Welcome to Location Independent Success Stories!
In this series, I’ll be introducing you to inspiring men and women who are using their unique skills and talents to live the location independent lifestyle of their dreams.
This week, I’m excited to share the story of Rachel Story, an ESL teacher who got her start in China and now works from wherever she can find a strong WiFi connection. In this interview, she tells us how to teach for VIPKID while traveling the world.
Rachel is an ESL-teaching digital nomad and music lover who’s been living and traveling around the world with her husband, Sasha, since 2010. She is the co-owner and designer of Grateful Gypsies. As a lover of all things Grateful Dead and Phish, she spends her free time boogyin’ down to her favorite tunes.
How to Teach for VIPKID: An Interview with Digital Nomad Rachel Lee
First, please tell us a little bit about yourself. What’s your background, and what are you doing now?
Hey y’all! I’m Rachel Lee from Tennessee! I grew up in Johnson City, a small town near the North Carolina border. I got a degree in Music Industry Studies from Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. Unfortunately, I graduated in 2008 at the beginning of the Great Recession.
I tried and failed for months to find a job. Any job. I even worked in a new restaurant for free for two weeks just to get a waitressing job when it opened. After a string of unfortunate events, my now husband and I moved to Beijing to teach English in 2010.
After 3.5 years of living and teaching in Beijing, we took the money we saved and went on a 14-month long gap year trip around Southeast Asia, the USA, and southern China. When that was over, we settled in Kunming, the capital city of Yunnan province in southwest China for a year.
We found new teaching jobs and went back to the same routine but it wasn’t long before we got that travel itch again. My husband, Sasha, applied and was accepted to the Darmasiswa Program in Bali. So in 2015, we moved to the Island of the Gods. I focused on our travel blog while he studied.
Towards the end of our time there, I found an online teaching job. Since then, we’ve lived and traveled around Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Chile.Learn how to teach online with #VIPKID and earn up to $2,000 per month! #digitalnomadjobs #workfromanywhere Click To Tweet
How often do you travel? Do you have one city that you consider a home base?
Right now we’re constantly on the move with no home base. I suppose we could consider our respective hometowns a base as that’s where we store our things, but we’re not in either very often.
Where are you now, and where do you plan to travel next?
We have big travel plans for this year. In a few weeks, we’re heading down to Patagonia to do some hiking and camping in Torres del Paine National Park.
In February, we’re going to Brazil for Carnaval.
Then in March, we’re traveling north from Santiago to see the Atacama Desert, through Bolivia to see the Salt Flats, and back to Peru to visit Machu Picchu on the Peru Hop bus.
Then we’re going back to the States in April for WrestleMania (Sasha loves wrestling) and a friend’s wedding.
The rest of April and most of May will be spent in Mexico. At the end of May we’re heading back to the States for a music festival that Sasha works at called Summer Camp.
Then we’re off to Europe! Sasha has tickets for some of the World Cup matches in Russia. While he’s there, I’ll be visiting a friend in northern England. It’ll be my first time on the continent so I’m really excited.
We’re calling 2018 “the year-long party!” The idea is to attend a big event or festival each month.
However, we don’t have any plans for after June, so if you know of any cool festivals or events happening, please let us know!
How do you typically choose your destinations?
Previously, we would choose them based on work or study opportunities. These days it’s primarily based on places we want to visit. We try to visit as many places as we can in a particular country or continent.
When we lived in China, we focused on visiting other Chinese cities and countries in Asia. When we lived in Bali, we focused on visiting other islands in Indonesia.
Now, our focus is on seeing several different countries in South America. Due to the nature of our online teaching jobs, we’re spending most of our time in cities to take advantage of the strong wifi.
It’s tough not being able to do all the off-track travels we prefer but it’s nice that we don’t have to go “home” anytime soon.
This year we’re choosing locations based on the “year-long party!”
When did you realize you wanted to become location independent, and what were your reasons behind that decision?
I wanted to be location independent before I even knew there was a term for it.
My whole life I wanted to travel. I had dreams of seeing the world and I really meant to make them happen. That’s why I studied Music Business; I thought being a tour manager or something similar would allow me a life of travel.
When I was actively looking for a job in Nashville, I remember feeling incredibly anxious going to the one interview I managed to land during my job search.
I was honestly worried that they would hire me and it would be much harder to make my travel dreams a reality.
The feeling of relief when I wasn’t hired was a little surprising, but I went with it.
Once I had moved abroad to China and was actively traveling during holiday times, I would still constantly daydream about having a job I could take anywhere. The idea of being able to go wherever I wanted, whenever I wanted was so appealing.
I got that first taste of flexibility and freedom when we quit our jobs for our gap year and I just haven’t been able to shake off that feeling. It’s addictive, for sure!
What were some of the first steps you took toward achieving this lifestyle for yourself?
