Hey guys! This part of the working abroad series is all about teaching English as a second language (ESL) classes online. I talked to Leonard, who works full-time teaching ESL online with VIPKID and travels extensively.
Some things you need to know before we get started: Most ESL teachers work for schools and organizations based in China, which means your schedule will need to comply with their timezones. Also, I’m really sorry to say that right now most of these positions are only open to residents of Canada and the US.
Still wanna know more? Here’s all the info you need!
Teaching ESL Online: The Stats
Average Income: I made just under $30,000 in 2017.
Free Housing/Utilities: No.
Tax Free: No, you will pay taxes to your home country.
Healthcare: Not provided
Vacation Days: There are no paid vacation days
Certifications needed: You must have a four-year college degree and experience working in education. A TEFL is not required but it is considered when offering you your base pay. There’s a preference for candidates who’ve had experience in North American K-12 schools but I was hired with only tutoring/experience working abroad.
Contract length: Each contract is six months long and at the one year mark you are considered for a raise.
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How to Get a Job Teaching ESL Online Classes
What ESL companies do you recommend?
I recommend VIPKID, which is the company I have been working for for nearly 2 years.
What are some red flags to look for with ESL online companies?
Lack of flexibility. Some colleagues of mine have worked for competitors which require making a set schedule. This often means working on Christmas day, New Years Eve, or other holidays with no extra pay or incentive.
Any tips for interviewing or becoming a more desirable candidate?
The students range from 5-12 years old. Often you’ll encounter students who have zero experience with English. It’s important to come off warm and friendly. During your interview they establish your base pay. This is your chance to ‘wow’ them. My advice is to be friendly, have a strong internet signal, smile until your cheeks hurt, and during the demo lesson use lots of body language and not speak to quickly. There are many Youtube videos with helpful tips regarding the interview/demo lesson.
What is an expected starting ESL teaching salary for someone with and without teaching experience?
The base salary ranges from $7 – $9 per 25 minute class. If you teach more than 45 classes that month, you earn an extra $2/class. There are also incentives to teach short-notice classes and peak hours. If you have experience, expect to earn $18 – $20/hour to start. Most people without a TEFL or a lot of teaching experience are offered between $14 – $16/hour to start ($7 – $8 base salary).
Did you need to take any specific steps between application and hiring, and how long did the process take?
The process has changed quite a bit since I was hired. When I was hired there were only 2,000 teachers and 20,000 students. Now, there are roughly 20,000 teachers and 200,000 students. The time you sign up online until you start training could range from a week to two weeks, depending on how you schedule your interview and mock lessons.
Leonard made almost $30,000 in 2017 teaching ESL online full time. Here’s a closer look at his finances and the steps he took to get to that income level.
How many hours a week do you work teaching ESL online to make your income?
Some weeks where I work 49 hours, weekends included, to make $1,000+/week and other weeks I don’t work at all. In my best month I made $5,361.There was one month where I only made $70 because I was traveling in the Philippines and the internet was not stable enough to give classes.
Was it hard to get to that point or easy?
Fairly easy. You open up your availability to whatever you are comfortable with. It took me nearly two months to have a 98% booking rate.
How long were you working before you had a comfortable income?
My second month I was already earning more than I had been earning with my prior job. Initially, I hadn’t intended on doing it full-time but after I saw how much I could earn and the flexibility it afforded me, I decided to only work for VIPKID.
Are there other benefits?
There are always referral bonuses which vary from month to month. Also, if you teach short-notice classes or durong peak hours from 7pm – 9pm Beijing time, you can receive extra incentive pay. I teach short-notice classes every day and earn an extra $4/hour.
Can you get more certifications to increase income?
I’ve heard of people getting raises after getting TEFL certifications but currently your eligibility for a raise is considered on an annual basis. However, your profile may be more appealing to parents looking to book your classes if you have a TEFL.
If you don’t get healthcare, what do you use instead?
I live in Spain and here the healthcare is quite affordable. The most comprehensive healthcare plans won’t run more than 70 euros per month.
Is the work year around, or do you lose hours when students are on summer or winter breaks?
The work is year around but some teachers see a lull during Chinese New Year because many families go on vacation. During the summer (July and August) there are often more students booking classes at hours which are typically harder to get booked during the school year.
Can you save money or it the income just enough to get by?
I can definitely save money. Here in Madrid my living expenses make up about 20% of my income and I live in a very desirable neighborhood. Last year in Thailand I was saving 90% of my income.
The whole goal here is to travel while you work! Leonard has been living abroad for the past two years while teaching ESL online full-time. Here’s what his lifestyle looks like…
What is your schedule like? Do you work weird hours?
