Welcome back to Earning Abroad! In this series I’ll introduce you to some inspiring and ambitious travelers — wanderers who have found viable work away from their home countries.
Friends, I’ve heard you loud and clear — you wanted more Earning Abroad interviews, and you got ’em! I’m here today with a very special edition of our favorite working away series to introduce you to Katty Hargrave-Kerns, a girl who is pretty much living the dream — traveling the world, setting her own hours, and funding it all through teaching online from anywhere with a company called VIPKID — who this post is brought to you by!
Sound enticing? Read on to learn how much Katty makes, how she landed the job, and what she’s doing with her newfound freedom.
AB: Walk us through a typical day on the job with VIPKID.
KHK: One of the greatest things about this job is that there is no “typical day.” Every day since I have started with the company has been different, exciting, and new. Since I’m constantly switching time zones the layout and structure of my days are constantly changing. The flexible schedule allows me to teach whenever I want, and work from wherever I want. I can walk you through my “routine” (I use this term loosely) now that we actually have our own apartment in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
I’m currently living in South America, and the time difference between my students and I took some getting used to. I never thought in a million years I would be a morning person but now I’m the weirdo that wakes up at 7am on weekends. I’ve definitely adjusted. One of the perks of working early in the morning is that I’m done by mid-day and have the rest of the afternoon and evening to cook, explore the city where I live, work on my side projects and (hypothetically) have time for myself.
I usually set up my portable “classroom” complete with an ABC background behind me and log into the VIPKID teacher portal. Here I have access to my schedule, workshops, training, account information, payment information, and more. I log into each classroom about 2 minutes before the start time, test to make sure my headset and camera are working and wait until my student logs in. Classes run between 25-28 minutes. The 2-4 minutes between classes I fill in feedback for the parents and next teacher about the student’s progress in class that day. After I quickly type it up and submit it I log directly into my next class. Depending on how I opened up my schedule I might have a single class or 10 classes in a row. However, I prefer to teach 4-6 classes then take a 30 min break to give myself time to get organized, use the bathroom, or eat. I open the hours I want to teach and parents/guardians choose me to teach their child if our available hours match.
How long have you been with the company?
I’ve been with the company for 27 months — just kidding it’s not a small child — it’s been just over two years now!
This is such a unique career opportunity for those who want to travel! What inspired you to seek out this particular line of work?
This is a weird story because there never was an office job, or cubicle life path set up for me in the USA (much to the dismay of my parents I’m sure, who love that I’m happy but also miss me — Hi mom! Hi dad!).
I jumped head first into living abroad just as I graduated with a BA in International Relations at the American University in Washington, D.C. I’ve never done well sitting down all day and I realized early on I worked better with children than I did adults. My friends spent most of high school and college working in retail or in restaurants and I always respected them because I can handle a kid who is a jerk, because they’re a kid, it creates an opportunity for the child to learn. But an adult who is a jerk should know better and I’ve never been known to hold my tongue.
I started working with children when I was still a kid myself. I taught gymnastics and acrobatics classes and babysat my way through University with a few incredible families. Later, I studied abroad and worked in Nairobi, Kenya with an NGO that worked with underprivileged children around the city. I made friends, set up networks and after graduation moved back to Nairobi to work with an NGO I co-founded. After a series of months where I experienced some of the highest highs and lowest lows of my life, I decided I wanted to focus more on traveling while I was young and healthy. I left my job and decided to explore the small corner of the giant continent where I was living.
I met a lot of other adventurers and travelers a lot more experienced than myself and everyone asked the same question, “Have you been to Southeast Asia?!” While I was deciding what I wanted to do and where, I started looking into completing my TEFL (Teaching English as Foreign Language) course. I found a program in Phuket, Thailand that seemed perfect, and I also applied to a few international education programs online as well. The decision was made. I moved to a tropical island in Thailand and started my journey to become a teacher. After completing the TEFL course I knew I wasn’t ready to leave this tropical paradise. I found a place to live, a teaching job at a private school and I started my first semester of grad school online.
While in Thailand I met a vast network of expats, teachers, and travelers. After a year of teaching in a school I left to travel throughout Thailand and the surrounding countries. I ended up meeting my partner and we decided to move to Australia. I was looking for jobs in childcare and found a few nannying gigs, but I was struggling to find full time work. A friend was recruiting for VIPKID and suggested I go through the application process. Within two weeks I was teaching online!
Two and a half years and a dozen countries later I’m still teaching with VIPKID and still seeing the world.
What was the hiring process like?
I was lucky to find this job when I did. A teacher friend from Thailand was recruiting for the company and ed me directly to apply. At the time the company was just starting to expand and wasn’t very large. The application process was simple and straightforward — after an interview and a Mock Class I was hired within two weeks!
