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Digital nomads are people whose means of making a living comes from the internet and isn’t connected to living in any particular location. They are the “new rich” Tim Ferriss wrote about in his book, The 4-Hour Workweek. There’s a spectrum of digital nomad work that ranges from “almost a normal job” to “working four hours a week from the beach while sipping coconut water”. I’ll go over some of the strategies I’ve seen below.

The rise of the digital nomad

Digital Nomad search trends

I first started hearing the term digital nomad in early 2013 amongst a few acquaintances in the tech scene in 2013. It’s only in 2015 that the movement has really been gaining steam. Many, many people who have read the The 4-Hour Workweek have since moved to cities such as Chiang Mai, Prague, Saigon or Cartagena and set about making the dream a reality. In fact, when I was in Chiang Mai a couple of months ago, it felt very much like everybody inspired by Tim Ferriss’s work had crowded into the city. The weekly Nomads and Coffee meetup organized by Johnny FD rapidly ballooned from a couple of dozen people to too many to fit in the coffee house!

The spectrum of digital nomad work

  • Almost a normal job
  • Setting your own schedule
  • Repeated income from previous work

Almost a normal job

The most conservative way to become a digital nomad is to just do the same work you were before but work remotely. Depending on your job you may or may not need to stay in a roughly compatible time zone as you were in. While you won’t exactly exactly have a 4HWW-style life, you can move someplace that’s much cheaper, save more, have new experiences, learn a foreign language and maybe even take advantage in the arbitrage of local economies to invest in yourself. Piano lessons are cheaper in Prague than in New York!

It can be hard to find a job that will hire remotely (and pay first world rates) but if that’s your goal, then a good place to start would be weworkremotely.com. Some famous companies that work mostly remotely are Automattic (the maker of WordPress, which powers this site) and Github. There are others, too.

An easier option is just work for your existing or previous employer remotely. A lot of people I know have been able to do that, including myself! After developing a good working relationship and proving your ability to generate meaningful business results, it’s usually not too hard to work out. In larger companies this can be difficult, but there’s often some leeway. For an American programmer, for example, health care costs are far higher in the US than they would be working remotely from a developed Asian country. This means it’s possible for the worker to retain the same level of income and benefits while saving money for the employer.

Setting your own schedule

The next level of freedom is to do some kind of work where you don’t have to work the same hours every week. It’s very likely you don’t need “full-time” employment to sustain yourself as a digital nomad. This is even true if you’re teaching English in Taiwan, China, Korea or elsewhere. If your employer makes you work 40 hours a week, it destroys some of the benefit of living in a cheaper country.

The solution is to start doing project-based freelance work. Ideal types of work for this kind of set-up are copywriting, blogging, design, translation and editing. Project-based gigs are also doable for software people, but quite a bit of work goes into finding high quality sources of work.

Repeated income from previous work

While it’s great to be able to set one’s own schedule, what really makes it possible to break into the ranks of the “New Rich” described in the 4-hour workweek is repeated income from previous work. This usually means either building your own marketing machine or building a product to plug into somebody else’s marketing machine.

Since it’s such an appealing prospect the rest of this article is devoted to how to decouple your earning powers from your working hours. The main options are:

  • Affiliate marketing
  • web publishing
  • writing ebooks
  • video publishing
  • creating courses
  • creating applications to sell
  • creating software as a service
  • selling physical products

Affiliate marketing

Affiliate marketing just means getting paid to help sell products or services others have created. Many creators use 3rd party services such as Clickbank or ShareASale to connect with affiliate marketers, but many others have created their own internal programs. If you trust the merchant to be running their program ethically, the payout is always better if you cut out the 3rd party service in the middle.

