Online Teaching & VIPkid in Czech Republic

Last I updated this blog, I was working through finding my stride teaching ESL in classrooms across Czech Republic and Slovakia. And now – I’m teaching a nearly dozen lessons a day (well, some days) from my basement flat in Prague. I decided to move my cat overseas to be here in Prague with me, and with that decision came the one to quit my last job – I couldn’t have a pet, travel 6 days a week for work, and have a clear conscience as a pet owner. (Yes, I am the kind of person who will change jobs in order to have their cat, apparently!)

My new gig is with the online company VIPkid, which is getting more and more popular these days – at the time of writing this, they recently announced a milestone, 20,000 teachers and 200,000 students!. More and more often I’m running into people in my little ESL community who are coworkers, and there is good reason for it’s popularity, I can confirm.. though of course, it’s not perfect and there are downsides (which I will talk about as well). But every job I’ve ever had so far has had some sort of downside, so no big surprise there. Let’s get into it – I want to share my experience, thoughts, and tips if you decide to pursue teaching online or applying at VIPkid.

What is VIPkid? Why is it so crazy popular?

Basic Requirements & Equipment

What’s it like teaching in Prague/Czech Rep with VIPkid?

Can I travel and teach?

Referrals: Is VIPkid a Scam/MLM? Why are so many people suggesting it?  

Downsides

*Throughout these articles I link to VIPkid with my referral link – if you would like to use a non-affliate link, please use this link here: http://vipkid.us/ *

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Downsides to VIPkid

No job I’ve ever had is perfect, and though overall VIPkid is a great gig and honestly has improved my quality of life, it’s still no exception. Here are some of the most prominent downsides I’ve found… though obviously, in my opinion, the good outweighs the bad.

Hiring process is arduous: “Non-negotiable” requirements (degree + North American citizenship/residency), classroom or ESL experience is highly preferred, there is an interview and demo lesson, and then two mock lessons as well as a background check.

Being Independent Contractor: Self employment is a double edged sword – you get to be your own boss… and you have to be your boss. Sorting our your taxes (potentially for more than one country), making a schedule that suits your financial needs and also your well-being, making sure you don’t isolate yourself from the world – it can take some adjusting to.

Constant change: VIPkid is swiftly growing and if you don’t keep up to date you may miss crucial changes to their curriculum or policies. If you do end up hired, reading their official weekly newsletter as well as joining informal Facebook groups can help you from getting left behind when they’re rolling out new incentives or key changes.

Push to Promote on Social Media: Maybe it’s easy for some folks, but I dislike the tendency of VIPkid to push it’s teachers so frequently to recruit for them. Ironically I say this in a series of articles which, essentially recommends them – but my compromise to myself is to be totally forthright. The company uses it’s considerable legion of teachers as a pool of potential sometimes-unpaid marketers. It’s the unpaid portion that gets to me, which is why I’m pursuing referrals – I’ve already helped people get hired and given out lots of advice and recommendation for free. I might as well get something in return.

It’s Still Teaching!: Only a downside if you don’t like teaching – don’t think because it’s online that the pitfalls of being a teacher are somehow avoided! You will get a huge variety of students, and some of them will inevitably cause a headache or two. But overall the students are very sweet and I’ve become quite fond of my regulars – luckily, the ones that are difficult tend not to become your regulars.

*Throughout these articles I link to VIPkid with my referral link – if you would like to use a non-affiliate link, please use this link here: http://vipkid.us/ *

Is VIPkid a Scam (/MLM)?

Quick answer: Nope!

VIPkid is not a scam or an MLM.  I don’t know of anyone making a living off of referral bonuses. We all teach, and many teachers don’t do referrals at all. If you work for VIPkid, you can choose to never mention it to anyone ever and that’s fine. Or you can post flyers telling everyone how great it is and spend your nights fielding questions from applicants about the arduous interview process – your call. Teaching classes is a much easier, quicker, and more reliable way to make a paycheck. But as a bonus incentive, the referral system is pretty generous.

