A Digital Nomad Story; My Life-Changing Experience with TEFL

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My life before TEFL

For the majority of my twenties, I felt lost, unheard and unfulfilled.

I worked in an extremely stressful environment in the fashion industry, and without proper guidance, I chose to cope (and escape my reality) through drinking and partying.

When my well-being hit an all-time low at 27, it prompted me to press pause on the life that I knew. I booked a one-way ticket to Sri Lanka, quit my 9 to 5, sold the majority of my belongings and left London for good.

During my time solo travelling across Southeast Asia, I rediscovered my true self and learnt to thrive on my own terms. I finally stopped rushing around, learnt to appreciate my own company, and discovered life’s simple pleasures. 

Travelling soon became my therapy and I didn’t want it to end. The thought of going back to a job where travelling wasn’t an option made me feel mentally and physically sick.

I couldn’t imagine the thought of applying for jobs and going back to my old life of commuting for an hour across London to sit behind a desk and only living for the weekends.

I’d experienced so much while travelling — surely that wasn’t going to be it?

A couple of weeks before I flew home to the UK, I started to plan my next escape. One that would allow me to travel but make money at the same time.

And that’s when I found out about TEFL.

Discovering TEFL and getting my certification

During my 5-month trip in Southeast Asia, I met a few people who were based there teaching English.

Being naive about this type of opportunity, I assumed teaching English abroad required an English degree or teaching experience. And because I had neither, I never even considered it as an option for me.

But then I spoke to my brother. He had previously taught English in South Korea so I asked how he made it happen. It was then that I realised I just needed to be a native English speaker and have a degree.

[Note from the editor: You don’t have to be a native English speaker to teach English abroad, but your English needs to be at least C1 on the CEFR (Advanced).]

Check ✔️and check ✔️

All I had to do next was complete my TEFL training and then apply for teaching jobs abroad.

The day I returned home from Southeast Asia, I signed up for a 120hr TEFL course. Aside from quitting my career 6 months earlier, it was the best decision I ever made.

It took me 2 months to complete my TEFL certification. The training was a mix of going back to the basics of the English language (you’ll be surprised at how bad native English speakers are at grammar), multiple-choice tests which were surprisingly enjoyable, and written assignments.

I also attended a 2-day in-person training event which was invaluable as online learning doesn’t always prepare you for real-life situations.

Studying for TEFL provided me with skills that I still use today and prepared me for a career outside of fashion.

During the training, I was already actively looking for teaching jobs abroad. Anything that would help get me out of the UK quicker. I was looking for opportunities in Mexico and South America including Chile, Columbia, Ecuador and Bolivia.

I later accepted a 5-month position with a language school based in Arequipa, Peru starting September 2018. Peru!! An absolute dream.

I’d be required to teach during the week but then weekends were free to explore. I couldn’t wait.

What it was like teaching and living in Peru

One of the best things I found about teaching English abroad is that you don’t need to speak your students’ first language.

The classes were “immersion” meaning the students could only speak to the teacher and fellow students in English. (Of course, they never stick to the rule but hey they try.)

This made my job so much easier as I didn’t need to worry about perfecting my Spanish. (Although I did take lessons.) I only needed to focus on my English and if I was explaining things to my students in a way they could understand.

Being based in an English language school also meant that I taught a range of students from teenagers and university students to full-time working professionals and elderly people looking for a hobby. The levels ranged from beginner to upper-intermediate and it was a mix of listening, reading, writing and speaking.

Being able to teach students at such a varied level and age meant that my training increased extensively and allowed me to plan fun and engaging lessons.

I swear lesson planning is like riding a bike — you never forget. I now use a similar system to plan out my coaching sessions ahead of time. This just goes to show that the skills you learn while doing TEFL aren’t just for TEFL — they’re for life.

Living in Arequipa, Peru was also an experience within itself. This was the first ever city in South America I’d travelled to and I’m so glad that was the case. It was safe, lively, pretty and still extremely local.

It’s known as the “White City” because the majority of its buildings are made from white volcanic “sillar” stone. Arequipa also lies at 2,335m altitude meaning it is right in the middle of the Andes and is overlooked by a dormant volcano.

There was a big community of teachers in Arequipa who came from all walks of life and we made the effort to hang out during our free time and host parties. Fun fact → I experienced my first-ever Thanksgiving (and pecan pie) while in Arequipa.

It was an extremely special time in my life and I cherish the memories made there.

Machu Picchu is one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.

Transitioning to online teaching

When my 5-month teaching job came to an end, I chose not to renew my contract.

I loved the entire experience of teaching English in a classroom but I started to feel limited by only having weekends to explore.

Travelling around other parts of South America was always the plan and I needed much longer than 1 day to visit them. It was a tough decision but I chose to follow through with my original plan. I also knew that there were plenty of online teaching opportunities so I was set on that being my next form of income.

I applied and joined a platform called Engoo which is known for catering to adult students around the world. I also used an SEO agency in London called SearchFlare.