In order to sell someone else’s product, you need to have an audience to sell it to. This could be your personal blog. For example, if you click one of the links to 4-hour workweek in this post and buy it, Amazon will pay me a fraction of a dollar for helping them sell a copy (your price won’t be affected). Other common audiences are Twitter followers (very difficult), Facebook pages, or email lists (generally more effective). For obvious reasons, it helps you quite a bit if your audience knows, likes and trusts you at least on the topics you’re writing about. I wrote for nearly 10 years about language learning, language teaching and my personal experiences on this site and have a great deal of trust built up with my readers on these topics. It isn’t difficult at all to get people to try language learning products I recommend. Of course, the trust will only remain as long as I’m giving good suggestions!

My advice for the would-be affiliate marketer has two parts. First of all, find something you’re genuinely interested in, can write about and can give reasonably good advice about. Write about that on your blog and be absolutely as helpful as you possibly can to people. Collect email addresses. Review related products and don’t push them based on their affiliate commission structures. Try to be what Johnny calls an “Earnest Affiliate“, focusing on actually providing value to your readers. The more you do that, the more people will want to read your future pieces and the more they’ll share what you’ve already written with others.

The second piece of advice is to learn about how online marketing works. There are a ton of great resources. My personal favorite is Neil Patel. He writes at http://neilpatel.com/blog and has also written and compiled an impressive array of resources at Quicksprout. He offers very pricey personal coaching, but there’s more than enough free content on both those sites to become one of the top 10% of online marketers.

Web publishing

Web publishing is similar to affiliate marketing, but rather than spend a significant amount of time on marketing and selling-related activities, the primary focus is publishing content and building traffic. About 10 years ago, it wasn’t uncommon for people to make great earnings from Google Adsense. Believe it or not, it still happens. I saw it happen personally with a friend a couple of years ago, actually. He went from a few hundred dollars per month in Adsense, to a thousand to a few thousand, to twenty thousand and then to using higher-end advertising solutions such as Google’s DFP instead of Adsense. He went full-on digital nomad pretty quickly and as a result of all his travel I didn’t keep up with all the developments after that, but he definitely scaled up to five digits in monthly earnings without doing much with email, social media marketing or selling.

The secret? Get obscene amounts of traffic. Top out in Google search engine results for popular searches. Then do some optimizations around ad placement.

In order to be an effective ad publisher, you need to both pick one of the most popular niches on the internet—e.g. health, dating or career—and develop formidable SEO skills. This means, learning how to use google’s keyword tools to figure out what readers of your content are looking for, it means learning how to update your content to make it more useful and it means knowing what topics you have a reasonable shot at. Neil Patel (linked in the previous section) is also an excellent resource for this kind of information.

Writing ebooks

Writing ebooks is a surprisingly effective way to make good earnings. Ebooks can also be part of a larger marketing strategy, but here I’ll just cover the business of books themselves.

Amazon Kindle Store

If you have no audience and no distribution, then Amazon is a great way to get it. A 50 page book with the right title and cover in the right niche can bring in readers almost right away, especially if you can get a few positive reviews early on. Keeping your ranking is up to the quality of your work, of course.

It’s generally best to either write a bunch of books in the same general non-fiction category or to write a series or serial in a popular fiction category. Right now, the best selling categories are romance, suspense, survivalist prepper fiction, and sci-fi, swords & sorcery fantasy, vampire fiction and military fiction are also doing reasonably well.

If you price your book for $0.99 to $2.98 or more than $9.99, Amazon gives you a 30% commission. If you price between $2.99 and $9.99, then they pay 70%.

Selling ebooks through one’s own platform

If you do have an audience and you prefer not to have Amazon’s downward pricing pressure, then selling on your own is the way to go. You can do this with some kind of shopping cart system such as Member Mouse, by manually putting Paypal buttons on your site or by using a minimal system like Gumroad. I’ve used Paypal buttons before and I use Gumroad now (check out the guides link in my site navigation). I’m not really a fan of shopping carts. I find them clunky and annoying as a user.

