Finding Your Own Niche As A Teacher Entrepreneur — Valentina Riccardi

Bryn Bonino
14 min readJul 6, 2020

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Intro:

Hi! I’m Valentina and I am a teacher trainer and communication trainer. I’m an introvert with a love of technology and I help educators craft unique learning experiences by exploring different tools, styles and strategies.

You know, I’m an introvert too. I think that’s important to establish, because I’ve learned that it’s always helpful to build a business that goes along with your natural and inherent way of being. So, can we start this interview by learning a bit about how you got your start working as an English teacher?

Do you know what it’s like when you’re fairly happy with what you’re doing, things are going well, and yet you can’t shake the feeling that something is missing?

I had a stable corporate job with a really nice team of people but I had little creative freedom and I felt like most of what I was doing had no real impact on others.

I slowly started thinking back at my previous work experiences, looking for answers and clues, but languages were the only real thing that all those jobs had in common.

It was fairly obvious once I’d realised it. Like many bilingual kids, languages were a big part of my life and my Identity, they had opened so many doors for me — I had even tutored other students all through high-school.

And that’s how the seed was planted.

The strange thing is that, at the time, I didn’t even consider working for a language school. I went in with the idea that I was going to get certified and work as a language teacher and consultant. And that’s exactly what I did for the first 4–5 years.

I think the smartest thing I did at the time was to tell EVERYONE about my decision and to get in touch with previous employers to see if they needed any language-related services.

I think the smartest thing I did at the time was to tell EVERYONE about my decision and to get in touch with previous employers to see if they needed any language-related services.

It wasn’t much, but it did keep me sane and afloat through those initial months while I was setting everything up and getting my TEFL certification.

You know, I had a similar start as you. Straight out of college, I started at a corporate job. But something was missing. So I quit to work in education. And since then, I’m so glad that I’ve followed my intuition to lead me where I need to go. When you first started working in TEFL education, what were your first experiences like?

It was challenging. Much more than I thought it would be.

Though I was already living in Italy and spoke Italian — which makes a huge difference if you’re choosing the freelance route — I had to get used to a new profession and life as a freelancer, with everything that comes with it.

The hardest aspects for me to cope with were definitely the sense of uncertainty, the rabbit hole that is Italian bureaucracy and having to figure out pricing that would factor in taxes and expenses without having a clear idea of what they would amount to or even what students would be willing to pay!

From a teaching perspective, my first year was all about trying different things out and really pushing myself.

From a teaching perspective, my first year was all about trying different things out and really pushing myself.

All my clients at the time came from ads or word of mouth and I remember saying Yes to any and all opportunities.

Initially, I had no idea how to market myself and I had no teacher friends I could bounce ideas off of, so all I could really do was look at what other people were doing online, try to mimic what I thought might work for me, and constantly change and adapt.

Despite those obstacles, the feedback I was getting from my students was really good and it helped me push forward even in those moments when I considered giving up and finding another office job. And even though it wasn’t easy, I’m really happy with the way things turned out.

Tell me a bit more about how you used ads to find your initial clients. I’ve talked to quite a few TEFL teachers in Rome, and nobody has told me about that tactic.

I think personal ads are a great tool, especially if you live in an area of the city that is not served by language schools. I would use sites like Kijiji.it, Subito.it or Bakeka.it to place very detailed (and location-specific) ads about my services, but also physical spaces like those bulletin boards you can find in universities, local libraries and some student cafes. I probably picked this habit up when I used to offer private lessons in high-school.I know some teachers see it as unreliable or unprofessional, but it’s a great way to get in touch with students that live or work in your neighbourhood, and both parents and professionals appreciate the convenience of having a teacher that lives nearby and is easy to reach.

That said, like anything else you do to promote yourself, it is hard work and you need to stick with it to see real results.

With time I learnt that including a lot of details, the right keywords and a price was the most effective strategy for me, as well as updating my ads as often as I could (sometimes even multiple times per week during key periods like September and January).

With time I learnt that including a lot of details, the right keywords and a price was the most effective strategy for me, as well as updating my ads as often as I could.

A clear, no-nonsense ad might not get you as many queries as a vague one, but this means that the people contacting you will be interested in the specific services (and conditions) you offer. It also pays off to have some standard pre-written replies that you can quickly copy and paste in your emails. People will normally contact more than one teacher and if you can answer reasonably quickly you have better chances of landing that job.

You know, in my years working as a freelancer, I’ve tried a lot of strategies to get noticed for what I do. What you just mentioned is exactly what I’ve found that works too. The local ads and personalized messaging seems to really get results. You’ve come a long way from those first days teaching English. Can you tell us what you do now?

Yes, quite a long way.

I went from teaching business English to being a coordinator until I eventually landed on soft skills and teacher training.

