Teaching English: Permanent vs freelance contracts

Do you want to live and work in another country? It’s a common goal, shared by many people. If you’re a native English teacher (or have a C1/C2 fluency level), teaching can be a great way to make that dream a reality. If you haven’t obtained a teaching qualification yet, check out my post on ‘How to become an English language teacher’. If you’ve already got your teaching certificate and are now considering which schools to apply to, keep reading!

There is a wide variety of schools you can work for and a few different contracts you might be offered. In this post, I would like to compare and contrast permanent and freelance contracts. I’ve been working as an English language teacher for five years and have had both types of contract. I’d like to give you a honest, detailed comparison, weighing up the pros and cons, to help you make the right choice for you.

Let’s start with permanent contracts. This type of contract means you work exclusively for one school (usually five days a week) and receive a fixed, steady salary in return. I was a permanent teacher in Rome and there were definitely lots of perks!

Financial security is one of the main benefits. Especially in a country with a struggling job market, knowing how much money you will receive month-by-month is really reassuring. If your school decides not to renew your contract, they have to give you a certain amount of notice so you don’t have to worry about suddenly being out of the job.

Holiday and sick pay. In Rome, I received a generous holiday allowance, got paid if I was sick and on public holidays. As Rome had 10+ public holidays a year, I was especially grateful for the latter! In my experience, schools usually encourage their permanent teachers to take holiday during July & August or around Christmas (i.e. the most expensive travel months of the year!).

Carefree cancellations. As you receive a fixed salary, you get paid even if your students cancel. Whereas freelance English teachers are only paid if the student cancels within 24 hours of the lesson. As students often know in advance when they will be on holiday, away on business trips or at events/meetings which must take priority over their lessons, freelancers often lose out financially.

Permanent contracts have their downsides:

Longer notice periods. Although notice periods offer you greater security, they can also feel restrictive. If you (or your partner) receive a job offer in another city, it might feel frustrating having to wait weeks or months between when you hand in your notice and when you actually leave. Especially as freelancers are able to come and go with much more flexibility.

Exclusivity. As obvious as it sounds, having a contract with one school means that you cannot work for another. Your contract might stipulate that you cannot offer private lessons during your free time or work for your school’s competitors up to six months after your contract has ended. One of the biggest legal no-no’s is poaching students from your school for private lessons (both while you are employed by them or for a certain time afterwards).

Stuck with difficult students. You might have a student that really grinds your gears or a group that have zero chemistry. Although your school might be willing to give those students to another teacher, they are under no obligation to do so. Whereas a freelance teacher could give up the course after a few weeks’ notice, you might have to grit your teeth and get on with it. With some courses lasting months or even years, it could be a real challenge!

Permanent contracts are becoming less common across Europe, and in Hamburg (where I currently live), they are incrediby rare. Instead, there are hundreds of freelance teachers here, who have signed contracts with multiple language schools across the city. Being a freelancer definitely has some perks, such as…

Flexibility. You can work according to your prime hours. Perhaps you’re an early bird who would like to teach from 7.30am or 8 and finish by early afternoon, or you would rather teach evening classes and start each day with a lie-in. Whatever your preference, you can choose which classes you take on, to maximise when you are most focused and energetic. You have the power to accept or refuse lessons that you don’t want to do, such as declining classes which are really far away, where you’d spend more time travelling there and back than actually teaching! Permanent teachers do not have this luxury; their timetable is decided for them.

Holidaaaays. Many of the teachers I know love travel, just like me! As a freelancer, you can take holiday whenever you want. It’s unpaid leave but means you can travel during off-peak months and take advantage of great flight and train deals. Since February, I’ve been to Paris, Copenhagen, London, Munich and Salzburg and am off to Italy very soon. Unsurprisingly, this freedom is one of the biggest perks for me!

Learning valuable skills. I’ve been a freelancer for eighteen months and although I’ve always been organised, my time management and planning skills have improved exponentially. I’ve also become so self-driven – you have to be! You must be proactive; liaising with your schools on a regular basis whilst looking for new opportunities. A lot of motivation has to come from within, because you won’t have a manager leading the way or giving you pats on the shoulder. The skills you develop in this role will benefit you now and in the future, whether you continue teaching for the long-term or not.

