success looks like and set measurable goals for achieving it.


WAWD stands for “Wither Are We Drifting?” I stole this phrase from an episode of Dobie Gillis, believe it or not. In one episode, Dobie’s wise but crotchety high school teacher asks his students to write an essay on this subject. The phrase stuck with me. In the mad scramble of life, it’s easy to drift mindlessly, unaware that the current is taking you far from your destination. A quick but regular check-in with yourself can prevent you from drifting too far off course.

In my WAWD reflection, I ask myself questions about where I am and where I’m headed. These questions include:

  • What new changes or developments have transpired in my work?
  • What possible changes or threats might be on the horizon?
  • If I continue on the present course, where will I end up? Is that where I want to be?
  • If not, what course corrections should I make now to change my destination?

These questions help ensure that I’m in charge of my destiny and not simply drifting with the tide.

The bottom line

Journaling may seem like a frivolous use of time and energy in your business. But, believe me, it’s not. The work people commonly associate with self-employment — sending invoices, doing your own taxes, and the like — that’s the easy part. The hard part is setting your own trajectory and maintaining it over time. Journaling is a powerful tool for doing just that.

Plus, it’s fun. Your journal allows you to observe how you change over time. You gradually see yourself gaining confidence, taking bolder risks and growing greater trust in your own abilities.

Working for yourself is one of the greatest adventures you can take. You’re going to want to remember the journey. Do your future self a favor and write it down now.

Do you use a journal for your professional development? If so, how has it helped you grow? Leave your thoughts in the comments. 

Photo credit: Gratisography

2 ways to keep your freelance business afloat

This series, “The First-Year Freelancer,” shares tips and lessons I’ve learned in my first year as a solopreneur. Join the conversation on LinkedIn or Twitter.  

CEO. CFO. Employee.

When you’re self-employed, you’re all of the above.

Keeping your ship afloat requires a lot of work. If you’re bootstrapping it, then you’re doing most of that work yourself. In addition to making your clients happy, you’re also in charge of tracking your time, income, and expenses.

Sound boring? It used to sound boring to me, too. Then, I actually started doing it. Now, the bookkeeping is one aspect of the freelance life I love the best. (Well, aside from working in my own space.) I love updating my spreadsheets. The numbers tell the ongoing story of my business, which was only a dream a year ago. They also give me unique insights that I use to gauge my business’s health and make better decisions.

But, to glean all those goodies, you first have to do your homework. Let’s start with the more obvious metric you should be measuring: Your money.

Tracking your finances

Financial tracking is more than simply recording what you spend and what you earn. A good tracking system will align with your business’s financial goals, and it will keep you constantly appraised on how close you are to achieving them.

Why do you need financial goals? Because your enterprise is a rudderless boat without them. Goals give you a direction. Even if you don’t reach them, they’re still a powerful tool for keeping you moving forward. I didn’t come close to reaching my income goals in my first six months of freelancing. Still, the fact that I had goals reinforced that I was serious about being successful. That helped me pull through the lean times.

Now that I’ve gotten off the ground, my spreadsheets are an indispensable tool. For example, take the spreadsheet I use to track my earnings from VIPKID. Each month has a separate worksheet. This is where I track the classes I’ve taught and my earnings for each one.

At the top of each sheet, I track my gross and net earnings. (I hide the gross earning figure from myself, actually. This way, I’m only thinking about my net income.) A simple formula allows me to calculate my monthly deductions: 20 percent for taxes and 8 percent for future business investments. These include purchasing new equipment and attending professional development events.

Another cell shows me the difference between my current gross income and my income goal for that month. I’ve enabled conditional formatting, so the cell automatically turns green when I meet or exceed my goal. A quick glance at the cell tells me if I’ve met my monthly goal. Here’s what last month’s sheet looks like:

2017-06-28 (5)

It’s a lot of information to track. But each piece of data tells me something about how I’m doing and where I’m headed. If my bookings decrease, I can notice it immediately and take action.

A key truth I’ve learned about freelancing: You have to convince everyone that you’re going to be a smashing success, even if you don’t feel like one just yet. And, the first person you have to convince is yourself. Committing to financial goals and tracking your progress toward them is one way of showing the world — and yourself —  that you mean business.

Tracking your time

An advantage of being a freelancer: You work from the comfort of your own home.

A disadvantage of being a freelancer: You work from the comfort of your own home.

We’ve all been there. Doing that load of laundry seems like so much more fun than researching the article that’s due tomorrow. Resist the temptation. Wasted time is the kiss of death for your freelance business.

Tracking your time is a powerful way to kick the procrastination habit. Think of it as clocking in. You, as the boss, expect you, the employee, to show up to work. Tracking your time is one way to keep yourself accountable.

When aligned with your per-project earnings, time tracking is also a great way to see exactly how much your time is worth. Again, I return to my trusty spreadsheet for an example.

Consider this: In February, I accepted some content marketing work that paid $28 per piece. I accepted the gig thinking that the blog posts would be fairly quick to put together. I soon learned this wasn’t the case. The topics were dense and unfamiliar to me, so it took me about 3 hours to write each post.

Little of my work was paid by the hour, yet I knew the exact hourly rate for each of my projects. My time tracking spreadsheet automatically divided the time spent on a project by the project’s payment amount. For most assignments, I was earning about $20 or more an hour. For these blog posts, I was only making about $6 an hour. Yikes.

After doing a few of these assignments, I gracefully told the client (a content generation site) that I wasn’t the best fit for their needs.