Now I’m on the other side of the application process! As a Mock Class Mentor (MCM) I work with potential teachers in a “mock class.” Applicants are given a lesson and preparation material after they complete a short online training. Then they proceed to a Mock Class. They are assigned a MCM who acts as a student as they practice teaching. The MCM then gives feedback to help applicants improve their teaching styles to fit the VIPKID online classroom. MCM suggest effective methods, things the applicant did really well and things to improve on.
VIPKID believes there is a better way to teach a foreign language through critical thinking skills and creativity. VIPKID wants students to enjoy their online learning experience and encourages teachers to do their best in the classroom to work with the students to expand their English skills.
How much money do you make with VIPKID? Is it enough to live on?
This is a tricky question because it depends on the month and what continent I’m living on. However, the pay structure is very simple. VIPKID pays each teacher a base rate per class + monthly incentives + referral incentives. My paycheck depends on how many classes I teach. If I want to make more, I teach more classes. If I can live off of a certain income I can work those minimum hours.
When I was living in Australia I was pulling in half of my income with VIPKID (roughly $1,000 a month — all prices below are in USD) and saving every penny of it. I only spent what I was paid in cash from nannying (about $1,000). Everyone says Australia is crazy expensive but if traveling has taught me one thing it’s how to save, scrounge and budget, budget, budget (dad you should be proud)! All of our groceries were bought in the cheap Vietnamese produce shops and from budget supermarkets — even though it meant walking twenty minutes to get there. I cooked three meals a day six days a week, we rarely drank out (excluding holidays and our weekly date night); we walked or cycled everywhere and took advantage of public transport. I was able to save half of my income every month. By the end of our time in Australia I had earned $10,000 with VIPKID and saved most of it.
Things were a little different once we moved back to Thailand. After a few months hopping around Southeast Asia working part time and mostly spending our savings we moved back to Phuket, Thailand to save up again. I was working 25-35 hour weeks with VIPKID and making just between $2000-3000 a month, which is outrageous because in Thailand the cost of living well can be anywhere from $500-$1000 USD a month. So for those of you that are terrible at math (like me) that means 2/3 of my income (aka $1500-2000) went into my savings.
After six months in Thailand I headed back to the US. My boyfriend, Tim, and I spent our savings again traveling around Central America & the Caribbean earlier this year. Tim was teaching English and cooking classes in Phuket but started teaching English online during our Central American travels. He is from England so he works for a different company.
When we were low on money we decided to stop in Medellin, Colombia. Living costs were more expensive than Thailand but cheaper than anywhere else that we had recently traveled. Again working 25-35 hour weeks (depending on the week) I was averaging just under $3000 a month with monthly expenditures of about $1500. I could have spent a lot less as well but my partner and I decided we wanted to live in a nicer apartment and we traveled a lot while in Colombia. Then we said goodbye to our Colombia savings to book a flight to Buenos Aires – flying in South America is NOT budget friendly (the total opposite of Southeast Asia!)
Now we are living in Buenos Aires, Argentina, another “expensive” city. We have actually found that we spend a lot more here than other places we have lived because there are so many wonderful restaurants — and wine! And I cannot resist Argentine wine. So with an income of about $3000 a month, I spend about $2000.
It takes a 30-hour week to easily bring in around $3000 a month, which hypothetically is over $35K a year. This is an outrageous sum of money for most of the countries I’ve lived in. However, I don’t work full-time hours all year round. My partner and I are more “budget-friendly” travelers but we also indulge in our favorite comforts, which include but are not limited to eating out, wine, and the occasional room with a view. Plus, the costs for our laptops, phones, and high-speed internet for work.
What kind of legal hoops do you have to jump through?
While in Thailand I completed my TEFL course while on a tourist visa, but once I was hired at a school I was able to stay on a work visa. When we lived in Australia Tim and I were both on the Working Holiday Visa. Since then we both travel on tourist visas. Because this is now our new reality we often complete the forever dreaded visa-run.
People hate on visa-runs all the time. I have an entirely different outlook on them. To me they’re basically a necessary short holiday. I’ve done visa runs to Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, Cambodia, back home to the US and most recently Uruguay. We just returned from a short trip and ferry in a small colonial riverside town just an hour outside of Buenos Aires in Uruguay. One of my favorite parts of traveling has actually become the visa runs. Our next visa run we plan to hike Macchu Picchu in Peru!
What skills do you need for this job?
At least one year of teaching/training experience. This can be any age and any experience.
• A Bachelors degree in any subject.
• The (legal) ability to work in either the USA or Canada. The company uses the Common Core curriculum (which is a to those with teaching experience in the USA). They advertise that their teachers are all North American and are familiar with North American pronunciations and culture.
• A passion for teaching. Ok, this isn’t technically a “requirement” — but personally I think it should be!
What are the best and worst things about teaching online?
Best things: The flexibility and the children. Waking up at 6am is worth it when I wake up to “Teacher I missed you!” I won’t lie my heart melts when we start singing “If you’re happy and you know it” as the sun rises (much to dismay of my still sleeping partner in the next room). I often have “regulars,” or students who I see a few times a month. I might see a regular 3 times a month or 15 times a month depending on my schedule and when parents book me. But I also meet new students everyday, some who become regulars!