Building a great support system. Being a freelancer does involve some networking, but in an informal way (no schmoozing required!). Knowing other teachers can really help you; not just for comradery and a support system, but also for hearing about new schools that are hiring, unprofessional schools that you should avoid and upcoming cover work opportunities (such as when your friends are on holiday). Many of my colleagues have become my friends. Freelancing can be isolating – you rarely see other teachers, unless you happen to be in the staff room at the same time. As I only go to my various schools once or twice a fortnight, my colleagues often feel like passing ships in the night. We have to make an extra effort to socialise outside of work. Go along to social events organised by your colleagues or schools, join local groups on Facebook and Meetup and say ‘Yes!’ to invitations that come your way.

Autonomy. The Heads of School that I work for are very hands-off. They are encouraging and approachable if I have any questions or concerns, but put a lot of trust in me to be independently and work under my own initiative. I really appreciate their confidence and not being micro-managed. That being said, it is strange going months or years without lesson observations or feedback on how you are performing.

Private lessons. There is a considerable difference between what your schools might pay you per hour and what you could charge privately. My hourly wage varies from €25-40 depending on the school, but I’ve heard of freelance teachers charging €40-60+ for a sixty-minute lesson, especially those with business, medical or legal expertise.

Being a freelancer also has disadvantages, like…

Travelling around the city. I teach in-company, which means I travel to 3-5 different offices a day to teach business men and women at their desks. On the one hand, it is quite refreshing to keep changing locations, but it does mean that you spend a lot of your time on buses and trains. Travelling so much can range from rather tedious or incredibly frustrating, depending on where you live and how reliable the public transport system is. You will need to pay for your monthly or yearly travel pass, which can be very expensive. Most of the time, travel to and from lessons is unpaid, unless the company is located far outside of the city centre. In Rome, I also taught in-company and worked all over the city. However my company paid for my travel pass, which also gave me unlimited travel during evenings and weekends (woo hoo!).

Dreaded taxes. Whereas permanent employees have their taxes automatically taken out every month, freelancers are responsible for doing their own annual tax return (or hiring a tax advisor to do it for them). Here in Hamburg, freelancers don’t pay taxes until their second year of working, so you have to manage your money very carefully. If you can, create a second bank account and transfer money each month to put towards your taxes.

Difficulty switching off. I’ve noticed as a freelancer that I am on my phone much, much more. In Rome, I used to finish work for the day and not really think about my lessons until the next morning. It is not uncommon to bring your work home with you – both physically and mentally. Those of us who teach in-company must carry our lesson material from office to office, so have to keep piles of folders and files at home. A lot of my time is spent arranging and rearranging lessons and enquiring about new courses. I email my schools regularly, informing them of my short-term and long-term availability. Some people might feel uncomfortable about how spammy it feels but it is really necessary. There are lots of teachers and only so many lessons available. You have to remind your schools that you exist!

Lack of stability. The harsh truth is that one of your schools could stop offering you work or reassign your classes at any time. Similarly, your students could suddenly decide they can’t (or don’t want to) continue having English lessons. Hopefully you will receive a decent amount of notice for any course changes, but you are really at the whim of your school and students.

Unpaid admin time. As a freelancer, you only get paid for the time you spend with your students. You don’t get paid for lesson planning, marking homework or all those breaks between lessons. You might receive some money for staff development training events (usually 50% of your hourly wage) but it depends on the school.

Ultimately, you should choose the type of contract which feels right for you. Listen to your instincts. If you are in love with a city and the only contracts available are freelance ones, opt for one of those. If you have lived in a city for a while and see yourself settling there for the long-term, seize a permanent contract when a great school offers you one. Remember that you are making a commitment to that particular school, and although contracts can be broken, it could be very expensive and stressful to do so. Take the time to analyse and assess whether the school is right for you. Do they treat you and other teachers with respect? Do they have procedures and policies in place – and actually follow them? Do students give positive feedback? What is their local reputation like? Does the school have sufficient resources and modern technology/facilities? Is the management invested in your personal development?

If you work as an English teacher, do you have a permanent or freelance contract? Do you agree with the pros and cons I’ve mentioned? Is there anything you would add to the list?

Ciao for now

The Curious Sparrow

Picture: picjumbo.com

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s