Referring a new teacher can be a lot of work and the bonus sweetens that enough for some, but not for everyone. The bonus amount is always changing, and at the moment it increasing exponentially depending on your number of successful referees, so the more people you bring in, the more you get for each one.

I am including my referral link in this series of articles, so clearly I am interested in that bonus. But I’d like to clarify to anyone thinking I’m pushing VIPkid dishonestly – it is not a prefect job, and I’m more than happy to tell anyone the downsides (see here). And if you do choose to use my referral link, please know you are welcome to send me an email or leave a comment asking any questions you may have! And if you haven’t used it, leave your questions anyhow! I’ve helped friends through the interview and mock lessons in real life, and I don’t mind helping you out either 🙂

At the moment of writing this article, I’ve helped two friends get hired on at VIPkid, and due to the twists of fate, I didn’t receive the bonus for either of them. One had already promised her referral to another person (in theory I helped her in exchange for some cat-sitting, but I intend to pay her for that anyway so really it’s free help, which is what friends are for!). The other accidentally clicked on someone else’s link and VIPkid told me they could not change who received the bonus, which was frustrating, but I am still glad my good friend is now my coworker. My point is, though I’d like to get a referral bonus, it’s still just that – a bonus. I’m writing this article for a few reasons, and the bonus is only one of them. I miss blogging, I want to update the Czechlist more often, to be able to look back through it and see all the changes I’ve made while here. And the other reason – I want to find (or create!) more VIPkid coworkers here in Prague – the more, the merrier! I would love to just have some more folks in town that I can connect with and discuss tips, or maybe we can have a prop-making party! I’ll bring the laminator 🙂

And now you know why I include this disclaimer at the end of all my VIPkid articles…

*Throughout these articles I link to VIPkid with my referral link – if you would like to use a non-affiliate link, please use this link here: http://vipkid.us/ *

Teaching & Traveling with VIPkid

Traveling and teaching is absolutely possible, and there is a whole community of travelling/digital nomad VIPkid teachers on Facebook with loads of useful advice. Additionally VIPkid offers workshops for teachers, and I attended the ‘Digital Nomad’ workshop – twice! Some top tips I gleaned:

– International SIM cards are best if you frequently change countries
– Backup internet connection is essential: either SIM card, or a roaming device like skyroam – or both
– Always arrange a private room, and Air Bnbs are suggested over hostels. Message hosts beforehand to explain your working needs, and ask for a screenshot of their wifi’s speed/ping test
-Carry a USB desk lamp, minimal classroom basics (whiteboard, ABC cards, 2D props), and a felt or paper background to put up behind you for a consistent classroom look (use command strips so as not to ruin any walls).
-Never schedule classes for your travel days, and give yourself a semi-consistent schedule to keep regular students (ex: never travel Tues-Thurs, try to arrive Sundays so if there are issues with your place/setup you can fix it on Monday).

*Throughout these articles I link to VIPkid with my referral link – if you would like to use a non-affiliate link, please use this link here: http://vipkid.us/ *

VIPkid in Prague/Czech Rep

The VIPkid recruitment website does not list CZ as ‘approved’ nation, but myself and many others have applied and work from there. I never once hedged or lied about my location, and it’s never been an issue.

As far as legality, it depends on your personal situation of course, and I am not an authority on anything! But as far as I know, this work is covered under the Zivnostensky, as you are self-employed. If you want a monthly invoice to prove your income for a visa, you’ll have to submit a ticket to the company and ask for one, as it’s not something they normally provide.

Pay in USD

VIPkid pays in USD (which has it benefits), and you can still get paid to a Czech bank account as well – but be ready for fees. Once again, depends on your personal situation, but using my koruna-only Raiffeisen account I paid about 30Euros in fees (foreign transfer + exchange fee) for a single paycheck. So I switched back to getting paid to a US account as soon as possible, where there was no fee. It is cheaper for me to simply withdraw cash from an ATM, pay a minimal exchange fee, and then deposit that into my Czech account to pay bills. Other people I’ve talked to use sites like transferwise.com as well.

