To Bee or Not to Bee: Here’s How This Kid Earns $100/Hr as a Spelling Coach
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in May 2018.
Cole Shafer-Ray knows how to spell it — and how to be one.
Or should I say, bee one. (Buckle up, you’re in for a lot of puns.)
The three-time Scripps National Spelling Bee participant and 2015 runner-up has turned his orthographic prowess into a career coaching others on how to out-spell the competition.
The high school junior from Norman, Oklahoma, has 10 regular clients whom he charges $100 an hour. He also has a wanna-bee waiting list of more than 400.
“It’s a lot more lucrative than a minimum wage job that most of my high school peers get,” says Shafer-Ray, who coaches most of his clients once or twice a week via Skype.
To Bee or Not to Bee
Before he’ll accept a new student, Shafer-Ray conducts a free initial diagnostic session to determine if he and the student are an appropriate match.
“Basically, I see how good the speller is,” the 17-year-old says. “I give them tips on what they need to work on — what their strengths and weaknesses are — and they can see if they want to continue with coaching.”
If both student and teacher agree to go forward, Shafer-Ray designs a course for the student, crafting weekly assignments that focus on language patterns and word origins.
In addition to the assignments, Shafer-Ray composes a customized list of spelling words and vocabulary words (Scripps added a multiple-choice vocabulary quiz as part of the preliminary rounds in 2013).
Before the next session, Shafer-Ray analyzes the words the students missed to address weaknesses and work on strategies. He says his method makes the experience as enjoyable for him as it is for the speller.
“Looking back on diagnostic sessions from spellers that I’ve had for almost a year and seeing where they are now, they’ve gotten so, so, so much better, and that is satisfying,” says Shafer-Ray, who started coaching in June 2017. “I’m still competitive, so I’m vicariously competitive through my students.”
Bee All You Can Bee
Among Cole’s hive of spellers is 12-year-old Jason Sorin.
Jason surprised his mom, Deborah, when he made it to the 2017 Scripps National Spelling Bee, where he tied for 41st after training with her for only eight weeks.
Deborah decided to hire a coach to help Jason compete this year — he was speller No. 391 in the 2018 Scripps National Spelling Bee — and chose Shafer-Ray based on the free advice and word lists she found on his website.
“I figured anyone that was that dedicated to giving away stuff for free probably had a lot of value to give for people who were willing to pay him,” Deborah says. “He’s worth every penny.”
In addition to coaching Jason on word origins and general spelling tips, Shafer-Ray provides time-saving lists for the spellers to study.
“The Bee used to give out word lists of 10,000 words, and now they don’t — they just use the dictionary, but clearly there are some shortcuts I wouldn’t have known about if it hadn’t been for Cole,” Deborah says. “Before we started working with Cole, Jason had about 11,000 or 12,000 words mastered, and now he’s at 25,000.”
Even at $100 an hour, Shafer-Ray is a bargain, according to Deborah, who points out that there are companies that advertise previous champs-turned-coaches for upwards of $200 per hour.
“We’re not coaching with him because he’s the cheapest,” Deborah says. “He’s really a much better value and I think knows a lot more than a lot of the adults who pretend to be experts in the field.”
A Spelling Bee Words List Worth Thousands
Shafer-Ray says coaching isn’t the most lucrative aspect of his business.
His spelling lists cast an even more enchanting, um, spell.
Available for download from his website spellingchamp.com, Shafer-Ray’s School Spelling Bee Supplement includes more than 1,200 words organized by grade level, along with his study tips and strategies for competing in school spelling bees.
That one sells for $35. He’s lost track of how many he’s sold.
He also receives private email requests for a variety of lists he’s created for the national-level competition, which are organized by themes like etymology and late-round words.
Those lists can fetch $200 to $300 each.
Then there’s the vaunted Master List.
Shafer-Ray says he started compiling the 90,000-word list nearly a decade ago, starting with the study materials his older brother used for a state spelling bee.
Since then, this busy bee has combined those lists with all of the study materials he’s utilized as a national participant, along with his compilation of Scripps National Spelling Bee records that date back to the 1990s.
He cultivates and edits the list, then determines the statistical probability that it will include the words asked during the national competition.
“I spent a whole lot of my summer consolidating and making a really, really, really strong list using the resources that I have,” Shafer-Ray says. “The reason people are so convinced by it is because it’s statistically proven to have every word based on past bee words — I think that’s a big part of my appeal.”
According to his website, since 2009 Shafer-Ray’s Master List has contained 97.18% of the surprise words asked at the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Despite a swarm of offers, he’s adamant that the Master List is not for sale.
“I’m still getting emails to this day from people who want to buy the list,” Shafer-Ray says. “People have offered me in the thousands for that list.”
Wait, he could make how much for a list of spelling words?
“That’s what everybody says,” Shafer-Ray says, chuckling. “But I don’t think I could do it because that would ruin me long term.”
Why would someone spend that much money to transform their little cherub into a spelling cognoscente? The Scripps National Spelling Bee has become a big-business, buzz-worthy event that includes ESPN coverage of the final round as well as the following prizes for the 2018 winner:
- $40,000 cash prize from Scripps
- $2,500 savings bond from Merriam-Webster, along with a reference library
- $400 worth of Encyclopedia Britannica reference works
- A trip to New York City to appear on LIVE with Kelly and Ryan
All that, and the winner receives an engraved trophy — plus bragging rights to all those classmates back home who can’t spell “marocain” (the winning word at the 2017 Bee, it describes a type of dress fabric).
And for those who continue to scoff at spending thousands of dollars on a spelling coach, Deborah Sorin suggests that other parents easily spend that much on kids’ activities.
“You think of all the people who pay for travel soccer or whatever,” she says. “Jason’s not into that; he’s into this, and so paying a little bit for the privilege of getting real coaching made sense.”
What does this all mean for Shafer-Ray, a high school kid with aspirations to attend Stanford?
“I think I want to continue definitely for next year and probably through college,” he says. “That way I won’t have to get a part-time job during college, and I can just focus on what I want to do.
“I’ll take it as far as it takes me.”
Tiffany Wendeln-Connors is a staff writer/editor at The Penny Hoarder.