Thursday, December 31, 2009

Time Is Money, Really

A wise woman once told me, "Don't give yourself away for free." *

This is some tough advice to follow - especially in the ELT field. It's tough because this industry is filled with individuals who love their job. They spend hours creating activities, churning out tests, marking exams, meeting with unruly students, having a chat with the director, and quite often not a minute of that time is paid.

For a travailleur indépendant, the weight of time on one's shoulders grows heavier with additional billing, communication with administrators, late payments, the occasional mise en demeure and filing those rice-paper-thin receipts you get from the café next door.

As I say, you have to love this job.

Let's look at it this way:
  • The average "vacataire," or temporary teacher in France, at a university gets 33€ Net an hour (see my previous post on "speaking in Net").**
  • The average English class is 2 hours a week, so 66€ Net per week for one class.
  • The average class size is 20 students (give or take 5).
  • In addition to in-class time, the teacher is responsible for:
  1. Correcting homework
  2. Writing exams
  3. Correcting exams
  4. Informing the direction of any incidents
  5. Carrying out quality control with respect to the student attendance, behavior and participation
  6. Attending meetings with the administrators
Some would call this "giving yourself away for free." Others call it "part of the job."

Here are two examples:

Let's say you've just received a 200-word essay for homework from each of your 20 students.

2 hours of face-to-face time that week,
+ 10 minutes per essay (=200mn or 3h20) (incl. reading, corrections and comments on the mark)

66/5h20 = 12.38 per class, per week (or 6.19 / h)

Let's say you have an end-of-term exam coming up. You want to make sure the students are able to demonstrate what they have learned over the entire semester (e.g. ten weeks). Worse: the direction wants the exam to reflect the students' "level" in English.***

The exam takes 2h30 to write:
  • 30mn writing the grammar section (the harvest from past work and lessons)
  • 30mn writing the vocabulary section (ditto)
  • 60mn writing the reading section (choosing an article and writing comprehension questions)
  • 30mn writing the essay section (choosing a subject for which all the students can provide 200 words worth of content)
The final class of the week is devoted to an exam tutorial. = 2 hours.
Exam Day: Proctoring an exam at a public university is often unpaid. = 2 hours
4h30 for marking 20 exams:
  • grammar, vocabulary and reading section = 3mn 30sec per test = 1h10 for 20 tests.
  • +3h20 marking 20 essays (see example above)
The Final Tally
2h30 writing the exam
+2h final class (e.g. exam tutorial)
+2h Exam Day
+4h30 marking exams
11 hours

66€ / 11 hours = 6€ per class (or 3€ / h)

In this industry, it's very hard to take that wise woman's advice. Many don't have a choice. Or do they? Where can you fudge the numbers? Writing a shoddy exam? Marking homework without really reading it? Copying an easy-peasy exam from previous years even if it means it doesn't fit the content of the semester? How about not even giving homework assignments? Heck, just skip the exam, won't you?

If this is the case, then I guess we can safely say that you no longer love what you're doing and it is time for you to start considering other options.

*Ok, she should have said "free of charge" but let's not coupe les cheveux en quatre, OK?
**NB: Most public universities won't allow independents to bill them directly; thus the independent is treated like any other vacataire and paid six months after the work is completed (will be a future post, promise).
***This has to be one of the most misinterpreted, misused words in the English language. I have very strong views on language assessments. I agree with Bachman (1990) that there is no such thing as a perfect test that assesses a student's true language level.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

3, 2, 1, Charge!

The most common question new independent teachers ask me is: how much should we charge? Before you ask: "what can we charge?" you have to ask: "what do we earn?"

In France many teachers have grown accustomed to earning between 15 and 22€ an hour net.

Frankly, I don't know why anyone "speaks in Brut" (before taxes). Hiring managers at language schools "speak in Brut." Many teachers I know "speak in Brut." At the interview, they give you the Brut hourly wage and hope you don't bring up Net (after taxes). Friends: what's the point of "thinking in Brut" if you don't pocket that sum?