Part of the reason I live in Spain is because the time zone is very favorable for me. I usually work from 7am – 3pm with a lunch break at 11am. When I go back to the US to visit family the hours are brutal. I was waking up at 4am and finishing at 10am and then working again in the evenings from 6pm – 10pm.
Is it easy to take vacation?
Yes. There are no paid vacation days, but also no minimum amount of classes you must give. I’ve taken more than a month off at a time to travel. It’s easy because you simply don’t open up any classes for the period of time that you want to travel. When I was on vacation in Mexico, every morning I gave two hours of classes to start my day. This allowed me to splurge a bit more knowing that I was making money while vacationing.
Is it easy to travel to different time zones?
Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australia offer the best time zones. There are many teachers who live/work in South America but they aren’t able to give as many classes. However they still earn just as much, if not more, than they would working as classroom teacher there.
Where do you live and how far does your income stretch there?
I currently live in Madrid, Spain. I spend about 20% of my income on living expenses, depending on the month.
Have you been able to travel often, if so, to where?
The number one reason I chose this job was for the flexibility. Since I started working for VIPKID nearly two years ago I’ve traveled throughout Thailand, the Philippines, Japan, Australia, Mexico and Italy. I often stay in each country for quite a while so that I can get a real feel for the country and travel around leisurely. I carefully select Airbnbs with high speed internet and I always have my phone as a hotspot for emergencies.
Do you feel like you’re always working, or have tons of money and free time to enjoy your life?
This month I feel like I’m always working because I have a trip planned to Indonesia and the Philippines in the spring. I prefer working a lot during the winter months, saving up all of my shekels, and then taking it a bit easier during the spring/summer when I tend to travel. Last year I had two months where I worked 26+ days and two months when I didn’t work at all.
What company do you work for?
Do you recommend this job?
Can teaching ESL online turn into a career, or is it just a short-term position?
It can definitely become a career. There are lots of opportunities for career development. A few colleagues of mine now work as teacher evaluators and mentors for the company. There are also positions available relating to curriculum design and development in Beijing.
What is the company culture like?
The culture at VIPKID is fun and exciting. There are always opportunities to interact on the teaching forums and share your ideas with your colleagues. There are also Facebook groups dedicated to VIPKID teachers abroad where there is plenty of information about where you can travel and teach.
What are the pros to teaching ESL online?
– Flexibility to make you own hours
– Teaching one-on-one lessons allows you to really connect with each student
– Flexibility to live wherever you want
– Students can follow your profile and choose to book you whenever you have availability
– If a student doesn’t show up or cancels less than 24 hours before class you still get full pay unless it is a trial lesson
What are the cons to teaching ESL online?
– The cancellation policy is very strict and impacts your eligibility for a pay increase
– It’s a service that the parents are paying for and they rate you on a 5 apple scale which can make you feel hesitant to assess the students honestly
– Some of the units in the curriculum are better than others
Are there any surprising aspects to this job that you didn’t expect going in?
I’ve made amazing connections with many of my students. I love to see them get excited to have class and update me on their lives. There are also opportunities to go to Beijing to see the headquarters and even see your students.
Is it tough for people without teaching degrees, or was it easy to adapt?
VIPKID has a very specific methodology that they want the teachers to implement. They do a good job during the training and hiring process to ensure that you are confident to teach once you start.
What does the curriculum, structure, and day-to-day look like as an ESL online teacher?
The curriculum is a learner-centered curriculum that focuses on getting the student to speak as much as possible. Ideally, each class should have 70% student input and 30% teacher talk. With the younger students this is obviously not possible but that is the goal as they go on. There are 12 lessons in every unit. Lessons 6 and 12 are assessments. The curriculum is prepared for you and there is no need to lesson plan especially after you become acquainted with curriculum. There are teacher directions on the bottom of the slides.
Is Teaching ESL Online Right For You?
This is a great option for people who want to travel and work. Like Leonard I also love to travel slow, which is why I’m such a huge proponent of traveling full-time with an income.
One major benefit to working as an online ESL teacher is the schedule. Because teaching ESL online is often for students and companies in China, that makes it much easier to travel to countries like Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, and other cheap and gorgeous remote work hubs like them. The low cost of living in these areas also makes the income stretch farther.
Shout out to Leonard for taking the time to share these answers and his expertise in online teaching! If you’re interested in VIPKID specifically, you can use his referral link here. Otherwise, explore your options and if you end up taking a job, let me know! Good luck and safe travels 🙂
PS check out the rest of the Working Abroad Series to learn how to start a digital marketing business, get a job teaching in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, become a flight attendant, find work on a yacht, earn a steady income as a freelance writer, and so much more!