The better-half comes home from getting a haircut and tells me how his barber is taking online Russian lesson through some outfit called Got Classes. (That’s not their real name, but you’ll understand the alias later.) He says to me, “Why don’t you check them out? Maybe you could teach English online.”
This was more than a gentle hint. See, I quit the last job, which was in many ways the perfect “part time” gig at a nearby community based organization, except no matter how hard I tried, part time always became full time, and I wanted to spend more time writing. However, three years later, neither the novel or novella I’d produced during my hiatus, were offering me enough in royalties to buy more than a monthly latte at Starbucks, and that would be on a good month, nor was I living large on the new edition of my previously published cult novel (with a very small cult). I was also getting some loose change in return for writing television recaps and reviews, and I was even doing a little cat-sitting, but the better-half was rightly losing patience, and so I checked out the Got Classes website. It takes a certain amount of skill and writing ability to create your web profile for their site. I like that kind of challenge. I loved the idea of reinventing myself for this new thing, and only hoped I wasn’t wasting my time.
I’d wanted to join the gig economy for a while. Maybe wanted is too strong a word. Other than begging for my old job back, I wasn’t sure what other options I had. I’d applied to Jack Rabbit previously. They said they’d be in touch when they needed more people with my skill-set in my locality – which I’d translated as age discrimination. I’d also applied to Care.com for cat-sitting, which got me one gig though I spent a lot of time applying for others,but there always seemed to be other people willing to take less. Care.com also has some tutoring jobs, but most of them are low-paying homework helper/babysitting gigs, that aren’t my thing.
In case you are wondering, teaching is one of those skills I actually have, and yes I have gotten paid for teaching English prior to this. I didn’t just wake up and say, “I think I’ll teach English today.”
A couple of years ago, on vacation in Nicaragua, we’d met a young Englishman who was teaching English online while enjoying a life of mostly leisure and travel in sunny Nicaragua, so at first I imagined I’d be in my pajamas teaching students from around the world from the comfort of my enclosed terrace overlooking the Hudson (or a tiny piece of it in between the projects).
However, the first student I got was “local,” not online. She was newly arrived in the US, a French woman, a successful young screenwriter of all things. She lived about a mile uptown from me, so I walked to her place, saving myself the carfare. Got Classes allows teachers to set their own price. Mine was $45 an hour, which seemed to be the competitive sweet spot. However, they take a 40% chunk out of the first five lessons, so the yield was only $27 an hour. After five lessons, they only take 30%, then 20%, and then 10%, so after 16 lessons I’d be making $40.50.
Soon I had a few more students, none of them online. I was meeting some in midtown at one of New York’s lovely “privately owned public spaces.” Others I met in their homes or offices. If I counted the travel time and expense, I might as well have been working in McDonald’s. But here’s the thing, I could read on the train. I could use that as “me” time, or walk from some of the gigs to others, so even at the lowest rate: $27 an hour, it added up. Plus, my students were smart, and motivated, and interesting. There was the one who ran a film festival, a retiree exploring her artistic side and studying painting, a Colombian dentist who’d converted to Judaism and was living with Hasids in Borough Park. As a sucker for people’s stories, this was a blast. It was also the easiest teaching I’d done in years.
Months later, I still only had one online student, a native speaker who needed help with proposal writing. Another Got Classes teacher explained to me (on the “community” Facebook page) that there are native speakers living in countries with a very low cost of living who can teach online at rates I’d never be able to match. But here’s the thing, by the time I realized this, I was having so much fun meeting people, having human to human contact, that I didn’t mind having to actually wear clothes and schlep to see my students.
Students cycled in and out. Some stayed with a one-hour a week schedule, and stopped before I got to my 90% rate, but others had multi-hour lessons several times a week that quickly got my rate up. Several, kept asking if they could just pay me directly, and if I could give them a little discount for doing so, since we’d both benefit. I refused. It wasn’t worth it for me to blow this gig. Got Classes was sending me new students all the time. I got better at the scheduling, so I wasn’t constantly running around. Was I making a living? Not exactly. We were still dependent on the better-half’s stable salary, but as a part-time supplement it wasn’t bad.
I was beginning to get out of the funk I’d been in ever since I realized that my erotic-vampire novel was not going to be the next True Blood. The human contact was good for me, and it great to be getting paid again for something I was good at.
And then as quickly as this had begun, it ended. I got outsourced by the gig economy.
Got Classes decided that henceforth and in the future, all “language lessons” including ESL/English would be online only. They had built their own online platform – basically private Skype with a few classroom features, and were strongly encouraging teachers and students to use it.
The pipeline was shut. I complained LOUDLY, and someone from the Got Classes called to speak to me. They claimed that they needed to make this change for “marketing” and admitted they might lose some “local” business, but they’d done “testing” and it was simply too confusing to offer both “online” and “local” lessons.