Below, I walk you through how much you are worth as a non-independent and calculate the minimum price you could charge a language school once you become an independent.
  • Look at the bottom of one of your monthly Bulletin de Paie (pay stub) at your Net pay (Net a Payer).
  • Find your Total Brut pay, in bold.
  • Look at the right-hand column. It should be called: Charges Patronales. At the bottom of the column, in bold, you'll find the total charges patronales. This is a tax your employer pays to have you on staff.
  • Add the Charges Patronales to the Total Brut.
  • Divide the total by the number of hours you worked that month.
  • The result is how much you are worth, per hour, for that language establishment.
Let's look at this example.
  • One month, as a CDII teacher, I clocked in 41 hours at a language school.
  • I was paid 714.82 € Net (17.43€ / hr)
  • My Brut pay was 918.40 €
  • The Charges Patronales was 394.81 €
  • 918.40 € + 394.81 € = 1313.21€
  • 1313.21€ ÷ 41 hours = 32.03€ / hr
Once an independent, I decided to give myself a little raise, wrote a proposal for 35€ / hr and the language school accepted. After the charges and taxes I paid as an independent, I pocketed a bit more than my days as a CDII teacher.

When calculating your hourly rate, it's usually best to be conservative and assume that 37% goes towards charges and taxes. So with the above pay, I made 20€ as an independent instead of 17.43€. That's still pretty low if we calculate the time it takes to do all the paperwork, the billing, the pay chase and the other nitty gritty.

In a future post, I'll go into why time really is money for an independent teacher in France.
But at least you can now look at your Bulletin de Paie with a informed eye and charge full steam ahead.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Advantages and Disadvantages

Like any business, being self-employed has its advantages and disadvantages, pros and cons, good vs. bad, upsides and up-side-downs...

While weighing your do-I-or-don't-I options for going independent in France, consider these:

Professional Advantages
  • You can explore unlimited realms of ELT around the world,
  • You can accept work from almost every language school and company that rings you up,
  • You have the freedom to accept other offers, not just in teaching (e.g. materials and test writing),
  • You can accept unlimited vacataire offers (being independent IS your employeur principal),
  • You can subcontract your freelance friends,
  • You develop basic accounting skills.
Financial Advantages
  • You have more flexibility with earnings and spending (e.g. fees, investments, etc),
  • You can declare up to 50% of your rent as a business expense* not to mention telephone, internet, equipment, etc.,
  • Training (e.g. TESOL France membership, attending and speaking at international conferences, etc) is written off as a business expense,
  • If you are married, the reduction on income tax spills over onto your spouse.
* 50% with a studio; approx 40% if a 1-bedroom apt. Consult your accountant.

Personal Advantages
  • You are your own boss,
  • It gives you an edge in your classes especially if you teach English for Specific Purposes (ESP) such as in Business or Finance,
  • Your employer goes from being your boss to being your client,
  • It looks great on your CV,
  • You can develop self-promotional skills,
  • It will improve your French.
  • It can cause administrative overload, especially in the beginning,
  • Independents often feel like they're drowning in mail, taxes, estimates, billing, banking issues, etc.,
  • Dealing with the jargon – in English and in French - can cause migraines,
  • Technically, you are personally liable for your assets should the business fail or a client calls into question your professional responsibility. *
* But last time I checked, teaching English wasn't considered "risky business" ... unless you count teaching the present perfect.

What does it take?
  • Extreme patience
  • Meticulous organization
  • Creativity
  • A tough gut
  • Determination
  • Assertiveness
  • Functional French
  • Pride & a tough ego ... yet: humbleness
  • If applicable, a supportive spouse, ideally French speaking
As you weigh these advantages and disadvantages remember: going independent isn't for everyone. But neither are bungee jumping, guerrilla marketing and escargot.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

English Teachers in France are "Independent"... Naturally.

The steps for Going Independent are a plenty. Just thinking about it can take a while. The good news is whatever your status, you can start thinking about it today, now, during your lunch break.


