About “stealing” students

Students are property.  There is value in referrals, advertising, and reputation.  If you’ve earned a student “cold”, that means that someone found you and hired you to teach them after seeing an advertisement that you put out there.  That student is yours and you can decide to teach them or not.

If you work for a language school and a student likes your teaching style, it is unethical to give that student private lessons without the language school’s permission.  You can even be fired from the school and possibly sued, depending on your contract.  It doesn’t matter how much the student will pay you compared to how much the school pays you, or compared to how much the student pays the school.  The school has earned the student through their advertisements and reputation.  Conversely, the teacher is also property of the school.  Students who buy the cheapest, shortest course at a school with the aim of finding a good teacher and switching to private lessons are also treading on dangerous grounds.  Many course contracts include a clause to prevent poaching.

If you know a self-employed teacher who asks you to fill in for them, don’t give the students the idea that you’ll be available for lessons with them outside of the agreement that they have with their current teacher.  Even if they finish their course with that teacher, you should discuss any transfer of studenthood with said teacher before you make any plans to meet with those students.  Often, teachers will gladly swap students, and there is nothing wrong with that.  But if you go into someone’s lesson and charm away their clients, you should offer the original teacher some kind of commission if the student later wants to sign on with you after their course is complete.

This can get sticky and lines can be blurred.  Let’s say you filled in once for a fellow self-employed teacher named Alan.  The lesson was fine, Alan paid you, and that was the end of it.  Four months later, you’re at a picnic and you run into Mary, a student from Alan’s group.  She tells you that the course is over and they might need a teacher for another course.  You don’t know if Alan knows about this.  Mary asks you for your number and says she might call you.

It is tempting to give her your number because, after all, they liked you.  You gave a nice lesson and you have value as a teacher.  You’re a good product.  But in this case, you’re Alan’s product.  He served you to the clients, and they enjoyed you.  If they want more, they should order more from Alan.  Get Mary’s number, but don’t agree to teach them until you’ve worked it out with Alan.  Call him up and offer him a commission.  If he says no, don’t call Mary.  If he says yes, take it from there.

Let’s try a different angle of the same situation.  You run into Mary and she wants you to give lessons to her Aunt Gertrude at her kitchen table.  Feel free to give Mary your number and leave Alan out of it.  Mary and Alan are tertiary elements in your agreement with Aunt Gertrude.  Their word-of-mouth support for you is very nice, but it warrants no commission.  Alan is out of line if he asks for compensation for the connection because he knew nothing about Mary’s Aunt, she wasn’t a participant in his course, nor did she know about Alan when she talked to Mary about English lessons.  Even if Alan was asked to teach her but couldn’t do it for whatever reason, he still has no ownership of that student.  Mary might be entitled to a box of cookies or a nice thank you card, but unless she’s actively managing the administration of the course, she’s out of luck.  If, however, Mary is organizing a whole refresher course for Aunt Gertrude’s Bridge Club, you’ll want to talk about commission.

In the scenario with Alan, nobody is going to file a lawsuit, let alone win one.  But if you rub people the wrong way by stealing their students or otherwise being less than ethical, expect to mysteriously be excluded from the benefits of knowing other self-employed teachers.  Competition be damned.  There are thousands of students who are looking for teachers, so a competitive attitude is going to turn around and bite you.  You won’t notice at first, but slowly there will be fewer get-togethers, fewer e-mails from students who heard about you from another teacher, or only referrals for the worst clients.

Here’s another situation.  Let’s say you work for Speako’s Language Academy and you run into their former student, Fritz.  Fritz liked your lessons, but can’t afford Speako’s high prices.  You shouldn’t give Fritz your number because you are also the property of Speako’s.  However, if Fritz wants to sign up for a course at Speako’s specifically to have lessons with you, your boss should give you a commission for bringing back that student.  If you know that Speako’s is going to laugh at your request, which they almost certainly will, you should seriously consider leaving that school.

If you quit working at Speako’s and you later run into Fritz, who hasn’t been a student at Speako’s for a while, feel free to offer him private lessons.  However, if you quit Speako’s with the intent to take students with you, you’re in violation of your contract, and can be sued.  Also, if you actively pursue former Speako’s students, you’ll also be in trouble.

You can use your former position at Speako’s to get a new job, of course.  There is nothing wrong with listing Speako’s Language Academy as a previous employer on your résumé.  They cannot claim that you’re using their name to compete with them, just like McDonald’s can’t complain when you apply for a job at Subway and list previous employers.  However, don’t emphasize or highlight Speako’s Language Academy on your posters, advertisements, or web profiles.  It could create confusion and you could be in violation of many things.