Selling directly on your own site is also a great way to offer tiered products for which an email book is only one part. For example, you could sell your new cookbook with Korean recipes for $39, or the book plus videos for $99. For a great example, see Edmond Lau’s book, The Effective Engineer, which has tiers going all the way up to $699. Most authors I’ve spoken with have told me they’ve made the vast majority of their sales at the cheapest tier and still made more money from the most expensive one. It’s a great way to reach a level of income that sustains you without excluding the majority of people who just want the book.

I bought a mid-level tier and found it a great value as a software engineer in San Francisco. If I had been a software engineer working in Bangalore, the price tag might have just been too high to make sense, but the book only option still would have been a great value. If the lower tier didn’t exist, people with less money simply couldn’t get the product. If the higher tier didn’t exist, the author would miss out on a lot of revenue. Multiple tiers are a great way to get the best of both worlds.

Video publishing

Video publishing breaks down into the same general categories of “high traffic + ads” and “moderate traffic + sales” that text-based publishing does. In order to make it from ads alone on youtube you need hundreds of thousands or more likely millions of subscribers. If you’re doing product placements for something such as cosmetics, clothes, etc, you can make it much, much sooner. A lot of vine users went this route. Obviously it helps video if you’re young, attractive and/or famous.

The other massive source of people supporting themselves off of video is Twitch.tv. For those not familiar with it, Twitch is a where you can live-stream yourself playing (or even analyzing) video games. If you’re a top-level commentator of League of Legends, Starcraft 2 or other popular game you probably already have a Twitch account and paying monthly subscribers and don’t need to read this. If you’re not, but you are deeply obsessed with a particular video game or enjoy reviewing games, it’s probably worth trying live-streaming regularly for a few months and see if you can build a following. I wish that option had existed when I myself was a Starcraft-obsessed teenager!

Creating courses

If you have something to teach (and most of us do), a course is one of the very fastest ways to start earning an income online. In Chiangmai, I met quite a few people who had created courses on Udemy.com teaching everything from yoga to social skills to JavaScript.

Udemy is great for getting traffic. Assuming you’re proficient with recording video or screencasts, you can get your first course built within a week or so and be earning something, perhaps $100 in your first month. This will get more difficult over time, but now it’s still pretty open. On the downside, Udemy isn’t a great way to earn a lot. They aggressively offer discounts on their courses and after a while their users, myself included, start to assume that for any given $500 course, there’s a discount coupon that will let me buy it for $10. And if not, then within a month or so, Udemy will probably have a site-wide promotion letting me get it that cheaply. That said, one of my acquaintances doing software courses who has already eclipsed six figure Udemy earnings this year.

Once you do have a following (built through Udemy or elsewhere), the way to charge market rate for your courses is to sell them yourself. Once again, shopping cart plugins are a way to do it, but I’d strongly recommend keeping it simple and using something like Gumroad. They’ve actually added some tools that make it possible to release portions of a course one week at a time with new emails to customers and they’ve been adding new features at a furious pace. I’m a happy user of Gumroad, but other than that have no financial incentive to keep singing their praises here. To the best of my knowledge they don’t even have their own affiliate program. (If I’m wrong please tell me in the comments!)

Creating applications to sell

Creating software applications is a lot of work. The rewards for successful applications are sometimes enormous, but due to the real possibility of putting months of effort into something that earns nothing, I don’t recommend it for a first product.

App platforms

Probably the most popular platform is Apple’s App Store. It’s still the most profitable store I know of, but competition is intense. Choose carefully and bring your A game if this is your plan.The same general advice would go for Android apps, with the one difference that you’re likely to have a harder time making sales of paid apps and that you can probably get better distribution of in app advertising.

Steam has become pretty indie-friendly, but a lot of people are making games and the competition is intense. Fortune favors the unique here. Kongregate.com and other flash game sites are amazingly still trucking along in 2015, but if you don’t already have flash development skills, 2015 is a bit late to be investing in them.