Europe Hours

Your hours here are pretty regular – Peak hours are 10AM – 3PM in our timezone, so that’s when the booking is hot (especially 1-3pm, also called “peak peak” times). You are able to schedule your availability from 2AM (China’s morning) to 4PM (China’s late evening). Though the earlier slots might not fill up (as students are usually in school), I open my schedule from 9AM-4PM and never have any issues filling up now that I have regular students.

*Throughout these articles I link to VIPkid with my referral link – if you would like to use a non-affiliate link, please use this link here: http://vipkid.us/ *

VIPkid Requirements & Equipment

Basic Requirements

To teach for VIPkid, you have to be a citizen or a resident of the US or Canada, have a bachelor’s degree (in any field), a minimum of one year’s teaching experience. If you don’t fulfill those (as far as I know), you don’t qualify. But don’t lose heart, as VIPkid is far from the only online teaching platform out there. I have heard of a few with differing requirements (such as ABCDada, 51Talk, iTalki, Cambly, PalFish, NiceTalk… and more!), so do some research and find out what’s possible!

And of course to teach online, you need…

Equipment

A computer: desktop or laptop are fine but a tablet will not suffice in most cases, definitely not for VIPkid. What I use: my 2015 Macbook Pro (Retina Display) laptop
A webcam: built-in ones often suffice, but external ones can be purchased as well. What I use: the built-in webcam on my laptop
Internet: a stable connection is key! Speed is somewhat important, but a fast connection is no good if it’s unstable. What I use: UPC is my IPS, I have 100mb/s
Headset: You’ll need a microphone that cuts out most background noise, and earphones to prevent hellish soundscapes caused by the feedback of your students setup hearing itself (you’ll find a lot of students don’t have headphones). Comfy is a big plus if you teach longer than an hour or so at a time. A mute button is super useful as well! What I use: Logitech USB Headset H540
Classroom Basics: A quiet well-lit room, a plain or classroom-esque background, whiteboards and pens, ABC flashcards, and a handful of 2D printed/drawn props. That is the bare bones, but many teachers do a great job with no more. Some teachers go all out on the background and props, but you don’t have to. I also have a handful of props and lots of realia that I like to use, but it would be a whole ‘nother blog post to get into it all, so I’ll just mention my favorite: a handful of small stuffed animals – super versatile and kids of all ages like them.

*Throughout these articles I link to VIPkid with my referral link – if you would like to use a non-affiliate link, please use this link here: http://vipkid.us/ *

What is VIPkid? Why is it so crazy popular?

VIPkid is an online ESL program for Chinese kids ages 4-12. Lessons are taught by North American classroom/ESL teachers in one-on-one lessons that last 25 minutes each. It is crazy popular for a number of reasons:

– PAY. This is obvious if you’ve spoken to any VIPkid teacher – the pay is a living wage if you work full time (especially CZ, as they pay a US living wage). You earn $7-9 per lesson (determined in your interview, based off a demo lesson and your credentials), with up to $2 per lesson in bonuses. Those bonuses are pretty easy to get (one is for showing up on time and following policies, the other is for teaching +45 lessons a month). So, at a minimum people earn $14/hour, and at a maximum, $22. 
-Pre-planned lessons/curriculum
Teachers don’t have to lesson plan! Lessons are made by a dedicated curriculum team – teachers prepare in advance by reviewing the slides and the student’s history (notes left by previous teachers). It is easy to get used to the lesson format and prep time is pretty quick. 
– Flexible scheduling 
You make your schedule two weeks in advance, opening up slots for parents to book. You can work as little or as much as you like. If you want to take time off, you schedule it in and if it’s more than 7 days send the company a note of when you’ll return, just so they know you haven’t quit and can reassure any parents who ask “Where is my favorite teacher?”
– Work from Anywhere That is, anywhere with a quiet room and an internet connection 🙂 Your working hours will change depending on your time zone, but work is possible 8am-10pm BJT (Beijing time), and peak hours are 4pm-8pm BJT.
– Growth & Referrals 
VIPkid is growing at a crazy fast rate – when I started on in December, there were 10,000 teachers. That has doubled and it hasn’t even been a year yet! There are rumors of them expanding in the future to markets outside of China as well, though for now it seems there is no end to the legion of Chinese kiddos willing to sit down and sing “Hello, How are you, I am fine fine fine!” with you. Because of VIPkid‘s growth ambitions, they offer generous referral bonuses to teachers who bring in new teachers – myself included. I’ll talk more about this in another post (here), because I have some thoughts I’d like to share.

