By Elizabeth Evans
In March 2019, I arrived in Scotland, eager to begin traveling around Europe. Fresh from working as an English teacher in a brick and mortar classroom in South Korea, I had more ideas than actual plans. However, armed with a few classroom props, my laptop and my experience from my online TEFL class from International TEFL Academy, I was ready to jump into the world of teaching English online.
Firstly, what are the differences between a brick and mortar classroom and an online one? A brick and mortar classroom (often referred to as a B&M classroom) is the traditional classroom we are all familiar with: a room in a building with desks, a whiteboard, and colorful pictures. When you work at a school with this set-up, you usually have a contract (anywhere from 6 months to 3 years, depending on the country), and a set number of classes and students. Vacation time is dictated by the school and any national holidays.
In an online classroom, you have more independence. Instead of desks and a whiteboard, you have a laptop (with a camera) and a solid internet connection. There are still colorful pictures, only now it’s totally up to you to decide what is hung up behind you, and what props you want to use to teach. When you work for an online company, your contract is typically 6 months. You get to set your own hours: you only open your schedule for the times you want to teach. You can plan in advance what days you will work and what days you will take off.
As you can see, an online classroom offers a lot of flexibility, and for many that means the opportunity to travel while still making an income. For me, transitioning from a B&M classroom to a mobile classroom has been challenging at times, but also very rewarding. Here are a few things to keep in mind when you are making the move.
A Balancing Act
When you travel, it is to see and do all the wonderful things a country has to offer, from visiting ancient castles to eating delicious pastries. It is not just to sit inside your Airbnb and work all day. The greatest part about location independent work is that you can move anywhere. But your bank account won’t magically replenish itself. When moving from the structure of a B&M classroom to the flexibility of an online classroom, it is key to strive for a work-life balance: open enough classes that you can support yourself, but not so many that you don’t have chances to go out and explore.
When I first started traveling and teaching, I opened every slot I could. But, by the time I was done for the day, it was late afternoon (teaching in Europe is typically 10 am – 3 pm), which didn’t leave much time for exploring certain aspects of a city (such as historical buildings, and museums, which often close at 5 or 5:30 pm). Now, I always leave a couple of days open in my schedule, usually over weekends, so I have a full day or two to take my time and see all the things I want.
When you are located in one place for a long time, you can build a network of people, both in the school and outside. Depending on the size of your school, there could be up to 6 or 7 other foreign teachers. Also, you have the chance to join clubs and go to events in your community, such as language exchanges. However, when you are traveling alone, staying in a new place for only a short time, your network narrows. Being part of an online company, you will have access to great online networks. Different online teaching platforms have tons of community groups. You can share funny moments from your teaching or seek advice on any topic, and maybe even plan a met up or two.
In person, making connections can be a bit more difficult. Since you can’t rely on hostels for making friends (I love hostels, but they aren’t ideal accommodation in this case, because they sometimes have poor internet connections, and you can’t ensure you will have a quiet, private space to teach in), you may have to be a bit more outgoing in your efforts to make connections. You can still go hang out at a hostel in your down time, and join a pub crawl, or a free walking tour in your city. You can even just strike up conversations with fellow teachers you may find. When I was in a café in Nice, France, I saw another patron had her iPad open on the VIPKid homepage. I asked her if she was a teacher, and we ended up talking for a while and realized we were traveling in the same direction.
In a B&M classroom, you will most likely be teaching a group of students at the same time. My kindergarten classes had on average 10 kids, and I saw them continuously throughout the day. Seeing the same group of students every day enables you to get to truly know those kids. You get to see them grow over the year. You learn their personalities: which ones work well together, who the wild ones are, who doesn’t like cucumbers. You learn quickly how to manage all these personalities at the same time, while also trying to teach them a second language. With a group setting like this, you get to do a little bit of everything: you’re a teacher, friend, and wrangler. And while this is very rewarding, teaching in this environment can also be exhausting. After almost two years at the same school, I was feeling burnt out from my schedule.
In an online classroom, you see students one-on-one. Classes are only 25 minutes. If your student is misbehaving, you can contact classroom support, who will in turn contact a parent (or, maybe the parent is already sitting nearby, helping to keep the student focused). Since you are only seeing a student for a short time, it is essential to put as much energy into your time together. It’s a bit easier to throw yourself into these short lessons and make a class really fun. You get to be super fun and silly and at the end you say goodbye, and turn off your camera. You don’t have to wrangle anyone into outdoor shoes, or get them to line up nicely. In fact, you may never even see that student again. Your schedule is an ever-changing carousel of student names. This doesn’t mean you can’t have meaningful relationships with students. You will have regulars, especially as you gain more experience. And watching a student ace a new skill, even if it’s the first time you’ve taught them, is so rewarding.
If you are thinking about moving to an online classroom from a brick and mortar classroom, keep these important differences in mind. And give yourself a chance to get used to your new environment. At the end of the day, it is the meaningful interactions you can have with your students that make teaching such a rewarding job, regardless of your set-up.