The transition between classroom teaching and online teaching was pretty straightforward. If not easier.

The lessons are shorter and you only need to focus on one person. And although I eventually got into the swing of lesson planning (IYKYK), all the lesson material was already online. So I just needed to show up, follow it and listen.

It was a great setup.

Teaching English online allowed me to continue travelling. You could also say it was the very start of my digital nomad lifestyle.

I took my laptop to Bolivia, Chile and Ecuador before it got stolen on a night bus from Guayaquil to Quito. Thankfully, I was travelling with my boyfriend so I was able to use his laptop to continue my online classes while we were in Columbia and Panama.

Hot tip → If you’re travelling by bus, don’t keep your bag on the luggage rack. Keep it on your lap instead.

From online teacher to business owner

After a year in South America, travel burnout caught up with me and I missed my friends and family. It was time for me to head back to the UK.

I continued to teach English online while living back home which was great at first. But after a few months, I got itchy feet and craved travel once again.

Honestly, I always laugh when someone uses the phrase, “Go travelling to get it out of your system.”

Sure, this might be true for some but I could and would never get travelling out of my system. It was a part of the person I had become and still is.

Japan had always been number 1 on my travel bucket list but due to expensive flight tickets and accommodation, it was always a little bit out of reach for me. But if I was teaching there then things would be different.

I once again browsed the TEFL and ESL job boards and lucky enough there were plenty of openings for Japan. So I applied.

A few days later, I received my dream opportunity, working in a school and living in Tokyo for 1 year. Start date, March 2020.

For reasons out of my control, I never made it to Japan. I’m still a little devastated that I never got to fulfil that role. But what I did manage to accomplish during a worldwide pandemic was the start of my blogging business.

Ironically, I never wrote about travel. My blog was created to help others navigate working from home and mindfully balance their day.

I continued to teach English online in the months that followed but when my blog began to take off a year later, I chose to pursue it full-time and monetise it through affiliate marketing.

My blog has now grown to over 30,000 monthly readers and reaches women all over the world. I continue to run it while also growing a life coaching business.

Final thoughts

TEFL changed my life.

If I didn’t have the opportunity to teach English abroad, then I most likely would have had to go back to a 9 to 5 job.

Teaching English abroad taught me amazing people skills, patience, adaptability and how to connect with a diverse range of learners.

It paved the way for me to become a coach and mentor.

Being an online English teacher opened the doors for a digital nomad lifestyle. It supported my ethos of doing things on my own terms and solidified the idea that I have the freedom to work from anywhere.

If you’re looking to escape the mundane 9 to 5 and travel the world but are not sure how to fund your trip, then I 100% recommend starting out teaching English abroad. It will give you the flexibility and stability you need to get started with the digital nomad lifestyle and travel the world.

My 5 top tips for teaching English abroad

  • Complete your TEFL course before leaving home

It’s way easier to do your TEFL training before you’ve stepped foot outside your home country because:

  • There are less distractions
  • What else are you doing with your time other than scrolling and watching Netflix?

Use your time wisely and study for your certification alongside your job so you still have financial stability.

I also recommend applying for and securing a job before you leave home as this can help with visa applications.

  • Write a travel bucket list

Set a 3-minute timer and write down a bucket list of countries you’ve always wanted to travel to.

Take the top 5 destinations and apply for teaching jobs in those countries.

Hot tip → Make sure the living standards of the places you choose are more affordable than your home country. For example, Japan may be a stretch if you’re just starting out and have no savings whereas Thailand and Vietnam are perfect for first-time teachers and travellers.

  • Pack light (and for basic living)

I’ve been travelling for the majority of 6 years and I still have the same backpack that I left London with all those years ago in 2017.

Trust me when I say this, you don’t need much when you travel. Just take the essential items e.g. clothes, toiletries, passport, money and your laptop. You’ll 100% be able to find and buy new clothes and other necessary items wherever you are.

Hot tip → Before you pack, ask your school what you need to wear for your classes as they might require a specific dress code. I turned up in Peru with the wrong type of clothes and had to haul ass to H&M to buy the right outfits.

  • Don’t leave home without travel insurance

You’ll regret it if you do and always be anxious. I use Safety Wing as they have a monthly pay-and-go plan purely for nomads.

  • Have fun

Travel is all about exploring, learning about different cultures, eating all the food and making friends. Just because you’re teaching doesn’t mean you can’t have fun so enjoy it.

You’ll also find that people are so much more relaxed when you meet them in a foreign setting so take advantage of that.

About the author

Hey, I’m Thalia — Coach, Mentor, Blogger and Nomad.

In 2017, I left my toxic 9 to 5 to build a happier and healthier life and I’ve been travelling the world ever since.

I’m now on a mission to help unsatisfied and unfulfilled women do the same.

For daily(ish) self-care tips you can find me on Instagram and Pinterest under @notesbythalia

And for a deeper dive into how to create your dream life, head over to my blog notesbythalia.com

P.S. I still have not yet been to Japan.

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