I pointed out that my students didn’t want online lessons. They were paying a premium, and paying it to have someone come to them, or meet them at a convenient location, that all my business was local, that I was, in effect, being fired. They were not sympathetic, and I didn’t buy their explanation for a second. Got Classes started out specializing in music lessons, and many of their teaches teach both locally and online. It’s clear this is a first step toward getting out of the local lesson business, which is probably just a fraction of their business, and probably too difficult to control.
By moving people online, and moving them specifically to their own platform, they are gaining control of the lessons, eliminating the possibility that teachers will “steal” their students. They also hope to increase their volume with cheaper lessons, and to have more “group classes” online – a model that can still offer a decent wage to a teacher, and is less expensive for students, but is also an entirely different service than one to one. What the new model means for teachers like me, living in the US with a US standard of living is a disaster. I can’t compete with teachers who are happy to make $8 an hour because I can’t survive on $8 an hour. I had lost my job, but because my job isn’t a job but a gig, I didn’t even have the recourse of unemployment insurance or severance pay.
To make matters worse, two months later, Get Classes still shows up FIRST when people google “local” ESL lessons in New York. It’s classic bait and switch. People see my bio, but then when they try to register for the local lessons, the only option is online lessons. There’s an “ask a question” feature, and when potential students ask whether or not I am available to teach them locally, I have to explain that I am, but only if they register for something else, such as “grammar” or “writing” lessons, which I’m still allowed to teach locally. When I try to explain that I’ll teach them what they want, no matter what they register for, it just sounds shady.
Got Classes dried up at a really unfortunate time. Three regular students who had multiple lessons every week, had all reached their goals, and were cycling out. The type of students I love to teach, who still exist as a market, were no longer being reached. The options for teaching other-than-ESL are not all that appealing. I’d had a high school student whose helicopter mom constantly complained about the rate, and wanted me to be available late at night and early in the morning to help her son with last minute projects. Then she would cancel ten minutes before the lesson (I’d stayed up for) was about to start because her son fell asleep. I had parents who wanted SAT prep for their thirteen year-olds. This wasn’t my thing, and I wound up deciding to only work with adults to avoid those situations. There was a new online client, a grad student, a native speaker who’d always had problems with writing. We had one lovely session, and then during our second meeting, I realized he wasn’t wearing pants.
I’m down to four active Got Classes students, three of whom I don’t meet with very regularly. Students are complaining. They get frequent emails asking them to switch to online classes, or to try a group class – which they have no interest in. It takes them days to reach customer service with billing questions – which I can’t help them with. Turning off “automatic payments” seems nearly impossible. Students continue to offer to pay me directly, and I continue to encourage them to keep using the system, even though the system is screwing me over, to the point where using Got Classes is no longer a sustainable option.
So what’s the lesson learned? The obvious one. Capitalism will always be about owners exploiting the labor of workers for profit. Got Classes like many such enterprises talks a good game about “partnership.”But they don’t consult their partners before making major changes. They’ve factored in that they would lose some “local” business with the switch, but their tiny bit of “local” business was 95% of my business. I’ve done the math. For me to be competitive for “online ESL” I’d need to charge $20 an hour, maybe less, which means I’d get, wait for it, $12 an hour to start. Sorry, if I reject getting paid less than a fast food worker can make in Seattle.
Meantime, I had heard back months before from Jack Rabbit. I don’t believe Jack Rabbit has much teaching, but I’d signed up for things like editing, and writing services, and they told me I should lower my rates – a lot – since I had “no experience” (with them). I did the calculations and with their take, that would have given me about $8 an hour. Plus they wanted me to go to a shit-ton of unpaid “orientations.”
Moral of the story: There is always someone willing to do whatever you do for less, and if it can be done remotely, a lot less. It’s a giant race to the bottom.
There is no “long term solution” here. In the long-term, we (the giggers) are screwed. Even for gigs that can’t be done over the internet competition will drive down wages to the point where you’d do better working as a barista. One might argue that the idea of a gig economy, completely depends on the internet and on people with the guts to start-up businesses in the first place. True enough, but people are becoming “giggers” not because they don’t want “real” jobs, but because traditional employment – in the sense of full-time jobs with benefits – have also been dying for decades. However, it doesn’t just look like we’re becoming a service economy, it looks like we’re becoming an ever more stratified one. People are either in businesses where they are selling high-end services, such as corporate consulting, financial services and other business to business services, or they schmucks like me offering lower-paid services (at varying skill levels) to the individuals with the higher-paying jobs.
In other words, in the future we will all be Uber drivers, except for a few passengers, and then because there will be far more drivers than passengers, we will all be driving twenty-hours a day for less than a livable wage – until all the cars are self-driving, at which point we will be eating our young.
So was my golden age with Got Classes, a never to be repeated fool’s paradise? Maybe not. There are, at least, short-term solutions, companies that offer different types of gig models – for now. Then again, there are companies that offer even more overtly exploitative models.