Tracking my time and comparing it to my income not only alerted me that I was working well below my target income. It also gave me the backbone to turn the work down. This is important. When you’re a freelancer, there’s a huge temptation to take any work that pays money. But this, I quickly learned, is the path to ruin. You have to have the courage to walk away from any opportunity that doesn’t pay you what your worth.

The bottom line

If you’re a freelancer, you’re automatically a businessperson. You need to track the same metrics that a company would use to measure its success.

There are probably a host of other metrics I could — and should  — be tracking, but tracking my time and finances were the ones that really got me off the ground.

For me, self-employment is all about self-empowerment. Gathering and analyzing data puts me in the driver’s seat. I have all the crucial information I need to make decisions about my business. That’s true freedom, folks, and it’s definitely worth the work.

What tools and processes do you use to track your finances and time? What other metrics do you track? Leave your thoughts in the comments. 

Photo credit: Gratisography

The Freelance Files: Issue 11

New Series: The First-Year Freelancer

Next month marks my one-year anniversary as a freelancer. And, although I won’t claim to have the whole thing figured out, I know one thing for certain: I know a lot more now than I did when I started.

A year ago, I had just barely escaped an institutional smash-up that decimated the ranks at my library. After applying for library jobs all over the region, and finding them in extremely short supply, I knew I had to adjust my strategy. I tried freelance writing more out of desperation than anything else. I bet the farm, hoping it would work. Knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t have made such a large gamble. (More on that later.) Fortunately, though, my gamble paid off.

Since then, I’ve learned a lot about managing my business of one. In this new series, titled First-Year Freelancer, I’m going to share what I’ve learned so far. I’ll share tips on topics like:

  • Tracking your finances and your time
  • Being savvy about new opportunities
  • Making small, reversible bets
  • Taking ownership of your business and your life

If you’re a freelancer, what handy tips have you learned? If you’re not a freelancer but are thinking about starting the journey, what would you like to know more about? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Current gigs

After focusing mainly on teaching ESL or several months, I now have more writing work lined up. I’m doing some business writing for the healthcare industry. It’s proving to be pretty interesting. I covered rural hospitals in my past life as a newspaper reporter, so it’s fun to return to an industry I’m familiar with.

I’m still teaching, of course. VIPKID has proven to be a great supplement to my writing business. Since all the classes take place in Beijing time, I’m up in the wee hours of the morning (2:30 a.m., anyone)? The benefit is that I still have a good half a day or more to write. Plus, I’ve made a decent 80 bucks before most folks have even gotten into the office. Boom!

In case you missed it, VIPKID is a Chinese startup company that connects Chinese students to native English speakers via video conferencing technology. The company’s rapidly growing, and they’re in desperate need of teachers right now. If you have a bachelor’s degree and you’re interested in teaching, too, check it out here. 

Jam of the Week

I love some bubbly, upbeat techno-jams to get my brain in gear. My new favorite artist, Mrs. Jynx, never fails to deliver. This album is a refreshing break from the darker, edgier side of electronica. Give it a listen.



“Two things everybody’s got tuh do fuh theyselves … They got tuh go tuh God and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves.” – Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

The Freelance Files: Issue 10

Gigs this week

Humane Pursuits published a profile I wrote about Erika Babbitt-Rogers,  a Laramie resident who owns and operates Wyoming Worm Wrangler. It’s been a while since I’ve written a profile — that’s newsroom-speak for a human interest story that focuses on a single individual — and this piece was a good opportunity to get back in the game.

Of all the news story formats, profiles are one of my favorites. They give you a chance to explore the world from someone else’s viewpoint. This type of writing also gets you out of your own head, which is a big bonus for introverts like myself.

Anyway, big thanks to Erika for driving me out to the family farm north of Laramie and showing me around. Thanks also to the Wyoming Women’s Business Center. Without their monthly networking meetings in Laramie, it’s unlikely that Erika and I would have connected in the first place.

Jam of the week

When I’m working, I like to pipe feel-good music straight into the old brain box. It’s a nice kick-start to the day, especially when I’m up at 3:30 a.m. preparing for my ESL classes or trying to wrestle a tough sentence into submission.

And this, my friends, is the feel-goodiest jam of them all, courtesy of Craig Chaquico. Enjoy.


This comes courtesy of Nellie Tayloe Ross, the nation’s first woman governor:

“At any moment of despair … this thought should give us courage — we can prepare for future responsibilities only by meeting credibly that which each day brings.”

Have a good weekend, friends.



The Freelance Files: Issue 9

Gigs this week

A few months back, I wrote about the newly rechristened Los Angeles Chargers’ plans to leave San Diego. They’re not the only NFL team planning to move. The Oakland Raiders have eyes on Las Vegas, where they hope to relocate and build a new stadium.

The relocation isn’t set in stone, and the Silver and Black still have several hurdles to clear. If they do make their new home in Las Vegas, though, it will be one more piece in the state’s plan to solidify its standing as a tourism hot spot. To read more, check out my story at VT Pulse. 


Jams of the Week

If you like your music a little on the weird and dreamy side, check out this track. Spotify served this up to me in a daily mix, and I can’t stop listening to it. It’s equal parts atmospheric and unsettling, like the opening track to your favorite creepy movie.

Speaking of creepy stuff, my husband and I recently finished watching “Stranger Things.” Wow. The series perfectly captured that mix of yearning, nostalgia and disquiet that I associate with the 80s. The score was pitch-perfect, so I was thrilled to see it available on Spotify. Check it out.


Imagination is more important than investment, and enthusiasm is more powerful than cynicism.

Have a good weekend, friends.