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Online Teaching: The Digital Nomad

27th January 2020

By Mary Catharine Breadner

Adventure, new cultures, and our students, these are my favorite parts about being an EFL teacher. The opportunity to meet students from all cultures and engage with them in a way that most people don’t get to is by far what keeps me working in this exciting field. For me, becoming a foreign language teacher was to do just that, move to a foreign country learn about the culture and meet people. I had been a teacher in my own country, but the opportunity for some adventure was the greatest allure.

Now, as I have started doing the majority of my teaching online, I often get asked – so can you teach from anywhere? And the short answer is yes. I can teach from anywhere, but there are some things that you need to consider. Working without a home base may sound appealing but before you go jet setting you need to think about what this would actually mean.

 

IS IT POSSIBLE?

Physically working from anywhere is possible, but is it really legal? And the simple answer to that is no if you enter a country on a tourist visa you are there to be a tourist. Many people will say that as long as you keep a low profile, you aren’t taking a job away from a local person, then you should be fine. However, I encourage you to do your homework, if you intend on entering a country on a tourist visa, and plan on working you may be breaking the law. Getting caught working illegally would greatly limit your ability to travel in the future.

So that being disclosed, let’s assume that you have done your homework, and you are going to legally acquire the correct visas and paperwork. The next consideration is getting paid. International transfer fees and withdrawal fees can be expensive and complicated. You will need to make a plan for how to manage your money while you are abroad. And also, how much you will need to budget for the necessities like a quiet place to teach and a consistently strong internet signal.

Having access to a strong internet signal is by far the most important consideration. Without it, you simply can’t work. And if you have too many interruptions or reliability issues you will not be able to keep students. They will simply find a teacher that is able to have a consistent signal.

Hardware and tools are another consideration, you will need to haul your laptop, a headset, and some other classroom props, like a whiteboard. This will all become part of your travel kit. And to be honest, over time I have gone mostly digital. I use a digital whiteboard, I print very little, and exchange homework files completely online. It is possible to have very little, but depending on the level and age group of your students you will need to think about what you really need, and what you really want.

 

PRACTICAL CONSIDERATIONS

Being dependable is extremely important online, missing a class or leaving a student hanging out is not only going to hurt your reputation but will also cost you your job in most cases. One of the biggest challenges is managing your schedule over multiple time zones, and keeping on top of time changes in the spring and fall. Some countries change with daylight savings while others don’t, so you may have a perfect schedule but with the time changes all of a sudden you will be double booked. Also, when you are moving from one time zone to another, you need to think about lighting. If you are going to teach in the middle of the night, you will need to invest in a better webcam as well as lighting. A dark video call looks very unprofessional and also does not inspire a good learning environment. You will also need to think about international holidays and travel interruptions.

Flexibility is one of the reasons that most people want to work online, but with flexibility comes the struggle to get enough work. Sure, you have the opportunity to choose your own schedule but you must also work during the hours that are in demand. And you will need to match the demand hours with your time zone. It might seem achievable to teach at 3 am sometimes, but if this is going to be your regular schedule you might not be getting the work-life balance you originally wanted. You will also experience ebbs and flows as an online teacher, for example you will see higher inscriptions for exam prep courses as the deadline for American College applications are due. You will see a shortage of work in December and over the summer months.

Cost of living is usually one of the key factors in being a digital nomad, you can work for a lower than standard salary in your own country, and find a place where that salary can be stretched further. And the answer to this question is probably. However, make sure you think about things that you will need, like health insurance, money for consistent internet service, and other day-to-day expenses that we don’t always think of when on vacation.

Your classroom, working from home means that you have a dedicated area in your house to work from. Being on the road means that you will need to think about where you are going to work. Things like lighting, background, noise will all impact your classroom. Some students, as well as employers, will not be happy with lots of distractions in your background or if the lighting makes it impossible to see your face. So before booking a place to stay, or trying to just figure it out when you get there, you will want to try and plan for that out before you go. Using background blurring functions is an option, but this isn’t always very professional, so check with your employer to see if this is acceptable. Noise is probably the biggest problem; with a high-quality headset you will be able to control some of the noise issues but if a student can’t hear you or you can’t hear them, you are really going to impact the quality of your teaching.

 

INCORPORATING AUTHENTIC MATERIALS

Traveling can provide some of the richest authentic materials and inspiration. Pictures are one of the best things to share and generate conversation in the classroom. Students also want to know more about their teachers, so you can incorporate traveling into lots of lesson ideas, for example talking about trips in the past or future, schedules, future arrangements, and the list goes on. Being authentic is a great way to make your lessons interesting. I also find that geopolitical topics are often of great interest, and can really bring out lots of authentic vocabulary building sessions. Most materials are available online, but there is always an added touch to bringing in materials that are from your own experience.

 

EMPLOYER EXPECTATIONS OR FREELANCING?

As mentioned above, you have already checked out the law, you will also want to review your Employer policies and expectations. Employers may not support a teacher that is traveling and can not send updated information about their internet connection. They may also have legal requirements for you to be working in a country where they are legally able to operate. If you are planning to move around, you will want to be open and honest with your employer, if you aren’t this might be grounds for termination.

You will also want to think about firewalls and other tech issues that exist in countries with internet restrictions. So, ensure that the video conferencing software is going to work wherever you are choosing to go. This might sound straight forward but depending on your IT skills this could be a challenge.

Lastly, will be the communication with your employer. Does your employer offer around the clock support. Obviously, if they are having student bookings, there should be support for your students. However, teacher support might be different, so consider if you have a problem how you might resolve it on your own. And Freelancing is all of the above, plus putting in your own efforts for marketing and support. It is your reputation that is on the line, so you will want to make sure that you have crossed all your t’s and dotted those i’s.

 

FULL-TIME JOB OR A SIDE HUSTLE?

Online teaching is a full-time job for me. I often get a surprised reaction when attending workshops or conferences with other teachers when I tell them that I mostly work online with some in-person contracts. When I started online teaching, I used it to supplement my income, and eventually, I have been able to reverse it, so I use in-person to supplement my online work. Being an online teacher, like any other full-time job requires full time commitment. So, if you are planning to be more of traveling worker or a worker who travels you might be more limited in your teaching time. If you are going to work only enough to have extra spending money while traveling you will want to choose an Employer who allows for the ultimate in flexibility. If you are going to make it your full-time source of income, then you will want to think about the practicalities of working enough hours and maximizing your off time. To be honest, I think it can be what you want it to be and is an excellent option if you want to be free from a brick and mortar building.

My final thoughts on whether or not the digital teacher is really possible isn’t a simple answer. There is a lot more to think about than just an internet connection and some video software. The legalities of working abroad, as well as the requirement to have a quiet place to teach. Yes, it is possible, but I think it is hard to be successful. Unlike other forms of online work, being an online teacher still requires your presence and commitment at a particular time. It requires a rapport with a person on the other side of the screen. In other words, you and how you perform are key to your and your students’ success.

Mary Catharine Breadner

Mary Catherine is an EFL freelance teacher, currently living and working in Portugal. She works with students of all ages, in both the in-person and online classroom. In her free time, she loves to travel and spend time with her family.

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