Right now I would say I have two distinct roles:

  • I teach communication and soft skills (in English) to corporate teams (so… effective presentations, public speaking, relational communication… )
  • I offer teacher training to freelance educators and training centres (ranging from tools to methodologies — though I really enjoy focusing on building a teaching business and creating a unique strategy)

My experience with blended programmes and teacher training really came in handy when Covid-19 first hit. For the first couple of months I was heavily involved in helping fellow educators transition to online teaching. And this experience has really shaped the way I work now.

You seem to have crafted unique offerings that are not typical for someone who works in the TEFL profession. Can you tell us how you came to these two roles?

I wish I could tell you that I knew exactly where I wanted to go and what I needed to do to get there but, unfortunately, that was not the case for me.

It had more to do with trial and error, being fortunate enough to encounter people that were willing to support me and give me a chance, and embracing challenges — or even actively looking for them!

In a way, both my current roles stem from two values I feel very strongly about: personal growth and collaboration.

In a way, both my current roles stem from two values I feel very strongly about: personal growth and collaboration.

I was always interested in anything to do with personal growth, soft skills and productivity so it was natural for me to spend time learning about these topics, and then work them into my lessons. I also have a very hands-on and practical teaching style, so what started as simulation exercises within longer ESL courses, gradually turned into stand-alone workshops.

My experience with teacher training had a similar progression.

After years of working completely on my own, I decided to join a language school and was really excited about the opportunity to finally work with other teachers, share ideas and learn from each other.

I started collaborating with my colleagues on larger projects, then helping them integrate tools and techniques into their courses which probably helped my former employers see me as a viable candidate for a coordinator role, and it went on from there.

I’d love to be able to point to a defining moment that led me to where I am today, but I can’t. For me, it had more to do with constantly taking small steps forward and putting myself in challenging situations even when I didn’t feel 100% confident I was ready for them.

Trying something new is scary. It’s meant to be.

We can decide to shy away from it and go back to what we’ve always done, or take a deep breath and step forward knowing that we won’t be perfect — or even particularly good — right away, but we will get there with time and practiceuntil it’s time to take another step forward!

We can decide to shy away from it and go back to what we’ve always done, or take a deep breath and step forward knowing that we won’t be perfect.

Looking back now, I can recognize that my main purpose has always been to help people share their knowledge and ideas in their own unique way.

It started out by helping people overcome language barriers and with time it has progressed to supporting professionals who want to improve their communication skills and teachers who want to explore unique and engaging ways to deliver their training.

My clients and the type of services I offer have changed, but the sentiment behind it, in a way, is still the same.

To me, it seems like what has rooted all of your pivoting is knowing what you value the most. In my own branding work, finding your values is critical to discovering your own What have you found to be the most successful ways to get more prospective clients interested in your business?

Through the years I have tried ads, social media, cold calling clients, partnering with language centres and I’ve learnt that if you stick with something long enough you will get decent results from all those methods.

That said, it pays off to know exactly what it is that you’re offering, and I think “English Lessons” is too broad of a definition to generate interest.

There are so many people and companies out there selling “language lessons” that you just end up being a very small fish in a very large pond.

There are so many people and companies out there selling “language lessons” that you just end up being a very small fish in a very large pond.

It might feel like you’re keeping your options open and, sure, some schools really appreciate having someone on staff that can work with any type of client. But when you’re selling directly to your students, without a middle man, it’s actually harder to get them to trust you and get excited about what you have to offer if it’s not marketed specifically to them and presented as the best solution to solve their needs.

Once I truly embraced this concept, it was easier to call specific companies, get an interview and actually sell my services.

I wasn’t promising them something generic like “I customize my lessons around the needs of my clients”. I was telling them that I worked exclusively with tech companies, naming names and bringing in material that reflected my best work with those clients.

Some people say that your first year in business you should not worry about a niche. And some say the “riches are in the niches”. What would you say about finding a niche to a struggling teacher entrepreneur?

This is such an important point, and it’s something that a lot of entrepreneurs, whether they are teachers or not, struggle with. I know for my own branding business, it took me several months to figure out a positioning that would intuitively feel good and allow me to sell something authentic.

Choosing to work with specific levels, age groups or professional fields makes it so much easier to market yourself and create a reputation. Plus, it saves you a lot of time and money when you’re creating educational and promotional material.

Word of mouth has always been the single most impactful form of promotion for me and it’s even more effective when you have a niche, because people will feel more confident when recommending you to others with similar needs, and their advice will resonate so much more. Just imagine what it feels like to the parent of a teenager struggling at school to hear another parent say “ This teacher really helped my son get back on track. He got a B in his last test”.

That same review would not be nearly as impactful to a professional who is looking for someone to help him prepare for a job interview in English.

That’s a really good point. When it’s time to find your niche, what have you found to be successful?

Word of mouth has always been the single most impactful form of promotion for me and it’s even more effective when you have a niche.

