The full story of how I started teaching english online

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If you’ve spent some time on this blog, you probably know that online teaching is one of my favorite things, right up there with lizards, guacamole, and obscure little shipwreck museums. Today, online teaching is a huge part of my life, but getting here was an adventure. In this post, I’m going back in time to share the full story of how I became the fabulous online teaching super-fan you know today.

The First Time I Heard About Online Teaching

It all started on a scorching June afternoon in 2017. I was sitting behind my desk in the corner of my empty classroom. An hour ago, I waved goodbye to a stampede of cheering students who were ecstatic about the summer ahead.

A friend of mine from down the hall walked into my classroom, her laptop open in her hands. She didn’t look up as she walked over to me because she was watching something on her screen.

After some small talk about our summer plans, (Me? Just the usual stuff. I’m going to take some trips with my friends, visit my sister, sleep for like 100 hours straight…) she told me that she planned to spend the summer teaching online.

She turned the laptop toward me and I saw a youtube video playing on the screen. In the video, I saw a colorful VIPKID PowerPoint, a teacher holding a puppet, and a young student wearing a headset about three sizes too big for him.

The teacher in the little thumbnail video led the student (who couldn’t be more than six years old) through a sight word drill. He read the words at lightning speed, so fast he cracked himself up which caused him to topple off his chair and out of the screen in a fit of laughter. It was adorable.

She told me that she had just started doing it a few weeks ago and was making good money.

She explained that the company was called VIPKID and that she was teaching little kids in China early in the mornings. It seemed like so much fun and I was shocked that I hadn’t heard about it before! We were teachers, after all! Shouldn’t we know about something like teaching English online?

But it was a totally new concept to me. And I didn’t sign up right away. In fact, I had other plans.

My First Plan: Teach English Abroad

Straight out of college, I started working as a science teacher. I loved getting to spend time with my awesome students and because I taught science, there was always something interesting happening at school. We built Rube Goldberg machines, used geometry to triangulate earthquakes, and made fizzy chemical reactions.

I knew I loved teaching, but I also knew I wanted a job with lots of flexibility and opportunities to travel. I actually started this travel blog during that time as way to document my weekend trips with friends.

So after busy weeks at school, I spent my weekends daydreaming about all the places I wanted to visit. Fueled by a marathon of Parts Unknown and House Hunters International, I also started researching jobs that would let me travel more.

I read about becoming a flight attendant, working on a cruise ship, or becoming an Au Pair somewhere fancy, but the job that sounded most exciting to me was teaching English abroad.

Looking back, this feels kind of obvious because I was already a teacher. But hey, we get there when we get there.

Teaching abroad seemed like exactly what I was looking for. It was a way to keep teaching and explore a totally new part of the world.

Once I had a direction to go in, I spent hours scrolling through positions on Daves ESL Cafe, fantasizing about life would look like as a teacher in Dubai or Greece or Shanghai. I browsed for apartments in Barcelona, Moscow, and Fez. I read approximately 10,000 blog posts from anyone who taught abroad.

I particularly remember finding this couple that taught English in Taiwan on Youtube. In their videos, they showed day to day clips of their life abroad, what they did on the weekends, and talked about their schedules as English teachers in Taiwan.

Not to be creepy, but I watched all their videos multiple times and started to think of them as real-life friends. Since then, they’ve become hugely successful travel and food vloggers and even contributed to a Netflix special. I’m so proud of my friends!

Nicola sitting on a stone wall looking out over the cliffs in Portugal

Getting TEFL Certified

I was feeling pretty confident that teaching English abroad would be my path, so I signed up for a TEFL (Teaching English As A Foreign Language) course with International TEFL Academy. A TEFL course certifies you to teach English as a foreign language in a different country.

Anyone can take a TEFL course – you don’t have to be a traditional teacher. Once you have a TEFL certification, you can apply to English teaching jobs in most countries around the world.