Some of my most stressful days have included power and internet outages. One time I was on a flight in Colombia and the flight had to turn around and land in a different city, and after an extremely stressful and confusing ten hours in the airport we somehow made it on a flight to another city (not our planned destination). The storm that re-routed us had flooded the whole city and the room we found had no power (in fact whole areas of the city had no power) and I had to teach at 5am the next morning. With about 4 hours sleep I was up to teach without any power, and I had yet to invest in a mobile hotspot. I learnt my lesson then. Never schedule classes the day after a flight.
On that topic, how do you find decent internet while constantly traveling?
I do this in a few different ways. It’s been a long process of trial and error. First things first I research! I need to know if the country or city I’m traveling to has decent internet and a reliable power grid. This isn’t always the case. I’ve taken days off to travel to locations without good internet or power. When we traveled to Laos, which is notorious for it’s crappy internet, I decided to take a week off.
Honestly, in Southeast Asia I had little to no problems as long as I did my research. Southeast Asia has some of the best and fastest internet coverage I’ve ever used. The biggest issue was power outages during the rainy season. I combatted this by using a hotspot on my phone, which was topped up with a small data package from a local Thai SIM company.
While traveling Tim & I would often stay in AirBnbs or guesthouses. I would the host asking them to perform a speed test for the internet so I knew if I could teach or not. Ideally you want 20mbps or higher download speeds to teach on. The story was a little different when we lived to Australia. Australia for some reason has really crappy internet, so I used an Ethernet connection to stabilize it. When we were traveling and living out of a van I bought a 10GB data package and used a hotspot from my phone to teach off of which worked flawlessly! I made sure I taught in areas with good data coverage and we paid for a powered campsite so I could charge my laptop and set up better lighting.
While in the US or England we stay with family or friends so it’s easy to find a decent internet connection. This changed once we started traveling around Central and South America. Again I would message AirBnbs or guesthouses to check the internet speed, more often than not I ended up teaching on anywhere from 6mbps to 15mbps which wasn’t ideal. After the big flight fiasco I mentioned earlier, in which I had to cancel a few classes, I decided to invest in a global mobile hotspot. This is the TEP device that I use now.
The device itself is relatively cheap and then I pay $8 for 24 hours. On the 4G devices you get 1GB of high speeds (enough for about 9-10 classes) and on the 3G devices you get 500MB of high speeds (enough for about 4-5 classes). Check the coverage for the countries you’re traveling to. I HIGHLY recommend this. It’s super easy to turn on and has saved me from many class cancellations. We live in a VERY old building in the old city in Buenos Aires. Our power goes out all the time, especially now that it’s summer.
What would your advice be to someone seeking to live your lifestyle?
These students deserve teachers who really care and are excited to help them learn. The flexibility is great, and the students are better, but be prepared. When going through the application process the Mock Class Mentors can tell when you’ve prepared. If you have any specific questions please feel free to reach out to me directly and I can walk you through the application process. I love helping other teachers get started.
What are some of the most amazing adventures you’ve been able to tackle while working online?
There are so many highlights. But my two most outrageous have been teaching from the inside of our camper van at various campsites around Australia and teaching from inside of our guesthouse in Costa Rica. With the time difference I was waking up at 4am to teach. However I took a half-hour break every morning to watch the sunrise with a cup of coffee over the Atlantic Ocean with no one else in sight — except the occasional straggler making their way home from the night before.
How do your family and friends react to your life as a digital nomad?
My family misses me, because of course they do, but they’re super supportive. They’ve used my traveling as an excuse to travel too and visit me! A lot of friends have reached out over the years about my travels and I love sharing my experience. I’ve hosted friends and friends of friends countless times. Many strangers have open up their homes to me along my travels and I love to do the same.
Have you had other experience working abroad?
As mentioned earlier, I worked with Non-Profits and Non-Governmental Organizations in Kenya, taught English in a private school in Thailand and nannied in Australia. I’ve stuck with VIPKID for so long because the students are wonderful, it’s well paid and has great flexibility for my constantly changing schedule.
What are you doing now? What are your plans for the future? How long do you plan to continue working as an online English teacher?
Right now I’m loving life in Argentina! Our plans are to hang here for a few months and explore this beautiful country as well as Chile, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Peru. As of now I have other responsibilities with the company other than teaching, which has been great for my personal development in education. As far as a future — I need to finish my dissertation (which me luck) and continue to explore the world with my laptop and teddy bear in tow.
Let’s leave Katty some kudos in the comments! As always, please let me know if there are certain questions you’d like to see asked, or a certain job you’d like to see highlighted in Earning Abroad.
Find Katty and check out her past and current adventures while teaching and traveling on Instagram @kattyjustdance. This post was brought to you by VIPKID. Intrigued by the lifestyle online teaching provides? Apply to VIPKID now!