Moving to China to teach English was the biggest step. I was diving head-first into the unknown, having no idea if I was even going to like teaching, let alone living in a foreign country. That got me used to the uncertainty that comes with living a location independent lifestyle.
Our big gap year was the next step because it got me accustomed to moving around quickly and adjusting to new places.
Moving to Bali without a job prospect was another step. Our time there taught me how to really budget and watch my finances. Also, Sasha is a master at budgeting and number crunching, so that helps.
After I started teaching online, I took baby steps with traveling. It’s a big adjustment and I needed time to get used to it.
We traveled around the States for the first six months as that was familiar territory where we could find good wifi and had many friends in different places to visit. When that went well, Sasha applied and got hired.
Then we finally took our new jobs on the road and hopped on a bus to Mexico.
Of all the places you’ve lived and worked so far, which one was the best suited for people living a location independent lifestyle and why?
I think I have to go with Medellin, Colombia. There’s a burgeoning digital nomad scene there simply because they have the infrastructure. It’s easy to find fast wifi and there’s a plethora of cafes and coworking spaces to choose from.
Many people who live there are making it easy to rent a room complete with a bed, desk, and any other furniture you need. The networking opportunities are endless thanks to the number of events and meetups happening on a near-weekly basis.
Plus, it’s just fascination being in a city that’s gone from being the most dangerous city in the world to one of the most innovative in a 20-year timespan.
Tell us about your work. What is your primary source of income?
Teaching online with VIPKID is our primary source of income.
Sasha has also been freelance writing for Transparent Language, a company that makes language learning software, for a few years now. We both do some freelance writing for other travel bloggers, as well.
How did you get started with VIPKID and freelance writing?
I found VIPKID through a post in a Facebook group. I was hired thanks to all the experience I had teaching on the ground in China.
Sasha was referred to the language company through a friend he met living in China. His friend passed the gig on to him when he could no longer take on the work.
The Goats put out a call for writers in their newsletter so I responded and got Sasha to apply. Will (The Broke Backpacker) and I are in a Facebook group together and he approached us when he started building his team of writers.
What does the average workday look like for you?
We wake up and teach 3-4 hours first thing in the morning. The time varies depending on what time zone we’re in.
In Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru we would teach from 5 am – 9 am. Chile is two hours ahead so we teach from 7 am – 11 am (much more agreeable for our night owl tendencies).
We spend the rest of the day blogging and working on some projects we’ve got going.
If someone else wanted to follow a path similar to yours, what advice would you give them?
My first piece of advice would be to get some teaching experience wherever you are now. Find a tutoring job at the local middle school or high school. You could also look for a job at a daycare or kindergarten.
If you don’t already have teaching experience, it’s a good idea to get a teaching certificate such as a TEFL or TESOL.
This can be done online or at a local university or community college.
How much could someone expect to earn when just starting out? How much do you earn now?
With teaching online, it really depends on how many classes you’re teaching day-to-day, week-to-week. It will be less at the start, but as you build a student base, your schedule will fill in more.
When I first started with VIPKID, I was earning $8 per 25-minute class, (base pay is between $7-9) plus monthly incentives. However, I wasn’t doing much teaching as I was moving around a lot. Those first six months I would usually make between $500-800/month.
Now, I teach much more regularly as it’s my sole source of income. I’ve gotten a raise and now I average around $21/hour. I shoot to earn between $1,500 and $2,000 each month.
All teachers are eligible for a raise every other contract renewal (contracts are for 6 months). There is a list of requirements that the teacher must meet before being considered for a raise.
As for the incentives, VIPKID has a referral program where teachers can earn a bonus per successful referral. They are constantly changing and improving the program as well.
When I first started teaching, the bonus was $50 for each successful referral. Now it’s more than that.
I’ve gotten several friends hired as well as a few strangers who decided to apply after reading our blog post about the job. VIPKID will often offer a more enticing incentive when they are doing a hiring push but it varies each time.
Editor’s note: If you are thinking about signing up with VIPKID, you can support Rachel by using her affiliate link here.
Do you have other income sources as well? What are they?
I earn a little from freelance writing. In addition to that, we have our travel blog that’s slowly beginning to earn money.
In your opinion, what is the hardest thing about living a location independent lifestyle?
Figuring out the logistics of where to stay and how to get there can be exhausting. If you don’t have a long list of requirements for your accommodation, it’s much easier, but for our jobs, it takes a lot of planning.
It can be easy to find a place that works and get stuck there because figuring out the next move is hard.
What are some of the things you like about it the most?
I love the freedom and flexibility.
Sasha and I really love live music. Our first summer together was spent traveling the States and going to music festivals and seeing as many Phish concerts as we could.
The location independent lifestyle gives us the flexibility to head back to the States in the summer when we have more opportunities to see our favorite bands and go to our favorite music festivals. We’re also able to see more live music in different parts of the world.
