Published 2nd September 2021
Teaching English online can be a dream come true. Being an online English teacher means you have the freedom to live out of your suitcase if that’s what your heart desires. You can pack your bags at any moment and move your life somewhere new, somewhere better or somewhere just different. After all, that’s the idea behind being a digital nomad, isn’t it?
But is it all butterflies and rainbows? Yoga pants and naps? Freedom and Zoom calls?
Well, no. It is real life, after all.
Sadly, as with anything in life, there are a number of challenges you may face when teaching English online and travelling the world. Enough to put us off teaching online altogether? Absolutely not. As long as you are aware of what you are getting yourself into and any potential difficulties you might encounter, there is no reason you can’t be prepared and deal with them as and when necessary.
So let’s go.
1. Hello? Are you there?
Being online is, obviously, an integral part of teaching English online, so a stable and reliable internet connection is a must. This is usually fine and dandy when you’re at home but what happens when you travel?
If you are travelling for a short time you need to make sure that wherever you are going to stay – be it an Airbnb, hotel or friend’s couch – has a good internet connection that you can access. This means it must be stable as well as have a decent internet speed.
A bad internet connection could mean you freeze, or your audio or visuals are not good, or you keep disconnecting. We have all experienced the frustration of a bad Zoom call, so you can imagine how you would feel if it happened in a lesson you are paying for. If your student has a bad experience in the lesson because of your internet connection, they might not book any more lessons with you or they might complain to your employer, which could mean you are fined or even lose your job.
In some countries, a good internet connection might not be as easy to find as you think, or it might cost you money you didn’t budget for. To further complicate things, in some places the power can be unreliable. This could be because you are in a remote place or because there are power outages. Either way, no power means no internet means no online classes.
What to do: Be prepared. Find out if there is a good internet connection before you book any accommodation. Use a website like Speedtest to check the internet speed when you arrive. If it is questionable, make sure you have a mobile internet device that will allow you to go online when you need to. If you have to pay for internet access, find out what the most cost-effective way to get internet is local – usually this means buying a local SIM card. Or find out if there is anywhere close by you can utilise for your lessons – though this is less than ideal if you can only find a busy coffee shop.
2. What time is it?
Teaching English online means you and your students are probably in different places, possibly different countries. While the beauty of the internet means this usually won’t affect you or your lessons in any way, the one thing it can affect is your time.
Considering time zones is not something we usually do when we go on holiday, but it must be if you are an online English teacher. Once you have set a time with your students for a lesson, you need to stick to that time, whether that means midnight or lunchtime for you.
One thing you do need to keep in mind, unfortunately, is the possibility that when you move around the time of the lesson might not be convenient for you anymore. However, we always say the beauty of teaching online is the flexibility, though that means you might need to adapt to a new lifestyle. Who knows, maybe you enjoy working nights and sleeping until lunchtime?!
What to do: Check your time zones. Always carry with you a clock with the time of the country where your students live, so you know what the time is for your students, no matter what the time is for you. Make sure you are organised with a schedule to keep track of your upcoming lessons.
3. How much can you fit in a suitcase?
As an online teacher, you supply the classroom. If you are travelling, this means you need to have a portable classroom that is easily packed up and moved. It’s always easier to travel light so it’s not going to be possible to lug an entire giant whiteboard from airport to airport!
But at the same time, there are a number of things that you need for your classroom for your online lessons. You might want a backdrop of some sort, or pictures or flashcards or a name card. If you are teaching Young Leaners you might want to use stuffed toys as mascots or sticker charts as reward systems. Then there are all the books and stationery that teachers seem to collect. As you can imagine, it won’t always be easy to fit all these things into a suitcase!
What to do: Be brutal. Decide what is absolutely essential for your classroom and only use those things. If you can, have a suitcase dedicated to your mobile classroom so that whenever you have to pack up and go, you know exactly how to pack everything in one bag. This will save you time and headaches.
4. Dude, where’s my classroom?
In an ideal world, you would teach all your lessons from a quiet, light, bright classroom. In reality, you could be teaching in a cramped bedroom, a shared living room or even a kitchen. If you are teaching early in the morning or late at night it could be dark in your room, and if you are in the city you might be surrounded by honking horns, barking dogs or rubbish trucks.
It is important for the quality of your lessons that your students can see and hear you clearly. At the same time, you need to be considerate of anyone staying with you or near you. Not many people would be impressed by your singing the alphabet song 10 times before sunrise!
What to do: Invest in some equipment which will make your life easier. A ring light is a small, portable light that folds up easily and will create enough light to brighten up any space. A phone or laptop stand is another good idea to make sure you have a good spot for your laptop or phone. Noise-cancelling headphones are essential to blocking out noise so it’s easier for both your student to hear you and you hear your student.
5. Is anybody out there?
Teaching English online can be a lonely job. You don’t have any colleagues and the only people you are speaking to every day are your students – and they aren’t necessarily going to be your friends! If you add to this the fact that you are moving around regularly and you might find yourself a little bit lonely at times. This is totally normal and nothing for you to worry about or make you hang up your headphones.
What to do: Keep in touch with friends and family back home. If you are travelling solo and don’t find it easy to make friends in new places, find an online community of TEFL teachers you can connect with regularly. Being alone doesn’t mean you have to be lonely, so if you are, reach out and make a connection.
Even though there are a few challenges you might face when teaching English online, we know it’s nothing you can’t handle!