People have asked: Why not just set up a website and go it alone? I have! I’ve set up Perfect English NYC for ESL, and I’m working on another site for non-ESL writing tutoring, coaching, and writing services. But getting your website seen is tricky. And even if clients see it, an individual’s website looks fly-by-night compared to what a company can offer. I was willing to give Got Classes that giant cut because they made it so easy to get clients. I understood that they had expenses too – online marketing, customer services, app development, etc. I had no problem with a partnership-model, and understood that I was part of a team, and we’d all benefit – until they turned that model on its ass and basically cut me out. They can offer online lessons cheaply using teachers who are both less qualified and experienced, more desperate, and mostly living in places where the cost of living isn’t as high as in New York City. I thought we were team, but it turns out I was the most expendable player.
So what about some of Got Classes’ competitors? Companies with a big enough web presence to look more legit to clients who might bypass a sole proprieter website? I’ve been looking. Wyzant was one that someone recommended. I fear they are what Got Classes may become in the future. Their online client communications all go through an app or platform, and they will cut off any teacher they even suspect may be trying to communicate outside of this with clients. They offer local lessons, and come up in searches for them, but like Got Classes, they seem to mostly offer online lessons, using“local” to attract students. Teachers have complained that before they got near to or just when they approached the required number of hours that would allow them to retain a little more of the money they have earned, they were dropped without explanation beyond something vague about having violated their terms of service. The general consensus is “scam.”
Next Guru offers a monthly subscription rate to list your services. This is a similar model to Care.com, but there’s a twist. They also charge a client $20 in advance to meet you for a first lesson, so you’re spending your own carfare and prep time to meet with someone who’s under no obligation to hire you. Frankly, I’m now offering free consultations, so that’s not that big a deal. However, here’s the problem: There are about a gazillion people listed as ESL teachers in my area. I paid the money, and checked for my listing. I’ve never been able to find it. I wrote them and asked them for help. I got a few vague replies about the “system.” I gave up without getting a single bite. This another site where a minute of due diligence will reveal a world of hurt feelings.
There’s Craigslist of course, which is free, but there are a hundreds of people competing, and I don’t know who hires off of Craig’s list. I’ve been listing, but have gotten few responses and no clients. I tried listing my business with Yelp, but haven’t heard back.
I’ve seen some adds for companies that specifically set clients up with local tutors. They don’t specialize in ESL, and are really going for wealthy parents trying to get their kids into the Ivy Leagues. Not only is this not my thing, but even if it were, the sites are so clearly looking for YOUNG ivy-educated tutors that it’s just a matter of time until someone goes after them for age discrimination. There are also a few places that seem to be small teacher cooperatives, but I haven’t really explored this. My guess is they are NOT looking for more teachers.
Thumbtack has become my new go to place. They show up prominently on Google when people search for local ESL lessons, and they don’t take a ton of my money. Here’s how their model works: Professionals, including teachers, contractors, web designers, and just about anyone else, can buy “credits” which they use to answer requests for services. 20 credits cost $30. Most individual ESL teaching gigs are priced at 2 or 3 credits to apply. The advantage for the teacher, is that once you get the response from a student, if you get the job, whatever you make is yours. The disadvantage is that those credits add up and there’s no guarantee you’ll ever get the job. While the amount it costs to reply is relatively low, between $3-$4.50, you’re competing for every job. It took a while but I finally found a sweet spot for ESL lessons – $40 an hour for in-person lessons, with an offer of every 11th class free to long-term students. I’ve gotten four new students since October, three of whom I’m meeting with two hours or more per week. But even going as low as $30 an hour for online lessons, I haven’t gotten a single online ESL student, and I’m not sure how much lower I’m prepared to go.
Thumbtack is also more work than Got Classes. I get a text every time there’s a new offer, but a lot of teachers are interested in giving “local” lessons, and you have to be among the first 5 to respond. I’ve literally, gotten blocked out of requests that had been up for ten minutes, and found that between the time I started to personalize my response template, and the time I pressed send, the five responses had already been received and I was too late. On the other hand, I’m thankful that they do have a 5 response limit, as otherwise it would be insane. They also refund your credits if the client doesn’t view the quote – something that happens quite often.
As a model, Thumbtack seems much less exploitative than Wyzant or Got Classes. It’s really just a platform to hook up with clients – more Tinder than Uber. I like that I can immediately refer potential students to my website, and even though I hate negotiating fees, it’s great to get 100% of my fee from the start. From a client perspective, however, I can see it seeming a little more chancy. But seems is the key word here. People can puff up their credentials and supply fake reviews on all of these sites.
The clients who hired me from Thumbtack are very similar to my Got Classes students – educated professionals, people excited about their “new” lives here, motivated students who are a joy to teach, and that’s good enough for me, for now.