Thinking about teaching English online? We speak to Joanna Szreder of The Blond Travels, where she advises people on moving abroad and feeling at home in a foreign country.
Before becoming a digital nomad, you moved to London many years ago. Tell us more about that.
I’m originally from Poland, and left for London with my then-boyfriend when I finished school. After arriving in London, we worked hard to achieve a better life, like many Poles in London do. At first I worked at McDonald’s as a cleaner, and my then-boyfriend worked as a pizza delivery man.
We started doing better after a while, and finally after 10 years, I found a job as a PA to a very important man in the medical world and my then-boyfriend started (and still has) a very successful company. We then got married when I was 27.
What made you decide to leave London to travel?
I was beginning to get tired with the city and the life there. I went on two trips to Thailand and other parts of South East Asia.
I met digital nomads, teachers and scuba diving instructors and I really wanted to experience the freedom they were experiencing. Going back to London made me depressed, and after the second trip, my husband and I decided to get a divorce.
Following the divorce, I thought that I had nothing to lose, so I sold everything and went back to Thailand. I did a TEFL course and taught English at a college in Chiang Mai for 3 years.
Those 3 years were great; my sister was there too and I made so many great friends. Plus I learned a lot about myself too.
A few months ago, I decided to quit my job, follow my dreams and become a blogger. I still teach English online, and that allows me to move from country to country and live as I want. My boyfriend Chris and I moved to Vietnam for a few months and we recently moved to Krakow in Poland.
Despite the fact that I don’t earn much now, I am very happy and I enjoy every single day.
How did you transition into becoming a digital nomad?
I was envious of the freedom my sister and boyfriend enjoyed with their jobs - my sister is a graphic designer and Chris, my boyfriend, is a programmer. I also met many digital nomads in Thailand and I wanted to experience their freedom.
With regards to skills, I am not very talented. I don’t know how to design or do all the magic programmers do. I can write, both in Polish and English, but that is not a well paying job.
So I did an extensive research on what I could do to work remotely, and was prepared to work hard. At the end of last year, I signed up for People per Hour and did a few projects there.
A friend also told me about Education First - an American company that hires teachers to teach online. I went through pretty intensive interviews and an induction program before I got the job.
In the beginning, I continued working at a school from 7 am until 4pm, then taught online from 6pm until 9pm, and occasionally I did some small writing projects during my free time.
After my induction with EF was finished, I left my job at the school. It was a decision I made on a whim as I was super tired, and I needed a break.
Chris also encouraged me to work on my blog, and I have been really focusing on that. The online teaching is great as I earn enough to cover my food and accommodation.
How was your experience teaching English in Chiang Mai for 3 years?
Well, I don’t think I can find words to describe it, I would need to write a book about it. It was amazing, fantastic, interesting, frustrating and annoying all at the same time.
But I am glad I did it. I was the only foreign teacher at my school, so I was treated as a mascot. The school liked to show me off during the celebrations and put me in the first row.
Of course I had no idea what was going on, but it was important for them that I attended every single Buddhist celebration.
That said, I loved that I got to see and experience things that no other tourists or even foreign teachers in Thailand get to experience. Even though teaching is a hard job, working in Thailand felt like being on a holiday every day. You have the sun shining and everyone is so relaxed that you sometimes forget that you’re there to work.
Yet on the other hand, I hated being a teacher sometimes. The school was disorganized, administration was a chaos, there was no curriculum and yet they demanded things from me I could not deliver.
Well, at least my boss provided a constant stream of amusement! If you would like to read more, I wrote more stories about it here.
What has been your best and worse experience as a digital nomad?
I can’t really pinpoint at a particular situation, but the best part of being a digital nomad to me is that I can organize my day as I please. I’ve always had problems with getting enough sleep and I love sleeping a little longer and then staying up late, and now I can do just that.
As an online English teacher, I get to book and organize my classes as I want. There’s no pressure on me to do the lessons at certain timings, so I usually blog during the day or do some sightseeing and then teach in the evenings. I really love it.
At the moment, the worst part of it all is the money. I can’t earn that much with teaching, so the money is tight. It will take a while before I start earning more on my blog.
However, I am never too worried about money as I believe that if you think positively, all the good things will eventually come to you. I also work hard and I know that if you work hard you will see the results sooner or later.
Another thing that I don’t like is looking for good quality internet. When you teach online you can’t just have any internet, it needs to be fast and reliable.
For example, many digital nomads will tell you that the internet in Vietnam is great. That’s true, if you can work from a coffee shop as they have good wifi.
However, I can’t do that as I can only teach at home where it’s nice and quiet. This was a problem in Vietnam because wifi in apartment buildings is really bad and it’s really not worth buying broadband if you’re there only for a couple of months.
