If you work for a school, you don’t have much of a choice when it comes to your classroom’s location. But if you’re fully or partially self-employed, you’ll have to find a balance between convenience, cost, travel time, and personal boundaries.
Naturally, you’ll want to find a comfortable place to teach. This could be your living room if you don’t mind other people coming and going, and if children’s boogers on your sofa don’t bother you. The downside is that students know where you live and the boundaries between work time and free time will be blurred. You might also have trouble getting people to leave at the end of the lesson, or convincing people that you’re a professional teacher. It could also be forbidden in your building, so ask the landlord first. The major upside is that you don’t have to travel, and your overhead costs are almost non-existent.
Away from home:
You could travel to your student’s location if you plan the travel time realistically and if the student is willing to compensate you for that time. You might find that the bus came and went early, your bike has been vandalized, it’s snowing, you left your train ticket in your other bag and have to pay the fine, or a number of other difficulties. I’ve been very cold, wet, sick, exhausted, and late in Hannover with this option. If you forget the book, the attendance sheet, or the role cards when you travel to the students, your lesson could suffer.
I knew some teachers who used their own cars, but it wasn’t more convenient. Traffic jams are common in Germany and parking is elusive. The student might pay for fuel and time, but you’ll be laughed out of town if you expect anyone to pay for the wear-and-tear, mileage, or parking fees for your car. It always seemed like a huge liability, and unless you have to transport loads of books, craft supplies, snacks, and equipment, having a car is unwise.
The transit system is very efficient in most parts of Germany, and if you plan your trip wisely, you can get other work done on the train. I often had a small business case on wheels that contained teaching materials, dry shoes, an extra scarf, an umbrella, and a project for free time. I did a lot of knitting on the train, listened to podcasts, or caught up on my reading list.
Having a bicycle helped when my students were in my general neighborhood and a bit beyond the practical route of the bus or tram. Hannover is an incredibly bike-friendly town, and it’s flat! Winters were often mild enough to cycle year-round, and I got some much-needed exercise without going far enough or fast enough to get all sweaty. But get a good rain poncho with a stiff-brimmed hood.
You could hold your lessons in a community center or “Freizeitheim” for a small fee. A biggish room (in Hannover as of 2011) with a table and chairs cost between 7 and 10 Euros for an hour or a block of three hours. Some community centers don’t allow food or beverages and have other restrictions like whether or not you can make money with your activities. Check with the director to be completely clear before you start using the space.
No. The local public library is out of the question. I contacted several libraries in Hannover and the response was always an indignant, huffy cloud of unfriendliness and disbelief at such a brazen request.
The best place to teach little kids is in their daycare, which Germans call the Kindergarten or Kindertagesstätte, shortened to Kita. The director of the Kita will contact you after finding you online or hearing about you from another client of yours. They will almost always be wary if you contact them first. It seems to be an unwritten rule that you should never advertise to Kindergartens or call them to offer your course. Every time I’ve contacted a Kindergarten, I’ve been met with an icy weirdness that can only be described as disbelief at my forwardness. The Kitas that I’ve worked at have all initiated contact, they’ve all been incredibly friendly, and the courses were taught without incident. It is also an unspoken rule that you should donate a portion of your lesson fees to the Kindergarten. Because the parents pay you directly and you’re using the space in the Kita for profit, you should donate 5 to 10 percent of the total course fee to the hosting Kindergarten. They should respond by giving you a receipt of donation that you can include in your tax documents.
Before you start teaching in a day care or kindergarten, ask for a biggish empty room such as the sport room or nap room. It should not be full of furniture or storage boxes. There should be no distracting objects or toys in the room, or else there should be a physical barrier so children can’t grab toys and play during the lesson (put stacks of chairs in front of the toy chest, for example).
Try to have the lesson where there is a rug or carpet because otherwise it’s too cold and dirty for the children to sit in a circle on the floor. If it’s the sport room, ask for mats or a rug that can be unrolled just for English.
