The flakiness of adult students

At the beginning of my solo journey, I was quite excited. I realized that for once in my ESL teaching career, I can decide the type of students I teach. I always preferred a company of teenagers and adult students. My wish came true! Unfortunately, I forgot about one tiny thing – adult students are flaky.

Adult learners are my favourite type of student. I enter the classroom with a lot of energy, I talk about anything and everything, and most importantly, I relate to them the most. In fact, my very first three private students were all adults. They all messaged me and with two of them, I managed to have the first lesson. The last one disappeared before I even met her.

Why does it happen?

Why are adult students unreliable?

How can we, ESL teachers, protect ourselves from being dropped?

I remember blaming myself for every single student who stopped coming to lessons. I remember thinking that I wasn’t good enough, my classes weren’t too engaging or that they probably just got bored. It’s probably true for some of them. I think we can’t click with all of our students and some of them may not enjoy our company. However, most of the time it’s not the case.

Two years ago, I was in charge of an intensive B1 course exam preparation for adult students. I had a small group of four students. In the beginning, it was going well. The problems started two weeks in. Some of them would come in an hour (or more!) late because of their work commitments. Others were constantly distracted by endless phone calls and often needed to leave well before the end of the class. There were times when I received e-mails right before the class explaining that they weren’t able to come in, asking if I could send them the answers and any extra materials to everything we did that day. Now that I think of it – it was a complete mess. I didn’t blame myself too much, and I wasn’t worried about it either. I was employed at an academy, and losing one out of four students would mean that the group continues – so even if no one showed up, I would still get paid.

This attitude has changed recently. Having 1:1 students doesn’t give me the same level of comfort as groups. Losing a student means no income, which was incredibly stressful for me to process. All of my students came from last year, through connections or from websites that don’t include any prepaid options. At first, I was charging for all completed classes, but this has quickly changed.

Prepaid classes

After discussing this issue with one of my other fellow teachers, she told me about her way of securing income – prepaid classes. I know that I’m not reinventing the wheel and for most, it’s so obvious that it’s unnecessary to mention. Now, any time I meet a new student, I tell them my no commitment fee, which is slightly higher than a set of 5 or 10 prepaid lessons. The more lessons you pay for, the lower the price, which gives me about 1.5 months of stability. I wish I had done that with my first student who paid after each class and left after two weeks to pursue her new job.

Cancellation policy

Again, many websites offer a 50% of cancellation policy. This percentage normally can be changed depending on our preferences. I haven’t introduced this policy yet, but I think that it’s a matter of time. The other one of my first students cancelled the very first class 30 minutes before. She explained the reason for it in great detail, and obviously, I don’t hold it against her, but having the lessons cancelled is, unfortunately, a waste of time. This turned out to be true in the case of my other student who cancelled the class because of her new job commitments. She told me about it a day in advance after I’d already prepared materials, I’d written a lesson plan and had sent her anything she may need for the next day. That was the exact moment when I started considering having my own cancellation fee.

Organizing a course

Some of the teaching websites also encourage us to create our own courses. I don’t feel ready to do it myself just yet, but it does sound like a good plan. Adult students can’t usually commit long-term. However, offering a course with a clear starting and ending point may be tempting. I can think of more advantages than disadvantages of this plan. You can prepare all lessons in advance and decide on the number of hours. It’s a short-term solution and a one-time large cash injection. But as it normally goes, with short-term courses, the expectations are quite high, and something that sounded like a good idea at first may become your biggest nightmare. Nevertheless, I may try doing that in the future, just to see how it goes and how I feel about it.

As you can see, I’m still at the beginning of a learning curve. I’m yet to find a perfect solution, but I can tell that I already know more than I did a month ago. I follow so many excellent and experienced ESL teachers, and it’s always so incredible to learn from professionals. So, tell me, how do you protect yourselves from flaky students?

10 thoughts on “The flakiness of adult students

  1. This is a common problem unfortunately and it happens also with kids (and their parents) but with adults it is even more so. They just expect you to accept that their work and family commitments always come first unless they need to prepare for an exam or for another work related issue and they are more likely to cancel a lesson whenever they feel like it. This is why prepaid classes and cancellation policy is so important. Before one even starts the communication about needs and assignements the first question to ask from them is how commited they intend to be and to tell them about the cancellation and reschedule policy. Sometimes letting go of a student (telling them you’re no longer available if they keep rescheduling and not showing up) is the best thing to do with an option for them to come back at a later time when they can commit. However with private tutoring sadly there isn’t really a magic solution….As much as one may love to do it, the best thing to do is to keep it only as a side hussle because it is such an unreliable income source.

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    1. You’re so right…the problem is that I still lack the confidence to stand my ground. I need to be more firm about my cancellation policy because after all, I’m providing a service and so I should be paid for it.

      People tend to forget that we do squeeze the students in whenever we can, at times we reschedule our plans to accommodate the students and give them the best experience possible and we also prepare before the class. Just to be stood up at the end!

      Somehow it’s reassuring that many tutors experience this type of treatment. I tend to be hard on myself and think that it’s all my fault, but I guess it’s very common.

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      1. Oh no, it has nothing to do with you or your teaching skills. It happens sooner or later with most tutors. The problem is how tutoring is viewed by the public in general. Taking private language lessons is mostly treated as a hobby, an exclusive service like going to the spa..Teaching in general is treated as sort of charity or a nonprofit (whole other discussion) unless one is employed by a school or university. This is why tutors have to stand their ground very firmly when negotiating with students and not be afraid to state terms and conditions explicitly. //Shameless self promotion here: I coach tutors/teachers how to create a successful (and stress free) teaching career, let me know if you’re interested.//
        Unless you really need every cent you may earn with keeping a student, then don’t hesitate to let them go if they don’t respect your terms. You need to protect your own interest, time and energy. You need to make them understand that tutoring is your job not your hobby. So there are no free lessons (except prepaid discount) and your time is valuable as well.

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      2. I used to blame myself quite a bit for students leaving. Now I see it as a part of life. People come and go. Whenever a student decides to leave, I ask them to write me a review. I need to take some advantage of this situation!

        Of course, no shame in self promotion! At the moment, I need to decline the offer, but once I have a bit more stable income, I’ll invest in my development. It always feels so rewarding at the end 🙂

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      3. Exactly students leaving sometime is just part of the job.:) Professional development is increasingly important in this ever changing world, especially now that the pandemic has turned our world upside down but it is equally important to have a stable income before one can spend on further development, so good luck!:) Building up a sustainable teaching practice takes time and commitment but it can be very rewarding as well.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Joanna,

    Great post. This is often discussed on Czech freelance forums and as has been said before, getting the terms right seems essential. Even for prepaid lessons it is adviseable to state the due-by date and at least a 24-hr cancellation policy. Some teachers have a zero cancellation policy and if the class gets cancelled, they send the students onlie materials to do instead. Another option is to organise small groups (say 6 students) and get them to pay for a semester or a shorter course – I am very fond of this, but have never done it and now I am not really a freelancer any more.
    Good luck! K.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Kamila! So nice to hear from you 😊 it’s a topic that I’ve been struggling with recently. I guess I need to stop feeling “bad” and state my conditions as they are.

      I was thinking to organise a course in the future. It’s a little bit more work but it’s much more beneficial long term. Adults are more likely to pay upfront for a short course. So many things to think about 😱

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