International TEFL Academy had some enticing in-person TEFL courses, but I chose to do my course online while I was still working full-time. It was easier on the budget and I liked that I could do the course material in the evenings.

Even with my busy schedule, the workload was manageable and I enjoyed learning about TEFL-teaching techniques.

My course was broken into two parts: an online “classroom” component and a 20-hour hands-on practice teaching component. I had a few years of teaching experience under my belt, but I had never specifically worked with English language learners before.

I needed to find some kind of English as a second language (ESL) class to observe that didn’t interfere with my school schedule, so I called local school districts and community centers to see if anyone offered ESL lessons in the evenings.

I finally found an adult ESL program at a library about 45 minutes away from my school, opposite of the direction where I lived.

So every Tuesday and Thursday for the next two months I went straight from school to that public library and camped out until the adult ESL class started. I used the time to work on lesson planning, grading papers, and browsing teaching job listings in Budapest, Lima, and Abu Dhabi.

Unrelated, but there was this amazing Japanese place in that town that had a 50% off special on Tuesdays, so sometimes I did my work there while gorging myself on discount sushi and gyoza. Tokyo was bumped up to the top of the list!

At first, this whole situation was pretty inconvenient. But in the end, it worked out in my favor.

After I’d been shadowing the adult ESL class for a week or two, a woman hung back after class and asked me about language lessons.

She was a native French speaker who was visiting her brother and wanted some more casual conversation practice. I took a bit of French in college (oui oui!) so we agreed to meet at the library before the ESL class started to do a language exchange.

Our afternoons at the library were marvelous! We had so much fun getting to know each other and I think my Français improved more in those casual library sessions than it did in years of high school French classes.

Before we knew it, I’d finished all of my practicum hours and we’d nearly been banned from the library for laughing too loudly over an unfortunate mistranslation of “boyfriend.” We still met up a few times after that just for fun! I was officially TEFL certified.

Summer Vacation Begins

The school year ended. I cleaned 180 days of glue sticks, science experiments, and balled up paper out of my classroom. Summer vacation started, I slept for about three years, and then I threw myself back into research of what I would do next with my life.

Costa Rica, Thailand, China, France – dozens of different lives scrolled through my head on a loop. My world would look so different in each place. Choosing felt impossible. So the universe intervened.

A friend and I met up for lunch one day and I talked through all my big ideas for the five millionth time. She said, “I have a friend who teaches kids online in China. He really likes it.”

There it was again! Online teaching kept trying to make these sneaky appearances, so I decided it was time to see what the fuss was about.

Applying To VIPKID

After being reminded of this mysterious thing called online teaching for the second time, I finally plopped down at my computer to get started. Back then, there were only a handful of Youtube videos about VIPKID. I didn’t find many blog posts or Facebook groups like there are now.

My VIPKID application process was rocky. Back then, the hiring process was different. Now, after you pass the interview, you get unlimited attempts at the mock classes. When I applied you only had two chances to get it right.

To prepare, I practiced in the living room while my mom pretended to be a 5-year-old student. Which worked great… until we realized that I would need to teach the lesson to a student on the screen through a computer webcam.

I finally called up my teacher friend who first told me about VIPKID and asked for some advice. She was able to help me get my classroom set up correctly (I had been planning to interview in a dimly lit basement room that gave everything a shadowy orange tint… oops).

She explained how to adjust my pacing for the level of the student and showed me some tricks to use the teeny tiny webcam space effectively.

It took some practice to adjust from a regular classroom to an online classroom, but after about two weeks of practicing, fretting, and annoying my friend with endless questions, I finished the application process. I was ready to teach my first class!

I jumped right into the deep end with VIPKID and started teaching about 3-4 hours per day, 5 days per week. I also taught some late classes on Friday and Saturday.

It was a big adjustment (all my plans of sleeping in until noon were dashed!) and I had to say no to some weekend events with friends. But I was making good money and my ESL teaching skills were improving in the process.