Probably the less risky option I see for people making apps on someone else’s platform would be to make a WordPress plugin for professional users. WordPress now powers 15% of all the sites on the web and an awful lot of those sites are serving some sort of business purpose.

Selling apps directly

You actually don’t need to sell an app through a platform. You can just write the code, put it behind some kind of paywall and then share a link to it. Like I did with Zhuyin King (a Mandarin phonics trainer) right now. I could have put the app on Apple’s Mac Store. But I didn’t have any idea how much interest there was for it. I didn’t want to pay $100 to join Apple’s developer program just for an experiment. Also, it’s a lot easier for me to send people updates this way. I just wrote a very very rough prototype of the software and threw it up on Gumroad for $1.25. A few people bought it and made suggestions. I improved the UI and raised the price to $1.75. New customers had to pay that much but people who already bought got the updates for free. Then I added more content and raised the price to $2.49 for new customers. This is great. It means I can sell software still under development, price it appropriately and then regularly improve it based on feedback. People who buy early on get a great deal, I have no obligation to continue development and yet if I choose to I can easily keep improving the product without having to wait for Apple, Google or someone else to say okay.

That said, from an economic perspective, most people who don’t already have huge followings are probably better off plugging into someone else’s platform.

Selling software as a service

Selling software as a service is the holy grail for many, regardless of whether they plan to write it themselves or hire others to write it for them. Once you have a product people are willing to pay a monthly or yearly fee to use, your income becomes very predictable and your life choices expand greatly. It actually doesn’t even have to be software. It could also be something like a podcast or a blog that you sell a subscription to, but those choices generally come with the obligation to keep making new content.

The types of software that can be sold as a service are almost unlimited, but here are a few ideas: BufferApp (schedules your social media postings), Baremetrics (Stripe analytics for your business), Bingo Card Creator (makes bingo cards for teachers). It’s important to note that only the last of these businesses was run as a single developer for long. SaSS is brutally tough to go alone. If that’s what you’re doing, I suggest aiming for the simplest thing you possibly can.

Drawing stickers for chat apps

Mature messenger platforms often have stores where users can buy stickers and/or cover art. The people who create the stickers get a cut of the sales revenue. The specifics vary, but in most cases, it’s around 20%-50% after the fees for mobile app stores, the chat app’s share and taxes have been taken out. I made a set of stickers for the LINE messenger which was of very modest quality but still continues to sell at a slow pace. Like Kindle books, YouTube videos or even content on a web page, there are increasing returns to be had by continuing to create on the same platform since those who find one item they like will often look at others from the same creator.

Selling physical products

Amazon FBA is huge right now. It’s a pretty wide-open opportunity for people with enough savings to get by to ramp up their sales and cover some risk (~$300) of not being able to sell a product.

The way it works is you sell the product and Amazon ships it. A very common way to sell physical products is to buy in bulk from a Chinese factory (via Alibaba), have the product shipped to Amazon and then sell the product on Amazon. I’m far from an expert, but what my friend in SF did was basically this:

  1. Find a product on Amazon with a relatively high sales ranking where the top listing had a rating of less than 4 stars.
  2. Read all the three and four star reviews
  3. Repeat for other products high up in the listing
  4. Identify one or two ways to improve the product based on the reviews
  5. Go on Alibaba and find a manufacturer to make the improved product for you
  6. Test the samples yourself and revise and necessary
  7. Sell it on Amazon
  8. Market it as if Amazon wasn’t even helping sell it
  9. Do anything and everything within the rules to get good reviews
  10. Profit!

For an example of an insanely successful Amazon product launch see this video from Zen Active Yoga.

Risky is the new safe

It’s amazing to me how much easier it is to build a business online now than it used to be. Even when I was running a brick and mortar English teaching school with a couple of partners in Taiwan 7 years ago, I sometimes thought about how great it would be to be doing something that scaled more easily and something that didn’t tie me down to 60+ hours of work per week year in and year out.

