Teaching English Online as a Digital Nomad: David’s Story

If Doc and Marty McFly had jumped in the Delorean in 2020 and set 2016 as their destination, with the aim of informing me that I would end up leaving my job in the UK, travelling full-time for the next 4 years all while building a sustainable income through YouTube and other income streams, including gaining a TEFL qualification with The TEFL Org and teaching online with italki WITHOUT a degree, I would have swiftly rebuffed their comments and packed them off to the nearest looney bin.

Fortunately, their claims would have been accurate! I had been working as a HR Manager with a major UK retailer in London… for 18 years. It was time for a change.I had always enjoyed solo travelling, but how could I turn this into a sustainable way of life?

Gaining a TEFL qualification was the catalyst which allowed me to embark on an entirely new way of life. Initially, I was somewhat blasé. I was a native English speaker; surely I can transition to teaching English with ease. I couldn’t have been more wrong! The TEFL Org gave me a metaphorical slap around the chops and helped me realise that a) my grasp of grammar was atrocious and b) teaching a language was a whole different kettle of fish from simply speaking it!

However, never fear. The TEFL Org was here. They gave me the tools to clearly understand grammar, teaching methodology and much more, giving me the confidence to enter the domain of Online Teaching. But, who would I be teaching? Chinese children? The vast majority of coverage in relation to Online Teaching in the Digital Nomad community led me to believe that this was the only route available. But wait, I didn’t have a Bachelor’s degree and didn’t have an American accent (well, I still don’t!). So what were my options?

Before we enter the realm of teaching ADULTS in the growing market of Russia (yes, really!), let’s touch on travel. 

I travelled FAST in the year prior to teaching. However, life is a balancing act. The inaccurate posts from Instababes and couples spamming my Facebook newsfeed, advertising courses on ‘becoming a Digital Nomad’ painted a picture of working on a beach (hello, wifi?) without a care in the world. Subsequent to gaining my TEFL and being accepted as a teacher on italki, I understood that I needed to slow down, perhaps creating homes away from home, integrating myself into communities and building relationships with locals, rather than jumping from place to place, cramming in a few lessons in between capturing the latest popular Insta-shot or visiting the most up and coming tourist trap.

Over the last 4 years I have spent a significant amount of time in countries such as Japan, Mexico and Serbia (writing this in Belgrade as we speak!). While doing so, I could take advantage of the flexibility The TEFL Org and italki had afforded me, setting my own schedule, creating my own lesson material, in addition to, most crucially, determining my own pricing, rather than being restricted by rigid working hours on Beijing time or being limited by a set salary.

italki is a fantastic platform, not only for professional teachers who are in possession of a TEFL certificate. Of course, teaching children or beginners is an option; however, it’s all down to your personal preference and what you feel comfortable with. Once you begin, you start to understand your strengths and potential specialities.

For me, it soon emerged that the Eastern European/Russian market was a rapidly growing one. Predominantly, my students are well-educated Russians in highly skilled roles such as software developers, programmers, engineers, business analysts and architects working in the IT sector, as well as doctors, anaesthetists, lawyers, university professors, air traffic controllers and digital marketers! These individuals are largely at a B2-C2 level already. However, they have the common issue of working and living in an environment where they only speak their native language on a daily basis, have limited exposure to English and may even be planning to move to an English-speaking country. As a result, proficiency in English is imperative.

In order to move to an English-speaking country, students may be working towards IELTS; this may be in order to allow them to study or work in said countries, as well as eventually gaining residency/citizenship. Other students may be in a position where they are perfectly competent in other key skills (reading and listening), but have had no speaking or writing practice during their prior education. Similarly, they may require conversation practice to either maintain their existing level or advance to the next!

One of the wonders of teaching with italki is that you generally have carte blanche concerning WHAT you teach; I’m talking lesson content! Let’s face it, most students can describe the weather or what they did for their birthday, but can they discuss current affairs, controversial or philosophical topics? Obviously, some topics would be inappropriate to discuss (cultural sensitivity is a point to consider!), but it’s essential to give your student the choice. Something I say frequently is, “it depends!”; it’s important to keep this at the forefront of your mind when considering your lesson content.