First of all, I’d say that, contrary to popular belief, you can have more than one niche and you can go about it gradually.

As I said before, in my first year as a teacher I accepted any and all clients.

If this is where you are in your career right now, then you might consider looking at your current clients to understand what type of students you work well with.

Though I did briefly work with kids and really enjoyed it, I knew from the start that professionals would be a better fit for me.

But it doesn’t necessarily need to be about age. You could choose to focus on a specific level, professional field or even interest.

I had a colleague who taught almost exclusively musicians and another who was known for her work with absolute beginners.

You could also choose to focus on an obstacle or barrier. Private Teachers that can support dyslexic students are hard to find and always in high demand, for example.

You could also choose to focus on an obstacle or barrier.

In my case, I think it helped to look outside of my teaching experience.

I asked you about how to find a niche, because I think this is one of the hardest things to do when you’re first getting started. I think you make a good point on the different ways you can find a niche. One thing that I’ve learned is it’s a good idea to find some problem that really bothers you, then you offer the solution to that problem. This way, you’ll be very passionate about what you do. And this passion will carry you a long way. A lot of online teachers have problems with professional and adult students cancelling lessons. How have you been able to get around this problem?

I’ve always had a keen interest in technology and had worked in an IT Department at one point, so I had a good understanding of what the specific needs and interests of my tech clients would be. I also tried to focus on companies that shared my personal values. Startups, for example, were a great fit for me. They were open to alternative ideas, appreciated the use of technology as part of the learning experience and valued my practical yet casual approach. It was easier for me to approach them, land teaching jobs and be truly valued for what I was offering.

That is the biggest downside when working with professionals! They will cancel! Often!

I initially tried to enforce a cancellation policy, but it just didn’t work for me.

I had strong long-lasting relationships with the majority of my students and, in most cases, I could understand why they were cancelling. At one point I was working with doctors and nurses, and last-minute delays and changes in their schedule were a really big problem for me, but I still found it difficult to apply penalties or demand payment for last-minute cancellations because I knew that it wasn’t really their fault.

What can you do in those cases?!

Ultimately, my solution was to start teaching groups only — which, if you think about it, is another way of niching.

Ultimately, my solution was to start teaching groups only — which, if you think about it, is another way of niching.

Groups were — and still are — much more aligned with my personal teaching style, they allowed me to offer reasonable prices for each individual student while still getting paid what I was worth, and I stopped having problems with cancellations.

We tend to associate freelance ESL teaching with one-on-one lessons or small groups, but there are so many other combinations and solutions we could be creating.

I’ve met teachers who offer monthly subscriptions (like a gym where you can sign up for different lessons), mentorship weeks (that combine video lessons with chats and real-time zoom sessions), immersive programmes and so much more.

And I think, now more than ever, there is a demand for these alternative solutions.

I think your solution of group classes is very creative. I also like the monthly subscription model idea. I can especially see that working if you have products that you sell.

What do you wish more TEFL teacher entrepreneurs knew more about when it comes to running their own businesses?

There are 3 very important lessons that I’ve had to learn over and over again.

First of all, Teaching IS a Business.

Teaching IS a Business.

Teaching is widely considered a vocation and, sure, a lot of us get into it because we want to support students and impact other people’s lives in a meaningful way.

But if we don’t learn to take a step back and think about certain aspects of teaching from a business perspective, then how can we expect to grow or thrive — or break even.

Another very important lesson for me has to do with Authenticity.

As we said before there are so many different ways of teaching English and I think we owe it to ourselves to embrace our personal talents, our values and what makes us different instead of conforming to the general idea of what an ESL teacher should be.

We owe it to ourselves to embrace our personal talents, our values and what makes us different instead of conforming to the general idea of what an ESL teacher should be.

Lastly, I would say to stop seeing other teachers as competitors and start thinking of them as collaborators.

Through the years I was fortunate enough to meet some truly amazing people who have supported me, recommended me to clients and companies and given me the type of honest and helpful feedback that you can’t get from anyone who doesn’t work in our field. I don’t think I would have gotten to where I am without their help.

Stop seeing other teachers as competitors and start thinking of them as collaborators.

Those are excellent points to make. I really hope that those who read this post will take to heart what you’ve just said.

Okay, so if others want to connect with you online, how can they do that?

I’m VERY active on LinkedIn, I think it’s a great way to connect and have meaningful discussions with other educators.

I also have a brand new blog which will soon feature tips, interviews, new courses and services and I love it when people write to me, even if it’s just to say “hi”.

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/valentina-m-riccardi

Website: https://www.spark.cafe

Email: valentina [ at ] spark [ dot ] cafe

Thank you so much Valentina! I really enjoyed collaborating with you for this interview.

Originally published at https://makealeap.co/ on July 6, 2020.

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