(Contrat à Durée Indéterminée: long-term contract)
Many schools may offer you a CDI...while many may not. Here are some CDI basics:
  • Congés payés (vacations) are covered by your employer
  • You receive tickets restaurants, comité d’entreprises, mutuelle, and other “perks”
  • You get sick leave and/or maternity leave
  • Your employer takes out Social Security
  • Your employer should offer professional training (DIF)
  • A three-month notice requirement for quitting
CDD (Contrat à Durée Déterminée or fixed-term contracts)
It appears to me that the majority of contracts for teachers in France are CDDs. Most go for 20 hours or 40 hours, then stop. Teachers often get used to juggling more than one CDD at a time (I knew one who juggled a whopping six!)
  • You are paid an hourly wage
  • Social charges are deducted from your pay slip by your employer
  • You may get compensation for transportation. No compensation for meals, equipment, etc.
  • Some sick leave
CDII Contract (intermittent unlimited term contract). I've also heard people call this a "vacataire" contract. I call it the "ramen noodles" contract. Basically, it offers the employer an alternative to illegally churning out countless CDD contracts. It offers no perks for the teacher.
  • The previous CDD info is the same, except you are guaranteed a handful of hours per year (e.g. 350)
  • A three-month notice is usually required if you want to terminate your contract
  • You are responsible for filling your own timetable
  • You are responsible for your own vacations
  • You are responsible for writing off business-related expenses (lunches, travel)
  • While sickness is covered, sick leave isn't. For additional insurance see: la loi Madelin
  • You're responsible for your retirement – See: CIPAV
  • Professional training is a “business expense”
  • No long-term commitment
  • Stealing clients is illegal and you can and will be sued under French law
In conclusion: Teachers in France in the continuing education sector are naturally "independent."

All teachers in the aforementioned categories are used to salary variations, looking for clients (or that next 20 to 40-hour gig), variations in demand, juggling different time tables and the joys of French administration.

Apple pies and tarte tintins. Roughly the same ingredients. Only one will turn your life upside down.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

What's in a Name? Initialisms Galore!

July 14th is "Bastille Day."

News flash! The French don't even call it that, not to mention "Jour de la Bastille."

They call it: La Fête Nationale.

It's the perfect metaphor for working as a travailleur indépendant. The administrative documents we independents churn out on a monthly basis often fall under more than one name, which can wreak havoc on our precious filing systems.
Just being a travailleur indépendant means you are also:
A freelancer
An independent
Profession liberale (Fr)
Entreprise Individualle (Fr)

As a linguist, I am no stranger to multiple names for the same thing. Just look at the latest research on English used as an international language. In a recent talk I gave in Cardiff, I showed 18 terms for roughly the same phenomenon (English as a Lingua Franca). Juggling the jargon France is no different.

Initialisms Galore!
Don't get me started. In the English teaching field, we've got: ELT, ESL, EFL, ESP,

TEFL, TESOL, EAP, TEA, IATEFL, BESIG, CEFR....Even David Crystal's blog is an initialism! (DC Blog).

Being a freelancer means you should initially know about:
  • URSSAF: Unions de Recouvrement des Cotisations de Sécurité Sociale et d'Allocations Familiales
  • SIRET and SIREN (roughly translated as "company registration number")
  • INSEE: Institut national de la statistique et des études économiques
  • Code NAF / Code APE: (trade sectors. Language training falls under 804C, generally)
  • CIPAV: Caisse Interprofessionnelle de Prévoyance et d'Assurance Vieillesse
  • DIF: Droit Individuel à la Formation
And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Get ready for more alphabet soup.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Excuse Me for My Lateness

Here's a well-known travailleur indépendant's joke:

Two men are driving in the middle of the desert and the car breaks down.
: Oh dear. We've run out of gas. We don't have any cell phones, food or water. We're going to die.
Passenger: Did you send in your URSSAF payments?
Driver: No, why?

Passenger: Don't worry. They'll find us.

I don't know one independent in France who hasn't received one "rappel de cotisations" (translation: reminder of payment due). If you:
1) move,
2) go on vacation in August,
3) don't send your cotisations registered,
4) don't call the offices every hour of the day to make sure your check / TIP arrived safely,

then you will receive, at some point, a "rappel de cotisations."

I'll never forget the day I arrived home to find a letter from CIPAV (retirement):

Date: 28 septembre 2007
Vous êtes redevable d'une somme de 16,651.00 euros, au titre du régime d'assurance vieillesse de base, et de l'invalidité-décès que nous vous invitons a régler avant le 30 novembre 2007.
Veuillez agréer, Madame, l'expression de notre..."

