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Entrepreneurship in TEFL: How I Started a Language School

It all started in 2019, when I found myself working at a tech company, flicking a pen at my desk, and counting down the minutes till 5 pm to head home.

During those boring office days, I thought a lot about my undergrad days, when I fell in love with Mandarin Chinese. Learning Mandarin allowed me to peel back layers of a fascinating culture and break down language barriers as I made friends with international students.

I often found myself daydreaming about traveling around the world, using my Mandarin fluency and my native English to meet people across East Asia, Southeast Asia, Europe, and North America. One day, as I drove home from work, a thought popped into my head: Why don’t I teach Mandarin?

The hours I spent learning the language and the knowledge I accumulated could surely help others in my community wanting to learn Chinese. A quick Google search later revealed that outside of the GTA, there were no Mandarin Chinese schools for children who weren’t heritage speakers. Within months, First Step Mandarin was born.

Teaching English from my laptop

About the author: Joseph Wang is an entrepreneur and language enthusiast who founded First Step Mandarin and First Step Language Academy. He completed OnTESOL’s 120-hour Advanced TESOL Certificate and 20-hour Teaching IELTS Certificate courses.  

Starting My Own Language School

Thankfully, in Ontario, starting a business is easy. You do not need to register your business with the government if revenues are under $30,000 per year (but don’t forget to claim income with Revenue Canada!).

Building a Website from Scratch

After I registered my business, I watched a 2-hour YouTube video and learned how to make my school’s website from scratch using WordPress. I used my marketing background and a few articles I found on Google to ensure my website’s SEO (Search Engine Optimization) would make it the top search result for anyone in my city looking to learn Mandarin.

Keeping Costs Low

I also kept my costs low. For example, I found out school boards offer classrooms at a rent-per-hour basis, which greatly reduces the financial costs of starting a school.

Teaching English from my laptop

Having fun with my students on Halloween!

Teaching Abroad to Gain Valuable Experience

Balancing a 9-5 Job and Entrepreneurship

Initially, I ran First Step Mandarin while holding down my 9 to 5 marketing position. I wanted to quit my job to invest more time in my career in education and teaching, but with a mortgage to pay, I couldn’t afford to lose my benefits and steady income. I was handcuffed.

The Impact of COVID-19

Then came 2020. I received a message from HR to let me go due to COVID-19 downsizing. In a sense, I felt a huge weight lift off my chest. One idiom I like teaching my students is “play the hand you’re dealt.” This phrase is not only useful in many different situations, but also a philosophy I use to navigate life’s twists and turns.

Embracing Change

Covid-19 stripped away the opportunity costs of quitting my job. Lockdowns meant that all of First Step Mandarin’s classes moved online. Many saw Covid as something horrible that ruined their lives – and yes, for many, that was true. But for me, Covid-19 simply changed the hand I was dealt.

Jumping into Teaching Head-On

Finally, I now had the freedom to go and work anywhere in the world. I could finally jump into a teaching career head-on. Within 24 hours, I registered in OnTESOL’s 120-hour Advanced TESOL Certificate course and scoured job postings for ESL teaching positions in Asia.

Gaining Experience in Asia

After completing my TESOL certificate, my plan was simple. First, use my new TESOL certification and leverage my Mandarin proficiency to find a job in Asia with great teachers and teaching philosophy, where I could gain an invaluable mentoring experience. Second, take back the experience and what I learned from my time overseas to First Step Mandarin to improve the quality of teaching at the school.

For those interested in what life is like teaching in Taiwan, I shared my experience here:

Growing My Language School

Expanding Offerings

The OnTESOL program didn’t just teach me how to teach English well. The communicative and task-based lesson planning frameworks I learned in the course can also be used to teach any language well. The OnTESOL course eventually prepared me to expand my business into a multi-language school.

First Step Language Academy now offers Mandarin, Cantonese, ESL, and Korean classes. We are planning to add French and Japanese classes as soon as 2025.

Teaching Tips for Success

When it comes to teaching languages, whether in-person or online, the greatest piece of advice I have is to be prepared for each lesson and teach every lesson like you might lose your students if the class doesn’t go well.

Don’t become too comfortable or complacent, whether it is your second, tenth, or two-hundredth class with a student, as this can extinguish that extra spark your classes have that makes you better than the thousands of other English language instructors across the world. Students notice your dedication and will refer their friends to you if they like your classes. Although it’s been 4 years since moving back to Canada from Taiwan, to this day, most of the students I teach come from referrals from past students.

The Biggest Lesson I Learned Running a Language School: Time is Precious, Don’t Waste It

Running my own language school has taught me how precious time is. Days are busy and every moment is a moment you could theoretically invest in your company.

Time is finite but money isn’t. Think of ways you can make your business, assets, and money work for you in ways that don’t require you to spend your time. For example, have classes run where you don’t need to be present. Create teaching materials that can be purchased indefinitely. Invest your earnings wisely so they generate income for you.

Invest in your own health and lifestyle too. Every moment you spend on your company and on class preparation is time you can never get back to spend with friends, family, or other important things in your life. If you’re going to spend precious time away from your desk, always do the things that are important to you, whether that be getting exercise, resting, calling your sister, or going to church.

I wish all teachers planning to open their own school all the best in their venture. Enjoy the ride!

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