When I went back to the US in 2012, I met some people with great jobs. But I also met people who were really struggling and who had basically done the “safe thing” all along, getting good grades, getting a degree from a renowned school and then joining “safer” career tracks. I still think that path is reasonably safe for those at the very top. But when there’s a big shift in the market and people have to retrain and compete with much younger people for a different role, the “dangerous path” taken by authors, freelance marketers and various small entrepreneurs starts to look pretty safe by comparison.

Until last week, I had never realized how difficult uploading large files to a web site can be. HTTP isn’t really that well suited to it, and PHP has a couple of glaring weaknesses that make it nearly impossible. It all started when I ran into a minor problem at school…
continue reading…

Once again, I find myself looking back on a year past, remembering what I’ve done and evaluating the changes in my life. A year really is an arbitrary measurement, but it’s a familiar one and one that’s easy to use as a metric.

Last New Year’s

I don’t think I really did any sort of systematic goal setting during the last new year. At the time, I was having too much fun hanging out with my girlfriend of the time, working on the school and reading the sci-fi books Poagao had lent me.

I do remember what my goals were, though. I wanted to really turn the school into something great– not just a competitive business, but something my students would someday look back upon and consider to have changed their lives for the better.

I wasn’t too terribly focused on learning Chinese at that point. I was already well past the level required for daily living, and I’d finished my two children’s books that I’d assigned myself on my 28th birthday. My social life was also great, especially during the summer while Eric was in town.

I think fitness was something of a minor goal, but I can’t remember too well.

Progress with the school

The one thing I put the most of my heart into, the school, has done relatively well. It’s still not really making much money, but I’m really, really happy with the quality of the education. My highest level class, which I took from absolute beginners 2 years ago, has read over a dozen level two graded readers (OUP, Penguin and Cambridge), and had few problems understanding a level 3 reader, Sleepy Hollow, entirely from listening to its accompanying CD. Not bad for just 4 class hours a week for two years.

The parents seem to be pleased, too. I still have 80% of the students from my very first class that I opened just over two years ago. One who had left for a year even came back this summer!

It’s a bit difficult to calculate school growth, though. Some of the growth in the size of the school was bought and probably at a higher price than we should have paid when we bought out Ding’s. With the school came a lot of students, many who left when we moved in, and a couple of part time teachers, one of whom is still with us.

Just looking at the total number of students in our evening classes, our growth is an astounding +181% from December 2007 to December 2008. A fairer comparison would be to look at just the number of students in my own evening classes, and that comes up to a less impressive +84% over the past year. The afternoon classes, which I taught for the last two years, but which a new teacher has taken over for this year are up about 40%. Student numbers for our advanced classes have been pretty flat, but we’ve revised our definition of “advanced” sharply upwards.

Being such a small school, growth is pretty easy to come by. The coming year will be the real test. If we can grow by anything like the same rate this coming year, then it will be clear we’re offering something people really want.

Other stuff

I made limited progress in terms of Chinese learning or getting in better shape.

I’m working my way through a children’s book, which seems devoted to making sure Taiwanese children believe in precursor civilizations, the Loch Ness Monster, the bermuda triangle and the existence of great pyramids and a sphinx on Mars. I’m only reading a few pages a week, though.

I’ve been running once or twice a week, but I push myself hard occasionally. My resting pulse is now down from about 67 to 55, and my blood pressure is now on the low end of normal, but I have pretty much the same weight as before.

Goals

For the time being, I feel content to continue down my current path. I do want to see if I can start using my Japanese a bit more than I have been, though. Watching Heroes, all the parts with Hiro Nakamura and his adventures have been making me think about looking for a conversation partner some podcasts and a JLPT study guide.

Other New Year Posts:
Thoughts on 2008(yuehan.org)

Ever since taking a stake in my school, I’ve been very strict about failing students. Experience has taught me how necessary it is to fail the students who should fail.

