At Home | A Charming New Vocation

Dear reader, 

Since we last met, I have been reborn – reborn from the ashes of post-travel depression. Like a phoenix! A clumsy, somewhat dirty phoenix yes – but a phoenix!

I teach English now, part time. I teach it to people far away via ‘the internet’. Here: let me tell you all about it.

It all started in Colombia. No – hang on. Mexico? Or potentially Serbia. Sometime last year. Whatever! At some point in my beautiful odyssey across two big and separate chunks of the world, I met somebody who was teaching English online as a way of funding their vagabond lifestyle. Eventually I would meet quite a few of these people, and lo – over the course of five months, the world’s slowest lightbulb faded into reality above my head. I could do it too.

After crash landing back in England – skidding nose-down along forty feet of gravel, coming to a halt against an anvil like Wile E Coyote – I felt very lost and scared of everything. It’s hard coming home. You’re still all aglow from travel, all tanned and eccentric and easygoing, and then you are shunted instantly into a once-familiar world of 9 to 5s, of suits and ties, of people who answer ‘Leeds, you bell end’ when you try to begin a conversation with ‘So where are you from?’

It’s cool to be lost when you’re backpacking – I spend a lot of my time actively seeking to get lost. Lost is sexy when you’re out there in the big wide world, roving all jerky and aimless. But it’s not cool to be lost when you’re home. People think you’re weird. They think you’re a scallywag.

I felt the pressure hard. A £1000 bank balance won’t get you far in England these days. I’m sure they get through half of that each on a House of Lords taxpayer-expensed lunch. Money is fine when you’re away – there’s always a Workaway or a hostel to volunteer at, there’s always something to keep you going. At home it’s different. A Friday night four-pack of beers and a pizza costs you around 2% of your net worth. It’s scary.

I freaked out a bit, flattened by Netflix syndrome – the paralysing effect of too much choice. What should I do? Where should I go? Who should I be next? Everything – I always want to do everything at once.

And then, about two weeks after my return home, I thought: I could teach English. I did a TEFL course last year. The thought scared me, which made me think I really ought to give it a shot. That’s what people always say isn’t it? Do what scares you. I guess there are caveats to that advice – don’t hop down an open manhole; you won’t gain anything valuable from the experience – but on the whole it’s good advice, I think.

I found a website hiring tutors, and I applied. I got accepted a couple of days later and set up my profile. I filmed myself giving a nice speech about English, and all the things that I could teach people, and then I wrote a couple of paragraphs about myself and uploaded that photo of me in front of the Taj Mahal, which is the only photo of myself I’ve really liked in the last 10 years. And then I was live.

I went to bed that day feeling mildly accomplished. When I woke up the following frosty morn, I was surprised to see a notification on my phone: people had booked lessons. Multiple people! My calendar began to fill up with little 1-hour chunks of green: trial lessons. It works like this: people do a trial with you, and if they like you and your teaching style, they subscribe to learn with you for X amount of hours. The website itself takes 100% commish for the trial lessons, which is pretty dastardly, but still – assuming these people liked me, I’d soon be able to begin earning.

My first trial lesson was on a Friday morning. I was very nervous. I tried several locations around my Dad’s living room, searching for a flattering light. I put on a nice jumper that made me look trustworthy, and I calmed my impossible hair as best I could. I made myself a cup of coffee, and I sat, waiting with my laptop open as 11am approached. On the dot, the little camera light on my laptop switched on, and before me bloomed an image of a young Turkish man.

“Now then! How’s it going?” I said.

The man looked at me, and I remembered I was supposed to be an English teacher.

“Sorry,” I gasped, cursing my wet brain. “I meant to say hello. How are you?”

I’d prepared earlier that morning. I watched a Youtube video of an experienced teacher giving a trial lesson. He had a set template of questions he worked through, asking about his students’ home country, their job, their hobbies, their existing knowledge of English and their goals. I copied him almost exactly – and it went well!

Over the next two weeks, I had dozens of trial lessons, and a good 80% of these lessons gained me subscriptions – new students. It took me a while to get used to the notion of having students, of myself being a teacher. But I was learning every day, often elated in the process.

I have around 18 active students now, and maybe 5 very regular ones who have multiple lessons per week. They all have different goals, different strengths and weaknesses. Some of them want to get deep into the biology of the language, asking about phrasal verbs and infinitives. Others want to learn as much new vocabulary as possible, and get all giddy when I unveil a shiny new word. Some want to write little chunks of essays for me to mark and correct. And some just like to chat, with no itinerary or direction. I like all of them very much.

Sometimes I get stumped. Somebody asked me what ‘though’ meant last week, and I practically burst with confusion. What does though mean? Are you going to the shops? Yeah, but not yet though. What purpose does ‘though’ serve in that exchange?

Other times I get all tangled up giving definitions. A student recently asked me the meaning of ‘stunned’, so I said ‘it’s similar to shocked’. Then they said ‘what does shocked mean’ and I said ‘it’s like being surprised’. They didn’t know what surprised meant either. At this point, I begin to panic. Must not look silly, must look relaxed and clever. I resort to mime often. I sometimes try to use examples by telling stories, or by picking up props around me, but if I’m not careful I get carried away and end up spinning confounding yarns filled with side-characters and subplots and multiple points of view, only to finish 5 minutes later and find my student sitting and staring at me like a deer staring at the headlights of an ambulance driven by God.

I have a real goody bag of students, which I find very stimulating and nice. It helps me keep a little bit of that travel spark alive: I get to spend hours every day chatting to people scattered right across the planet. Among many others, I have a jolly Polish goth, a young equestrian from Ukraine, a basketball player from Italy, a teacher from Germany (was intimidating at first, attempting to teach a teacher), a video game tester from Poland, two Turkish engineers, a Balinese surfer, and a genius 6-year-old girl from China who speaks more languages than I do. It’s cool.

I don’t know if I’ll be able to live off the wages from this for very long – it pays quite poorly – but it’s a lot of fun for the moment and I’m learning a lot: about other cultures, about English, and about what I can do if I put my mind to it.

I don’t get scared starting a lesson anymore. I barely even plan my lessons, I just do it on the fly – I hop onto the webcam, coffee in hand, and we have a chat about how our weeks have been, and then I decide what to teach based on their personality and what their mood seems to be. Sometimes we look at funny British idioms, sometimes we read tricky texts, sometimes we write stories, sometimes we rattle through vocab lists, and sometimes we spend 45 minutes discussing one bastard-hard grammar point.

It’s cool to see what I can do when I focus, when I feel scared and push myself to be brave. And it’s a warm, fuzzy feeling to finish a lesson with somebody smiling at you and saying ‘that was great fun, I learned a lot, thank you’.

It might not be forever, but I like what I’m doing right now. I’m proud of myself.

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