How do you balance traveling and working?
With online teaching, I do need to plan ahead if I plan to travel. So if I know that I’m going to be traveling for 2 weeks, I need to do 2 weeks worth of classes in a short period of time which can be exhausting.
I can just do 40 hours instead of 60 hours per month, but that affects my income. To track my hours, I use excel spreadsheets to calculate my hours and see how many lessons I still need to do.
With regards to blogging, I blog as I go. If I stay in a particular place for a longer period of time, I reserve a day or two for writing. I also update the blog’s social media accounts almost every evening.
I am a social media freak and I really spend a lot of time on Facebook and Twitter, so I always need to update it at least once a day.
How can someone become an online English teacher?
When it comes to teaching online - this job is perfect for me. Yes, I get tired and sometimes I just feel like I don’t want to do it any more, but to be honest the job (except the money) is perfect: you set your own hours and you have everything done for you.
I don’t need to prepare anything, just to open a classroom and it’s just there - materials are ready and I just need to lead the lesson.
When I joined EF they warned me that the job might seem lonely sometimes. The truth is that you’re working all alone the whole day. I actually enjoy it, but some people wouldn’t like that. When I was working in London, I always liked working by myself so this is perfect for me.
If you want to become an online teacher, you need to be a native speaker (I’m Polish, but I have a British passport and always use that when I apply for jobs) and have a TEFL certificate.
There are plenty of companies that you can work for, or you can even set up your own company and earn more money. I have heard that there are platforms you can use that will help you build virtual classrooms.
Any tips on being a blogger?
Blogging is a hard work and you won’t see money coming in for a long time. There are things that you need to know that I have never thought about. It’s not only about keywords, but also about how you write your articles and how you relate to people. Don’t forget about marketing too: it’s like having a real business.
I am lucky because Chris knows lots about this and I learn from him. He’s been a great help and I’m slowly seeing results of our work. I blog almost 24/7 - that doesn’t mean that I write all that time.
I think a lot about what and how to write about things. For example I go for a meal and I already think if that’s worth writing about it.
So to become a blogger you don’t need much, but you do need passion and a lot of motivation.
Did you encounter any safety/travel issue as a woman while traveling?
A couple of times, yes.
Once I met a very strange man on Couchsurfing. It was a good lesson for me and my blog post about it is one of the most popular posts on my blog.
Another time I stayed in Munnar at what seemed at first a very nice home stay. The owners were great and I felt right at home. But one night the owner tried to get into my bed. He then told me he was sleepwalking. I wasn’t sure if that was true, but I got really scared.
However, I normally feel pretty safe when I travel alone. It seems like more amusing things happen to me when I’m by myself. I think I attract different people who want to talk to me and very often it turns into great situations.
When I travel with Chris it’s all a bit different. I can relax more as I don’t need to be that careful. He’s a great travel companion and he knows I’m rubbish at reading maps, so he’s always there to point me in the right direction.
What is one travel hack that you’ll recommend?
Well, there are a few things I learned along the way. I used to be rubbish at packing, now I do it in a matter of minutes. I am not sure if that’s common knowledge, but if you roll your clothes, you can put them side by side and they will take less space in your backpack!
I always carry all my valuables in my carry on luggage - no matter what! I never put my hand luggage in a car trunk or somewhere where I can’t see it. It might be something obvious to some, but I often see questions about how to keep your valuables safe.
I know that I might sound like the worst travel geek, but before I go somewhere I make an excel spreadsheet with separate sheets for places to see, to eat etc. and list everything there.
Facebook Groups are great to find the latest local information. For example, before I left for Kraków, I joined all the Kraków expat groups on FB. You can post a question there, or just follow some of the conversations and you will find really helpful tips. I really recommend doing that.
There are also plenty of Facebook groups for digital nomads, like Digital Nomads Around the World, that are great for information hunting.
Lastly, what advice would you give to an aspiring digital nomad?
I get a lot of emails asking about changing a lifestyle that is no longer enjoyable, or moving to Thailand, or just writing to complain about their jobs.
I always want to tell them to just do it, quit everything and go on an adventure, but I know that’s not easy for everyone. Some people have debts, families, or have no savings, and it’s not easy to make a decision like that.
What I can say is, think about your skills - what can you do? What are you good at? Can you apply these skills remotely? If not, then research and find out what digital nomads do for a living. Thanks to technology, there are plenty of opportunities out there.
Then think of what you need to do to start earning money. If you are a designer and working for a company, you need to figure out how you can get your own clients. Be ready to work hard in the beginning.
You will probably end up not sleeping much, but it’s all worth it. Remember that you need to have some savings for the start.
Just don’t be scared to start something new.
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