A long time ago, when I was at a large chain school, I wasn’t allowed to fail students. Due to business reasons that were incomprehensible at the time, I had to just keep giving students re-test after re-test until they passed. After passing them, these students would drag the entire class’s progress to a snail’s pace over the next semester. Invariably, those same students ended up failing the next semester. Letting them continue was not only bad for their classmates, but it hurt their learning too.

Now, I have a better understanding of how my old boss felt. Many parents are simply too proud to accept the idea of their child repeating a semester. Many would take their children to a different school, rather than let them repeat a semester. Their reaction is even stronger than that of parents who can’t accept the results of entrance tests.

I know first hand the business costs of actually failing students. I fail about 15% of the students in each class every semester, and those that fail are more likely to quit our school than those who pass. I’ve probably lost over a dozen students who would have stayed if I hadn’t made them repeat a semester. Especially for a small school without external funding, that hurts.

However, the benefits of failing them are clear– the rest of a class can move more quickly without them, and they can learn more in a class that’s suited to their level. In the long run, the superior quality of education provided does lead to more new students.

Considering my goals of putting education first, I’ve been very, very strict about failing students. Anyone who fails a semester test has to drop down a level, as does anyone who fails a smaller test and two subsequent retests. But this week, I let a student continue after failing two retests of a smaller test.

She told me that she really wanted to stay in her class. She offered to do extra work. Her parents had nothing to do with it. She was motivated to work harder, so that she could keep learning at a faster pace. That was hard to say no to. If she really is self-motivated, she’ll probably do fine. If not, then she’ll fail the next final test and drop down a level then.

Today, a prospective teacher who came in to visit my first and second grade class seemed genuinely impressed with the amount of material they’ve learned so far. They came as complete beginners, and they’ve been in my EFL classes for six hours a week for just under a year, doing the Up and Away series.

I made a comment about how one of my students really struggled with his reading compared to the rest of the class, and the visiting teacher told me that the kid was equivalent to third year students at his school. Then, he went on to ask me several detailed questions about how my students had made so much progress in a single year. Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough time to answer everything before I had to get ready for my next class.

Sharing

I had planned to email my thoughts to him directly, but then it occurred to me that others might have the same questions. Undoubtedly, some readers will have differing opinions, and that’s fine. However, if my ideas help a few teachers and a few more students, then I’m more than happy to share them.

The Main Ideas


Don’t burden beginners with a 100% English classroom

This should be self-explanatory. With only six hours a week of class time, complete beginners need support via their first language. The goal isn’t to minimize the amount of Chinese they use in class; it’s to maximize the amount of English they use. This makes a huge difference and it’s worth it, even though it requires a teacher with more language skills.

Motivate the students

In many ways, motivation is the single most important factor in teaching. Every great teacher I’ve studied has been a master at it. If your students aren’t at least trying do to whatever class activities you give them, then the rest is a loss. Personally, I’ve gotten the best results from using a multi-pronged approach. If the kids don’t do what they should be doing, there are consequences. On the other hand, when they go the extra mile, there are rewards. Quick 1 minute motivational speeches here and there also go a long way.

Teach Phonics.. thoroughly

Teaching phonics takes time. There’s no doubt about that. Just getting students to the point where they can hear the difference between the various long and short vowel sounds, the “ar”, “er/ir/ur”, “or/ore/oar”, “air/are”, “ear/eer”, “ire/ier”, “ure”, and “ow/ou” sounds can easily take a couple of months. The “ng” sounds (i.e. “rang” v.s. “rain”) are a nightmare for many Taiwanese people. And after that, it takes dozens of phonics rules before students can reliably sound out most English words they see or spell out words they hear.

This time is well spent, though. Teaching phonics will help students improve their listening skills, will improve their pronunciation, and it will help them read unfamiliar words. Without implementing a serious phonics curriculum, it’s difficult to use Dr. Seuss books or other books for English speaking children. With good phonics, though, the kids learn a lot reading them and they love them.

