Rob Howard Guest Post

How to Deal with Learners who Want Everything for Free

The following is a guest post from Rob Howard. Take it away, Rob…

How many of you have ever been introduced as an English teacher at a party and the first response is “Can you help me?” This is nothing new. Doctors are always asked to look at a strange lump. Lawyers are always asked for free advice. Nothing new here. But now, you have moved to or are planning to move online. You ain’t seen nothing yet.

As soon as you start advertising, if you are lucky enough to get visible amongst the myriad of online English teachers, you will open the floodgates to every Tom, Dick and Harry that has an internet connection looking for something for free. My advice, get ready for it.

The Questions

Everybody wants something for free. You would not believe the numbers of people out there that think we are saints and are just here on this Earth to provide free services to them because they have taken the time to contact you. I am messaged on Facebook, contacted through SKYPE, asked through LinkedIn, get emails through my website and at least once per month, I get a phone call through WhatsApp, Facebook or SKYPE. Here are some of the questions I get:

“How is my English?”

“Can you tell me what my level is?”

“Is this right?”

“What does this word mean?”

“How do you translate this word to English?”

“Can you translate this paragraph for me?”

“Will you write my CV for me?”

“Which one of these five sentences is the best and why?”

“Can you write my essay so I can win this contest?”

“Can you tell me how to do well on the TOEFL/IELTS exam?”

“Can you rewrite my Master’s thesis for me?”

“I know you will help me improve by talking with me all the time.”

“Will you just practice with me a little every day?”

“It will only take you a minute.”

“Can you explain the difference between the present perfect and the past perfect?”

“Can you give me hints to get more fluent?”

“Can you give me materials to get better?”

“Can you send me all the grammar differences between British and American English for my Master’s thesis?”

“But you’re a teacher!”

The last is my favorite. I don’t remember taking some type of “Hippocratic oath” stating that it is my duty as a teacher to let no student go untaught… for free. But they think we have. I don’t know of any other profession where people are so adamant about their right to call us at 3:00 am to ask for help. Well, one other. I was married to a doctor. But at least those calls came from paying patients.

How will you respond to this without making an enemy? Remember, what social networking has given you, social networking can easily take away. These people are your market. They are your “likes”, your “sharers” and your “commenters”. The best marketing is word of mouth, or in this case, word of Facebook. You need them. Maybe more than they need you.

The Response

There are so many to choose from and so many you want to say. Here is where your inner conscience needs to kick in. Of course, there is “no.” Plain, simple, to the point. Good luck making friends with that one. There is “I’m too busy.” They keep coming back. You can try “I don’t work for free.” They will whine about how they are from the third world and support a family and can’t afford to pay. Then I whine and say so am I (I’m currently in Brazil) and tell them that I work to support my family too so I can’t work for free. This starts a debate that almost never ends, or ends well.

My favorite, which I used at 3:00 am after being awoken by a sweet girl from the Far East, “Ok, while I’m doing that, you can come over and clean my house for free as I can’t afford a maid.” She unfriended me. I still feel badly about that, but it worked and yes, it felt good at the time.

The Solution

The best solution of all? I started a Facebook group, “ENGLISH STUDENTS.” It’s a place for students to post questions and for teachers to post their blogs and tips and sometimes, answers. When people ask for help, I refer them there. They join, they like, they share, they comment, they help each other and best of all, they don’t ask again. Some have since sent me paying customers.

Many have helped spread the word. An ex-student of mine in the group started a WhatsApp group on the side so they could talk and practice with each other. Problem solved. This is by far the most logical, sane and productive solution. Feel free to send needy students to the group.

Social Responsibility

Now I’m not completely heartless. I try to always have one or two students that I teach for free. The two students I am currently working with don’t have the means and are really working hard to improve their lives. I am proud to be a small part of that. Some of my past free students have gone on to get jobs as a result of their English. One was hired at an international oil company as a receptionist, another at the second largest TV network in Brazil as a producer. Others have received promotions due to their ability to interact with foreign clients.

This is how I give back and I wholeheartedly recommend that every teacher in the world take on at least one student for free. I do feel that it is our duty as humans to give back to society, even in some small way, and it warms the heart to be a part of someone else’s success.

It makes saying “No” that much sweeter too.


Rob Howard is the owner of Online Language Center, a live online course for C1/C2 level students.  He is a teacher, tutor, trainer, material designer and writer for ESL/EFL. He is also a consultant and has been a frequent speaker internationally regarding online retention as well as using technology in and out of the classroom. He is also the founder of EFLtalks utilizing social media to build a worldwide PLN for new and future language teachers.

You can reach Rob at

Please join us on Facebook at ENGLISH STUDENTS

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  • Joseph Huth

    As I have begun putting the wheels in motion toward a new career in online ESL teaching, I found this very, very helpful! Thank you Rob and thank you Jack for posting this article.

  • Been there 🙁 Good to know that I’m not the only one struggling with this problem. I think every teacher should take an assertiveness course before they start. Saying “No” without offending anyone is one of the most essential skills in this job.

  • Elena Mutonono

    Thanks for your encouragement to work pro bono! I’m thinking of getting involved with local refugees and helping them with their English. How do you determine who you work with for free? Do you have an application set up on your website?

  • Thank you for the article :))) Students also ask to translate a couple of sentences and take offence when I say that I do not do translations. Something like: ‘Is it so hard?’ Pretty hard if several people, even unfamiliar, ask to translate every day just because they think it is not hard 🙂

  • Gulam Mustafa Ali Khan

    Very informative and realistic!

  • Zoe Fischer

    I don’t think working for free is a good idea. We are all busy professionals who have our own needs and cannot be used to regularly do volunteering. I do donate to charities when I can and choose to. That’s my way of giving back.
    Teaching someone for free on a regular basis is nonsensical to me. And how do you know if that ‘poor’ 3rd world person is who and what they say they are? There are lots of people out there who will abuse your kindness and well, naivete. On the contrary, creating a forum for them to go to is a great idea.
    I also don’t have a problem with saying no. Unless you want to go big and be very visible (with all the resulting bullying and abuse by ‘offended’ freeloaders, you don’t need to be too diplomatic about it. I only work with professional adults who understand the value of time (and money) and I’ve never had this problem. I prefer to have a small, selective niche client base rather than put myself out there in a big way. I don’t even have a Facebook account. I know other people who do the same and have no problem with freeloaders.

  • Bery interesting. i can say that I have had one student write and ask for free help through BlabMate. Thankfully, he was very nice when I nicely explained that I did not work for free. But I really like Rob’s advice. It is a great way to connect, which is one of my strengths. Another tip I can give if I may is that do not disturb on your smart phone is your best friend. If people Skype me at 3:00AM, I don’t even hear it.

  • Thanks for the article and very interesting points!

  • i’ve just read this post again after being a little frustrated. I don’t get too many requests for free help, but I do get told in various ways that I’m too expensive and that a lot of people can’t afford me. That is balanced out by the occasional student who explains that my prices aren’t too high, just too high for them. If one doesn’t want to work with a student or 2 for free, what about barter. For example, in exchange for web design services that one can’t really afford. Could lead to some referrals. I like the FB group idea as well.