*Throughout these articles I link to VIPkid with my referral link – if you would like to use a non-affiliate link, please use this link here: http://vipkid.us/ *

The Dark Side of TEFL

Last winter was rather difficult for me.  I had just moved to Prague from the US and finished up a month-long TEFL (Teach English as a Foreign Language) certification course (at The Language House), and it was essential I find a job. I told people I was looking for work, but in actuality it took me two months to muster the courage to actually apply anywhere. In March I even wrote a whole blog post about it (see My Post-TEFL Slump). But I want to talk about what happened after I got hired, and how my slow start was a sign of things to come. As winter slipped into spring and then into summer, I was still struggling.

Now I want to clarify, I don’t think my story is necessarily the norm. Many, if not most, of my peers from my TEFL course were already working within a month after we finished our course, and probably would have started even sooner if it weren’t for Christmas slowing the application/interview processes down. But, although not the average, I also wasn’t the only one. A couple other people lagged along with me. I can’t speak as to their reasons, but for me it was very challenging to believe in myself, even after the course. I had discovered teaching was challenging in a way that seemed perfectly designed to bring up my personal insecurities. So I want to take this opportunity to put my thoughts out there, especially for anyone who suffers from any kind of anxiety or depression, as a big life change such as this one can be really challenging (though don’t get me wrong, it is definitely do-able and can be incredibly rewarding).

I’d moved abroad in order to change my life, travel, see the world. I’d chosen teaching as a career not out of an interest or any experience in the field, but because it was practical. I speak English natively, and there’s a market for native English teachers here in Prague and many other cities and countries. It’s a job that could open the world to me, and that appealed to me greatly. It still does.

But I’d never taught before, at all. I’d worked with animals for several years, and the change was more difficult than I expected. I felt like I was under-performing, and was really hard on myself no matter how encouraging my mentors and teachers were at The Language House. It’s a great program, and works well with a large spectrum of personalities. But as I tend to internalize all my problems and try to sort them out by myself, this resulted in a lot of feeling of isolation and inadequacy. Not just during my course, but for the next six or seven months or so.

Even after I got hired, and had positive feedback from students and observers from the language school I worked for – I still felt negative about my career as a teacher. I felt unsure if the students were making any progress, or whether my lessons were worth what they were paying. I didn’t know how to lesson plan quickly without sacrificing my confidence that it would be a good lesson. And I didn’t know how to spend more time planning without feeling resentful that I was putting in a lot of effort for no pay. It seemed like all my lessons seemed to go more or less the same, no matter if I planned ten minutes or ninety.

It got to the point where I was so convinced I was a rotten teacher that I thought couldn’t keep on with the career, even though I love my new life in Prague overall. The career was the only piece that wasn’t clicking for me. So I attempted (and utterly failed) to re-start again with another new career, as a freelance writer. Turns out, my feelings of inadequacy aren’t limited to teaching. And at least I was already earning an income with teaching, so after a month or two I abandoned my short-lived half-hatched plot to turn freelancer, and went back to teaching. I’m glad I did, as finally, after nearly eleven months here, I’m finally comfortable in a classroom. It came to me much later than it did to a lot of people, though it’s still not perfect.

