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Out on a limb: Freelancing in Finland

In the second episode of our two-part feature on business English in Finland, trainer Lynn Nikkanen shares her experiences of forging a teaching and writing career in the nordic country. Originally from England, Lynn is now well-integrated into Finnish society and has an established in-company client base who appreciate her experience, flexibility and creativity, as well as a prolific career as a course book writer. Lynn tells us about how she became a freelancer and shares some tips on how to make a success of it. She also talks about how she got into course book writing and what the day-to-day work of creating course book material entails. Although she may sometimes feel like she´s "out on a limb", Lynn stays in touch with the rest of the ELT community through professional development opportunities and training courses online.

Lynn Nikkanen

Lynn Nikkanen works as a freelance in-company business English trainer in Helsinki, teaching mainly one-to-one. She has also co-authored over thirty course books for a local Finnish publisher, primarily for the upper secondary school market. Since completing an MA TESOL by distance learning, she has recently completed the Cert ICT and Cert IBET courses, both thanks to online learning programmes (and a particularly long, dark winter). She is currently working on new multi-format English grammar material with three Finnish colleagues, and bracing herself for yet another peripatetic and parky winter season on the business English trail.

CH What’s it like to work as a freelancer in Finland?

LN: If my memory serves me right, I was nudged towards full-fledged freelancing when a government training centre discontinued the language teaching side of their operations, and the clients I was teaching stayed loyal to me. I was very wary in my early teaching days of ‘poaching’ clients from the language schools that employed me, but it wasn’t uncommon for students to enquire about continuing lessons on a private basis, and if they took the initiative, I was inclined to say yes. In essence, language learners form a ‘verbal agreement’ with their teacher, not with the language school that provides the teacher. However, as unbusinesslike as it sounds, I have no formal channels for marketing my services and generally rely on goodwill and personal recommendations to retain existing clients and obtain new ones. This makes freelancing as precarious as it is liberating. On the one hand, you can choose where, when and whom you teach to a large extent, and negotiate decent rates of pay along with the syllabus. It’s also possible to build a direct and open working relationship with training managers, without third-party interference, which can sometimes just confound arrangements. On the other hand, it’s a vulnerable position to be in as it’s impossible to match up to the marketing muscle of large, established language training companies and the range of services and on-site facilities they provide. The only way to differentiate myself from the competition is by offering a highly personalized service with equally high availability (i.e. willing to work evenings and weekends). In addition, there are no such niceties as holiday pay or sponsored professional development when you freelance and, of course, you can’t afford to get ill. Yet despite the inevitable drawbacks, I’m willing to wager that once a business English teacher finds their feet, or gains a toehold, as a freelancer, they are unlikely to revert to working for a language school.

CH: What advice would you give to other teachers who are thinking of turning freelance?

LN: I don’t know anyone in this neck of the woods who starts working directly with clients before putting in time with a language school that procures teaching hours on their behalf. In spite of the relative job security that this offers, I would definitely advise teachers to strike out on their own–but only after notching up considerable classroom experience and cultivating a personal reputation for professionalism, coupled with flexibility and the ability to get on with anyone and everyone. Professional qualifications and experience are a necessary but not sufficient prerequisite for success here. In fact, I can’t emphasize the relationship-building aspect of freelancing strongly enough. Perhaps it’s because I teach predominantly one-to-one that sensitivity to the affective variables seems to be such an important factor in gaining return clients or ‘regulars’. At the expense of stating the obvious, learning a language can be a humbling experience for professional adults who suddenly find themselves verbally incapacitated in the L2, and they are more likely to put in a sustained effort with a teacher they like and in whose company they feel at ease. This is especially true for the job-experienced learners I teach. Many have very good receptive skills after ten years of English at school, but tend to be inhibited about their productive skills, and need a fair amount of encouragement and empathy to dispel so-called language anxiety and an over-preoccupation with accuracy.

In terms of job security, some recommend carving out a specialist training niche for yourself as a freelancer. This may well be true, but in a small (and expensive) country like Finland I think it’s important to gradually broaden the scope of your freelance offering by diversifying into related areas such as materials writing or translating, which usually calls for making a longer-term commitment to the host country. My teaching experience is limited to Finland, but settling here and getting a real feel for the local teaching context and language have helped me to branch out into publishing and copy-editing – and working round the clock when all the work descends at once. Freelancing can make you reluctant to turn work down, which can sometimes leave you swamped.

CH: How did you get into materials writing and what are the differences between creating materials for your own learners and for course books?

LN: I got into materials writing when a language-school owner, who was working as a materials writer himself for one of the local publishers, heard me using pop song lyrics to engage a teenage student. This serendipitous incident resulted in him asking me whether I’d be interested in writing material for a lower secondary course book series as they were looking for a second native speaker for their writing team. I went along for an interview and was hired. Twenty-odd years down the line, I’m still working on course book series, but mainly for upper secondary schools today. These are books that students study during the three years leading up to their matriculation exams. We work in writing teams composed of native English speakers and Finnish teachers of English. Each eight-book series plus accompanying material takes about five years to produce, and then has a ‘shelf life’ of about six to seven years maximum. What this means in practice is that as soon as you finish one series, it’s time to start planning the next. The national curriculum is drawn up by the Finnish Board of Education, but there’s plenty of room for manoeuvre and creativity when it comes to methodology and course content.

Apart from not having to follow a prescribed curriculum, I’d say that the biggest difference between creating materials for my own learners and for course books is that about fifty per cent of the reading texts and all the listening texts are purpose-written for the books we produce, especially during the first two years of upper secondary school. After that, we place greater reliance on authentic articles and literary extracts, and as writers we are also liable to pay the copyright fees on the material we select. Luckily, I never have to script texts for my own learners, only tasks or framework materials. I’d go as far as to say that all EFL teachers are materials writers by default, and it’s only a matter of time before we jettison the course books and start tweaking and tailoring material to fit. I can’t read anything these days without wondering whether it could be adapted as lesson material. I’m sure you know the feeling!