It should be a quiet, separate place with a door that you can close to eliminate the possibility for other kids to wander in and stare at the kids in the lesson. It should be a room where the kids can sing and shout and play movement games without getting in trouble or waking up napping children or cranky neighbors. The windows should look out onto some neutral space as opposed to the playground where their peers are playing. You should have access to tables or at least chairs for coloring or doing simple craft projects.
When teaching adults:
A quiet restaurant can work when teaching adults, but the waitstaff will kick you out if you don’t order anything, and the lesson can be interrupted frequently by other patrons. I used to meet my Business English students in various cafes, and it started to cost a lot of money. A cup of tea can be EUR 3.20, and the process of ordering and paying cuts into lesson time. Nobody kicked us out, but the staff grew less and less friendly. Students also feel embarrassed and are reluctant to speak when other people are listening nearby. If you want to do an activity from a workbook which requires listening to dialogue from the CD, or if you want to teach a larger group and use a flip chart, projector, or other equipment, forget about meeting in a restaurant.
I would recommend teaching a student at their house if:
- They live nearby or in the vicinity of another appointment.
- They will not be pestered by family members or the telephone.
- You know them already and feel safe entering their house alone.
Teaching groups of adults or children in their homes can be difficult for the following reasons:
- If the host student is sick or on vacation, you need to find a new place or reschedule the lesson. The process of re-organizing the whole group can cost you more time than the lesson pays for.
- There is no guarantee that the place will be clean or set up properly for a lesson.
- There is often a sleeping baby somewhere that we can’t wake up, or Grandma comes over unannounced and mayhem ensues.
- The host child has the idea that he or she is the boss and that the teacher has no authority to tell him to sit down in his own room.
- I’ve always felt extremely uncomfortable working as a door-to-door English teacher.
The best place to teach adults is in their company. This almost always means that the company itself has hired you and has provided you with a room, a projector, bottled water, and so on. The students are always happy to be away from their computers for an hour, and learning English is an added bonus.
Your own professional location:
If you have many students in the same neighborhood or along a major transit line, you might think about renting a small, permanent office space in a safe, central part of your city. It seems expensive at first, but the benefits can outweigh the costs. Consider all your options and calculate all your costs before you commit to a lease agreement. If you know other English teachers who want to share the space with you, get it in writing before you rent, and ask for a deposit from them before you start looking for a space. English teachers are all very nice, but they might just be encouraging you without actually wanting to commit to anything themselves.
Find somewhere near your apartment that you can easily reach without a draining commute, and somewhere the students can access using public transportation. There should be an entry way or waiting area where early students can come in from the rain without disrupting a lesson in progress. There needs to be a toilet for the students, whether it’s exclusive to your office or shared in the building. There should be enough teaching rooms to accommodate all the teachers, unless each teacher is paying for a specific block of time during the day, or one whole day of the week. Fairness and signed agreements make for a happy environment. A helpful site is this one.
Whether you’re teaching kids or adults, your teaching area should be child-friendly, warm enough, spacious enough, and free of harmful objects or dangerous furniture. Your students might have to bring their kids with them for whatever reason, so you should be prepared even if you’ve expressed a kid-free policy. Your insurance company will not cover you if a kid gets hurt in an unsafe office just because you say it’s “not for children”.
If you offer lessons for kids, you should be able to see the children at all times, and there should be no big distractions; toys should be hidden. The room should be secured in a way that keeps the children from wandering outside, and in a way that keeps yucky, crazed maniacs out. Ideally, the door to the lesson should have a window so parents can see that their kids are in there, but placed so they can’t be a huge distraction to the kids.
Ideally, you’ll be able to schedule your lessons to fit your decision to travel or not, and you’ll keep your costs down. Remember to be firm with your policy and make decisions based on what’s best for the largest number of loyal students. You don’t want to end up paying for an office AND train tickets unless there is a series of huge contracts motivating you.