Hopping on a plane for the sole purpose of going to a concert is an unbeatable feeling.
There aren’t many things that make me happier.
How did becoming location independent change your relationship with travel? Do you do things differently now?
We travel much more slowly and try to really get to know a place. In that same vein, we also have to miss a lot of cool stuff.
When you’re doing freelance work, time really is money. When you’re not working, you’re not earning, only spending.
As a result, we didn’t get to do the Lost City trek in Colombia nor did we step foot outside of Lima the entire month we were there. However, we are going back to Peru to do all the cool stuff, so that’s a perk of the lifestyle.
When we were backpacking Southeast Asia, we could be much more spontaneous in our travels. If we heard about a cool place we were unaware of before, we could hop on a bus there the next day.
Now we have to have our accommodation planned out in advance so we know we can do our teaching jobs. Unfortunately, we can’t really teach in cafes or coworking spaces.
However, it’s nice that we don’t have go “home” and that we can stay in places for longer periods of time. Eventually, we do plan to stay somewhere for longer than a month. The digital nomad life is still pretty appealing at the moment, though.
Do you have any great money-saving travel tips to share?
We pretty much exclusively stay in Airbnbs because many hosts offer a discount if you’re staying for a week or a full month. We also like having a kitchen to cook in as that helps keep costs down.
For getting around, Uber is always cheaper than taxis and you don’t need to have cash. Learning a bit of the local language will make it easier to take the metro or local buses.
Travel hacking is a great way to get cheap or free flights. That’s really the main reason our current South American adventure is possible.
Otherwise, we always manage to find the best deals on Skyscanner, Google Flights, or local budget airlines.
We take long buses when we can as it’s a great way to see the scenery. The first-class buses in Mexico are really nice, actually!
What do you think are some of the necessary traits or skills someone should have if they plan to pursue a location independent lifestyle?
Adaptability and patience.
For people who want to be location independent, it’s very helpful if you’re able to adapt quickly to change. Many things come up on the road and your plans can change. Adjusting to new languages and cultures can be difficult and it takes some time to get used to them.
Patience makes a lot of things easier. You have to be patient with yourself to avoid feeling down about how quickly you’re accomplishing your goals, whatever they may be. If you’re trying to stay long-term in foreign countries, you may have to deal with getting a visa which can be difficult.
Being patient with the process will help avoid a lot of stress.
Productivity is a major challenge for many digital nomads. Share with us one of your best tips for staying motivated and getting sh*t done.
Set big, overarching goals. Then break those goals down by the steps you need to take to reach them. Once you’ve got those, break them down even further into actionable tasks that you can do daily.
This way, it’s easier to see how you’re going to reach your goals and helps avoid the feeling of overwhelm. Try using planning apps and software such as Trello or Asana to help you stay organized.
Do you have any location independent role models who have helped you or motivated you to achieve your goals?
I feel like if they can do it and be successful, so can we!
What’s one of the most valuable purchases you’ve made for your business–something that wasn’t necessarily expensive, but provided you with a lot of value?
I purchased a course a few months ago that’s been invaluable in teaching me about adding affiliate links and optimizing posts for SEO on our travel blog.
My ultimate goal is for the blog to be the main source of income and teach online just for fun.
Tell us about one of the biggest mistakes you’ve made and how others can avoid it.
When it comes to teaching online, I booked classes at times when I was unsure of the WiFi. It wasn’t good enough and I ended up having to cancel which caused me to lose money and put my job in jeopardy.
There was another time where I booked classes the day after a travel day. Our flights got delayed by a full day and I had to cancel classes again.
When it comes to teaching online, it’s better to schedule classes last minute, rather than in advance, and have to cancel.
For blogging, it’s being too trusting of others and not having the balls to speak up when I knew something wasn’t right.
I purchased a series of courses before the one I’m currently going through. The first course in the series was about getting a blog set up and it was useful.
However, in the more advanced courses, the course creator flaked and didn’t follow through on providing the content we had all paid for. When anyone tried to ask about when they could expect the modules to be delivered, she would delete comments and block them in the Facebook groups.
Turns out, she’s been doing it for years. I ended up getting my money back from PayPal but it was a huge waste of time, slowed my momentum, and it was a drain on my mental energy.
It was definitely a learning experience, though. Make sure you do your research before purchasing a course. Talk to people and browse Facebook groups.
The information is there, you just have to look for it.
Finally, if you could offer your younger, less experienced self one piece of advice for this journey, what would it be?
Do your research! I’ve had so many mishaps in travel, blogging, and teaching that could have been avoided had I just done a little research beforehand.
Also, it’s sometimes better to not be cheap and spend the extra money on a flight/room/course. You get what you pay for!
Last but not least, don’t skip out on amazing experiences just because of the price tag. You’ll always regret what you didn’t do.
Want to know more about teaching for VIPKID? Leave your questions for Rachel in the comments!