Largely, teaching with italki is primarily about teaching via conversation. However, you don’t need to restrict yourself to this. Yes, some students may appreciate textbook usage or grammar exercises, some may find reading articles (particularly to work on pronunciation and reading comprehension) or watching videos (for listening comprehension or discussing current issues) incredibly useful!

You may consider developing a speciality.I have two; British English Pronunciation and Business English (particularly behavioural interview practice) – as a born and bred Londoner with an accent that can switch between Received Pronunciation, Cockney and Estuary English in a heartbeat with experience in HR, these two specialities are somewhat appropriate. Take a moment to think about your own experience; what could your specialities be? As they say, variety is the spice of life!

Teaching pronunciation is an immense challenge but thoroughly enjoyable. There are common misconceptions across the world that everyone in the UK speaks like Hermoine Granger (wingardium leviosa! … or something… I’ve never seen Harry Potter!) or Prince Charles. Perpetuating this belief only acts as a disservice to your students. REAL British English is what students want to learn, especially in relation to listening skills. Business English is also a gem to teach – helping students understand the difference between informal, general and formal English in a professional environment is awesome – witnessing their improvement while incorporating phrasal verbs, idioms and advanced collocations along with improving their understanding of behavioural versus technical in interview situations is a great driver for me.

The key to being a successful teacher on italki is – and I can’t emphasise this enough – using your personality to build relationships with students and most importantly – engaging them! Personally, I am a great advocate for the belief that the days of traditional, stuffy (and boring!) teachers in a classroom environment are over. Clearly, this teaching style is still appropriate in some cases, but adults students expect something more.

An adult learner is exactly what it says on the tin – an adult! They are no less than you; they are on your level, they want to feel comfortable and at ease – they want someone they can talk to and trust and in some cases develop a friendship with. Mind blown, right? No matter what some teachers lead you to believe, this can be the reality of modern 21st century teaching. An engaging and lively introduction video followed by using your best personal attributes in a professional manner is KEY!

Lesson Planning is vital. Producing unique, bespoke plans for your students is essential. Trawling through the same monotonous drivel with every student is not productive or useful – every student is different, therefore, has different needs and requirements. 

Would I return to a regular 9-5 in the UK? (let’s face it, retail is more like 11-10!). The answer is no. Getting a TEFL certificate and teaching with italki has given me the opportunity to be my own boss. I have a flexibility and work/life balance I never dreamt possible. Travelling full-time as a Digital Nomad is a decision I do not regret.

Accompanying my role as a freelance teacher, I also run a Travel/Digital Nomad themed YouTube channel (soon to set up a blog/website). I have a collection of videos detailing my experience with some useful, real-world tips! In addition, I have written two ebooks – particularly ideal for new teachers on italki, or perhaps for those of you who are simply researching potential teaching platforms. Maybe you’re in the same position I was; not realising that teaching children in China is not the only option available to you.

One of my ebooks contains a plethora (ooh, great vocab!) of lesson material which you can use as a starting point – obviously, lesson material is never exhaustive; you can supplement this with your own material.

All in all, gaining a TEFL certificate has worked for me… it could work for you too! If Doc and Marty Mcfly rock up while you’re down the toilet roll aisle in the local supermarket… listen to them. I did!

Happy Teaching!

If you’re interested in purchasing David’s ebooks you can do so via Payhip below! 👇

How to Teach English Online to Adults with italki

How to Teach English Online to Adults with italki – Lesson Material

£5.99 GBP each and get 20% off when purchasing both. Sharing the Facebook link when purchasing will give you and anyone who uses the link 25% off. 

Interested in becoming a digital nomad like David? Check out our guide

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4 thoughts on “Teaching English Online as a Digital Nomad: David’s Story

  1. At last! Someone else who doesn’t want to teach kids online, but is offering a wealth of advice on getting started. Thank you!

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