I'm not a fainter. But on September 28th 2007 I sure was! Pay up 16,651.00 euros in two months!! Were they out of their minds?
Turns out, they were.
URSSAF didn't inform CIPAV of my existing company. So, for two years, I hadn't been sending off the required payments for retirement. Whoops?
Discovering this, I sent CIPAV a friendly note saying: "Hey, fellas, I'm ready to start paying you." To thank me, they send a bill the size of a downpayment on a McMansion.

There's a happy ending. My accountant, let's call him Mr Miyagi, informed me that government agencies, such as CIPAV, churn out false "rappel" on a daily basis to spook unsuspecting business owners into thinking it was the business owner's fault. Again, it's URSSAF's job to touch base with CIPAV. In my case they didn't. In my case, and in many other cases, I'm slapped into thinking it was my fault.

In the end, there's no need to ask your doctor to up your prescription of valium. Take each rappel in stride. And remember what each of our students whimpers upon arriving 15 minutes after the lesson started: "Please, pardon me for my lateness."

Saturday, July 4, 2009

The Red Pill or the Blue Pill?

Becoming an independent is a bit like Neo and Morpheus's meeting in the first Matrix film. "If you take the blue pill, the story ends, you awake in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe." You take the red pill, and you wake up in a plastic egg filled with gooey, enzymatic Jello.

The red pill symbolizes the truth. Alice's rabbit-hole. An independent's ticket to Wonderland.
But as Morpheus warns: "After this, there is no turning back."

To get the full effect, watch the video clips from the film:
Short version:
Long version (including the gooey scene):

It's positively eerie how this scene ties in perfectly to taking those first steps as an independent. Read on:

Morpheus: I imagine that right now you’re feeling a little like Alice, tumbling down the rabbit-hole…You’re here because you know something. What you know, you can’t explain. But you feel it....That there’s something wrong with the world (1). You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad.
Morpheus: The Matrix is everywhere...You can feel it when you go to work, or when you go to church, or when you pay your taxes (2). It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.

Neo: What truth?

Morpheus: That you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else, you were born into bondage (3), ...Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself. (He produces a box containing two colored pills, one blue and one red.)
This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back (4). You take the blue pill, the story ends, you awake in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes. (Pause. Neo reaches for the red pill.) Remember: all I’m offering is the truth, nothing more (5). (Neo swallows the red pill with a glass of water...four months later he receives his first two bills from UR$$AF and RAM to the tune of 428 euro.)

Source: Larry and Andy Wachowski (1996),-The.html

(1) All teachers who have experience with CDD, CDI, CDII, or vacataire contracts know this!
(2) Morpheus' first mention of URSSAF, CIPAV and RSI.
(3) Second mention of CDD, CDII, and vacataire contracts.
(4) Sadly, this is true for independents. It's very difficult to go back.

(5) Morpheus must have read my mind.

Start-up letter to send to UR$$AF

Here is a draft of the letter you can send to URSSAF to inform them of your intentions of starting a independent company. Think of this letter as the red pill Neo takes at the beginning of the film, "The Matrix."

Centres de Formalités des Entreprises
3 rue de Tolbiac
75701 Paris Cedex 13
Paris, le 15 juin 2_ _ _
Objet : Création d’entreprise individuelle
Madame, Monsieur
Je soussigné (your name), née le *(birthdate) 19** à (place of birth), immatriculée à l’INSEE sous le numéro (SS#), demeurant (address), souhaite m’installer à compter du (date you want to start) comme formatrice /eur en anglais pour adultes en qualité de travailleur indépendant.
En vous remerciant de votre obligeance, je vous prie d’agréer l'expression de ma considération distinguée.
(your name)

About this blog

July 4th: America celebrates her Independence Day. Here in France, for this southern belle, every day is Independence Day - or rather an Independent's Day. Every July 4th, I'll pop open a bottle of champagne to mark the anniversary of my "travailleur indépendant" status. It has been a journey filled with surprises, triumphs and heart attacks. Being a travailleur indépendant is not for everyone. This blog is thus dedicated to those who are thinking about taking the leap, have already jumped, and who have landed in the thorny thicket known as Freelancing in France.