Nicola in an orange shirt teaching to the computer, holding a flash card and smiling

Visiting Costa Rica

Fall rolled around and even though I was loving teaching online, I still wasn’t sure if I wanted to teach abroad or stick to the virtual classroom. One morning, my dad and I noticed that there were inexpensive Spirit flights from Atlanta to San Jose, Costa Rica.

Excited by the chance to go see Costa Rica and do a little bit of “what would live be like abroad” research, we decided to take a little trip.

Visiting Costa Rica with my dad was awesome! With our rental car, we covered most of the country in 8 days.

We listened to live Caribbean music in Puerto Viejo, hiked through the Hanging Bridges Park in Arenal, ate plantains at local sodas, and stayed in an off-the-grid eco-home which shook with the cries of howler monkeys early in the morning.

In the evenings, I researched potential schools and language centers that might be good places to look for teaching jobs in the future. But as much as I loved visiting Costa Rica with my dad and would have enjoyed calling it home, the teaching prospects weren’t exactly what I was looking for.

A lot of the jobs I found were in big cities far from Costa Rica’s natural beauty. Some had undesirable hours and a lot of positions required commuting around town to different language schools.

I’m sure I could have found an awesome teaching position in Costa Rica if I looked harder, but that trip helped me realize that I had already found a job that checked most of my boxes. It helped me understand what my priorities were and appreciate the fact that I’d already found something pretty great.

A beach in Costa Rica, blue water and green trees and a small blue boat in the distance

Online Teaching And My Life Today

Since then, online teaching has been such a positive part of my life. I love having a flexible schedule, a 5-second commute, and pre-made lesson plans. In-person teaching jobs have a lot of extra responsibilities, and I love that online teaching lets me focus 100% on working with the students one-on-one.

I still think it would be really fun to teach abroad one day too. Even though I don’t have any immediate plans to do so, it’s always floating around in the back of my mind. It would be a totally different experience, but a great way to get immersed in a new place and culture.

I already have the TEFL certification and it doesn’t expire, so who knows what will happen in the future!

It’s been three years since my first virtual class and I still enjoy online teaching. Especially now while I’m home and social distancing, seeing my kiddos gives me consistency and something fun to look forward to. I imagine I’ll be singing the ABC song with my finger puppets into my webcam for years to come, and that makes me very happy.

Have you ever considered online teaching? If so, let me know what questions you have in the comments below!

About the Author

Hi! I'm Nic. Let's chat about remote work and ways to incorporate more travel into your life. Whether you're here to find an online job or need some tips for planning your next trip, I've got you covered! More about me

7 thoughts on “The Full Story Of How I Became An Online English Teacher”

  1. Thank you for your story, Nicola!

    I really love hearing about how teachers get started and their journey as they teach online. I’ve been teaching for VIPKid for some time now and I too love the flexibility that it brings.

    I have found that because it is so easy to travel and teach, it is hard to know when to take time off. Teaching during my “vacation” is so easy to do because I can take it wherever I go. I guess that in and of itself is another way teaching online is flexible… I get to choose when to take a break! 

    Your story is very inspirational!

    • Hi Tori! Thank you so much for your comment! I definitely know what you mean about taking a “vacation.” Sometimes I plan to go places with limited internet so I can actually turn my brain off for a bit, hahah!! Happy teaching and happy travels! 🙂

  2. I so badly want to teach English online. I started my TEFL course last fall and then put it on hold because my day job got really busy. The only thing causing de-motivation is that it seems everyone who has been really successful has a bachelors degree. I don’t have the time or desire to get a bachelors degree for the sake of being able to teach English online. Is my concern legitimate?

  3. Nic!!! Your story gave me goose bumps, loved this post so much. Love that you followed your intuition and went with online teaching. I don’t think I ever knew your full story (at least not the Costa Rica part). Thanks for sharing!! <3


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