My adjustment has come mainly from changing the kind of teaching I do. This spring I was working for three different language schools, teaching about 13 lessons a week. This was part-time and I still felt overwhelmed at times. I saw each student once or twice a week, for 60 or 90 minutes. All my classes were one-on-one with adults, many of them with a focus on business English. I didn’t realize it, but this was not where I could perform at my best.

dsc_0202
I didn’t take any photos in my one-to-one lessons. Here’s a photo of a tram stop I went to twice a week instead.

My current job which involves traveling to a new Czech or Slovak village every week, and teaching a five day conversation course to public school kids. I now teach 6 lessons a day – over twice as much as before – to groups of 15-25 children. Due to the short-term nature of each course, I no longer have to worry about how I’m affecting the long-term progress of my students. The balance of how long to plan is still a challenge for me, but teaching more or less the same exact course each week has helped considerably. Every week I improve on my main curriculum, while I’m able try out a couple new activities at the same time. If I ever return to teaching students in Prague, I’ll have to learn better how to measure long term progress. But lesson planning is not nearly as stressful as it once was.

Teaching groups instead of one-on-one has given me a lot more leeway while in the classroom, giving me precious moments when they are assigned group work to collect myself and prepare for the next activity. Teaching children general topics instead of business topics to adults has enabled me to actively have fun in my own class – I’ve designed a photography scavenger hunt lesson that I do with each week’s students, and I enjoy it as much as they do (if not more, sometimes!). Making these changes has made a huge difference.

jirkov
Some images from teaching, my photography scavenger hunt, and the gifts I got from the lovely students in Jirkov this month

I have gained something really valuable the past few months- a better sense of confidence in myself as a teacher. I have gotten consistently positive feedback from my students, their regular English teachers, and my boss, and it has helped a lot. I feel much more optimistic about my career, and I think no matter what jobs I have in the future, I will continue to improve. 

Not everyone will go through the same issues as I did, but as its not a story I commonly see discussed online, I wanted to bring it up. Everyone else seems very happy and confident as teachers when you open any random article about teaching abroad. However, in person, I’ve had plenty of conversations with other teachers who’ve had at least some similar thoughts and feelings, to some extent.

So if you’re considering moving abroad to teach English, consider whether you are moving abroad in order to teach, or if you will be teaching in order to live abroad. If it’s the latter, be prepared for a real job that requires hard work and a lot of your time. Be prepared for some emotional instability, especially if that is something you’re predisposed to. But don’t lose heart either – as with most things, with time and experience, the stress levels out and you can gain confidence. And never forget, when you feel like giving up – make changes. Kepp trying new avenues and you never know which one will work out.

Overall, moving abroad to teach was definitely worth it. I have no regrets about moving here, as I love the perpetual wonder I have for my surroundings (Prague is truly beautiful). I love learning Czech and exploring the culture here, even when it seems inscrutable. I have made wonderful friends that I hope to keep for a long time, and I wouldn’t trade it all in for a nine-to-five back home – not even for a million crowns.

teachermel
On a great day when my teenage students took me out to see Karlovy Vary last month

How Long To Get a Long-Term Visa?

Well, it’s different for everyone and depends on what you count as part of the visa process. When you arrive in the Schengen Zone (not just Czech Republic), you begin your 90-day tourist visa, and it’s best to get started making arrangements as soon as possible. There are a number of unknowns time lengths – when is the soonest available visa application appointment at the embassy? How long will they take to approve your documents?

Officially, 90 days is the processing limit for your application. If they choose to take the full 90, and they certainly can, you can see how this might be risky to apply after arrival in the Schengen Zone. I met many people who had a gap in legality between expiration of their tourist visa and approval of their long term visa, from several days to several weeks. This is, of course, illegal. If caught, it’s likely you’ll be deported and banned from Schengen for around 180 days. So it’s best to get started as soon as possible in order to avoid this circumstance.

