Profile of an ESL School Owner

By Dr. Sarah Elaine Eaton

To be the owner of a language school requires a comprehensive skill set. Since I began working in this sector in the mid-1990s, I’ve met hundreds of language school directors and owners. Those who direct programs at large institutions differ, both in character and skills, from those who own their school.

Those who don’t own their own schools, but who develop products or services that they market themselves, either to other schools or directly to students have much in common with those who own schools. They share perspectives, skills and needs.

This article profiles the typical owner of an ESL school, as well as those who develop (and hence, own) services or products that they market. It is based both on my PhD research, as well as many years of working as a consultant to those in leadership positions in ESL and EFL programs.

Those who take the plunge and open their own school are a special class of educational leaders. As you read the profile, be aware that not every characteristic will apply to every single ESL or EFL school owner. The point isn’t to foster or propagate stereotypes. Instead, the goal to understand over-arching themes about people who share characteristics, experiences and outlooks. Each individual school owner has his or her own unique quirks, strengths and weaknesses. And every single one adds something to our profession.

Main characteristics

Hard-working, industrious, optimistic, educated, passionate, entrepreneurial, ambitious, creative, have at least a working knowledge of one other language, have international experience, care deeply about the student experience, middle class.


ESL school owners wear many hats. In general, they will have experience learning a second or foreign language themselves. From there, they likely went on to teach a language, perhaps becoming disgruntled with the inefficiencies of the bureaucracy they observed around them and had an itch to do things better.

They understand that an international experience can profoundly shape a person’s character and values, expanding their horizons in ways they could not have imagined previously. They know this because they have had international experiences themselves, possibly as a language learner or teacher.

Language school owners are educated. Many have higher degrees. Those without formal degrees are likely to have certificates from a variety of courses that may include everything from education to management to hospitality. They hunger for knowledge themselves and cannot imagine their lives without learning. They have an inner drive to share their love of learning with others.

Unlike administrators of ESL, EFL or other English programs at large institutions, this group is highly entrepreneurial. Their creativity fuels an ambition to do things better and put a personal touch on all their work. They may believe that large organizations stifle their creativity and potential to work in the way they envision. They would rather spend long hours creating a school of their own design than punch a clock at an institution.

Language school owners are passionate about their work, often driven by the deep-rooted belief that learning a language can have a profoundly positive and lasting effect on students. They care deeply about their students and consider them the lifeblood of their school.


The long hours they invest in their school, coupled with their sheer passion and drive to see it succeed, may also cause them to be overly protective of their projects. The language school owner may benefit most from learning to delegate and work in teams and most of all, trust that others will not run away with their ideas. The truth is, few others have their drive or vision, characteristics which they likely take for granted in themselves.

The ESL school owner likely comes from a middle class background, but may struggle with the reality that schools must generate enough revenue to be sustainable. In general, this group may be more idealistic than realistic when it comes to finances. Taking courses in business management and marketing, and making wise choices about who to partner with, take under their wing or seek advice from, may mean being able to a school that is as financially viable as it is inspired.

Language school owners must combine their love of languages and their passion to help students succeed with sound business acumen. They must strike a balance between investing what is necessary to ensure their school’s success over the long term while ensuring that they don’t burn out in the process. Most of all, they can rest assured that they do make a difference.


Eaton, S. E. (2009). Marketing of Revenue-generating ESL Programs at the University of Calgary: A qualitative study. University of Calgary, Calgary.
Eskey, D. E. (1997). The IEP as a nontraditional entity. In M. A. Christison & F. L. Stoller (Eds.), A handbook for language program administrators (pp. 21-30). Burlingame, CA: Alta Book Center Publishers.
Impey, G., & Underhill, N. (1994). The ELT manager’s handbook: Practical advice on managing a successful language school. Oxford: Heineman English Language Teaching.

Written by Dr. Sarah Elaine Eaton for August 2010
Author of 101 Ways to Market Your Language Program, Dr. Sarah Eaton is an expert on the management and marketing of language schools. She coaches school directors on how to manage more effectively and market more powerfully. Visit her website at or her blog at

One Comment

  • James Crosby says:

    I find one of your comments in the “main characteristics” paragraph very offensive. To suppose that it is only the middle class that has a working knowledge of english language risible. Although it seems to be the domain of the MC, please don’t forget us prols. who, by hard work and effort, have “broken into “your world. Please excuse the working class pun.

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