Keep in mind:

  • Embassy appointments might not be available for a few weeks from the date you first inquire
  • You must travel to a Czech Embassy to apply for your visa. This means leaving Czech Republic if you are already there
  • Applications take anywhere from 30 to 90 days to be processed
  • You must register with the Foreign Police within 3 days of picking up an approved visa

With all this hanging overhead, you may wonder why anyone waits until after arrival to get started. The biggest factor is probably the required Proof of Accommodation – proof that you have a legal long-term residence in Czech Republic. It can be arranged from overseas, but it’s a bit hard to prove you live somewhere that you aren’t yet in. It must be signed and notarized by the legal owner of your flat or home, and depending on your landlord this can be very simple and done in a couple hours – or, like in my case, can lead you down a rabbit hole of middlemen when your flat is owned by a company rather than an individual. It took over two months for me to get the Proof of Accommodation signed by the correct person. So if possible, when looking at places to live, bring up the paperwork early on to make sure it’s done timely.

To Zivno or Not to Zivno?

In order to legally work in the Czech Republic, you need permission from the Czech Government and they need some way to document and tax the income you earn as a working resident.

The situation, as I am aware of it, is that there are two types of documents you can get that serve these functions. One is an employer-sponsored work license, the other is the self-employment license (aka, the Zivnostensky list). Depending on your situation, one or the other might be preferable to you.

The Employer-Sponsored Work Permit

For this document, you need to already have a job lined up before you start working. It is exactly what it sounds like – your employer arranges and pays for your work license. Most  of (if not all) the arrangements are made out of your hands, and after approval, the government will subtract taxes from your income .Much like the Social Security tax is taken from income in the US, and you never have to even think about making sure that tax gets paid.

The downsides as I’ve been informed, is that it is difficult to find employers willing to sponsor foreigners for work. I am not sure how true this is across the board, however I am willing to take it on their word that it is at least generally true in the English teaching business – of my twenty or thirty teacher friends and acquaintances here in Prague, I only know of one who was offered the sponsored work license. And you’d better hope your employer has gone through this process before with previous foreign workers – the paperwork trail can be labyrinthine for companies as well as individuals and not every company is ready to take on the challenge. And lastly, you need to have a university degree, and get your diploma apostled in your home country and then accredited at Charles University.

Since I have no personal experience with this work permit, if you have further questions I recommend doing some research – I’d start here.

The Zivnostensky List – A.K.A. Self-Employment License or Trade License

The Self-Employment License, better known here as the “Zivno”, is another option for working legally. It cannot be applied to every trade, but for freelance workers – such as writers or teachers like myself – it is possible, and in my case preferred. I work for three different language schools – it is unlikely any one of them is going to be interested in funding a sponsored work permit for me. Perhaps if I worked full-time at one school, I would have considered this option more.

The Zivno is essentially a list a trades (primarily services, but also some manufacturing trades) that a person can exchange for money. As a self-employed person, there are some additional hoops to jump through – first, you must pay all the administrative fees and do all the initial application paperwork yourself (or pay a visa consultant to assist you). After you’ve gone through the bureaucratic back and forth and collected all necessary signatures and stamps, you still have to manage all your own finances, including paying a monthly tax to the Social Security office. You may only work within the trades you are designated under on your paperwork, but you are allowed to designate more than one – even if you’re not working under all of those at the moment, it gives you more employment flexibility.

Under the Zivno, you are essentially your own “business” and all the associated costs and benefits come with it. You can market your service (be it English teaching, writing, tour guiding, hostel work, or consulting) to whoever you like and not be obligated to stick with one client or employer if it’s not working out. But you are responsible for paying your monthly taxes, maintaining records of invoices and expenditures for the upcoming tax year, and not providing services beyond what you are licensed to.