Don’t make the students memorize huge spelling lists

Unfortunately, an obsession with spelling runs rampant through east Asian EFL. Worse still, it takes a lot of time to get eight year-olds to be able to accurately spell a list of twenty words. Rather than making an effort to do so, I just keep teaching them more material. Comprehension is necessary before I’ll go on. Perfect spelling isn’t.

Maybe while the students are on the Level 2 Up & Away book, they have problems spelling half or even two thirds of the words in the book, but a few months later, they’ll already be on book 4 and they’ll find they can spell quite a few more of the words from book 2. As their phonics skills improve, their mistakes become more and more like those of native speakers (e.g. misspelling “meal” as “meel” rather than as “mil”), and as they read more their mistakes become less frequent.

Get the students reading actual stories ASAP

I can’t emphasize enough how important reading is. It’s the single easiest way for kids to get more English input. It reinforces all the grammar and vocabulary they’ve learned, and they usually enjoy it, too.

Keep notes

If you notice most of your students have the same problem, then it’s probably your fault, not theirs. It doesn’t matter whether it’s related to grammar, pronunciation, reading skills, or even classroom behavior. If the majority of the class has the problem then it’s your job as a teacher to find a way to fix it.

Periodically reviewing your notes and looking for things to improve makes all the difference in the long run.


Related Posts:
Dr. Seuss Is My Friend
The Hardest Week at School Yet
1st & 2nd Grader Spelling Drill
Language Skills and ESL Teachers

I’ve always loved our bookcase at the school. It’s functional, it looks nice, and it actually draws in our students. None of my previous English teaching jobs in Taiwan have had anything even remotely like it. Some schools have had a mostly ignored bookcase full of things that are way too hard for the students, but not books that the students actually read.

In some ways our bookcase was a symbol of my long struggle to set up an extensive reading program. Ron, to his credit, was the most open and reasonable boss I’ve ever had. He actually read the entire Day and Bamford book on extensive reading that I lent him. In the end, though, I wanted to take reading a bit further than he did. After deciding to move to Pagewood, I finally had the chance.

Bookcase

It’s also a nice bookcase. It’s wide, it can hold a lot of books and it lays pretty nicely against the wall. That’s why it was worth it for Simon and I carry it all the way from our old building to the new one and then take it up to the eleventh floor via the stairs. I must have sweat out 3kg water during the trip and my forearms still haven’t recovered, but look!

Bookcase -500w

Our students have their old bookcase back.

Recently, I’ve found myself in a position to be hiring EFL teachers for the first time. While I did gain some management experience as the owner of a three crew house painting business back when I was trying to pay my way through college, this is mostly uncharted territory for me. With the house painting, training was brief, and I was only looking for short-term help throughout the summer months. Some degree of physical exertion was involved– carrying 30 gallon tubs of paint, climbing ladders, walking around on slanted rooftops and that sort of thing.

My current search for an EFL teacher, on the other hand, is nearly the opposite. I’m looking for a long-term hire, someone who will build up from part time into a full time position and stay at it for at least three years, there’s not much physical exertion involved at all, it’s far more intellectually demanding, and people skills are of primary importance.

The Applicants

I’ve started looking well in advance. We have some good teachers now, and they aren’t at a full schedule. It’s a good thing, too. This might be a lengthy search. I put up an ad both on this site and on a free Taiwan classifieds board, and the applications have been streaming in. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the people emailing me resumes have been woefully unqualified for the position. Of course, I’ll respect the privacy of all our applicants, but here are a few general examples:

People not even in the same country

It’s difficult for me to understand how someone living in Toronto who can’t speak Chinese at all, has no teaching experience and wants to “try Taiwan” could see himself as a good match for the following:

“Need a dedicated, professional Chinese-speaking N. American teacher. Long-term position.”

People unwilling to meet stated requirements

I can understand how someone who is a little weak in one area, but motivated would take a shot and hope for the best. An applicant with weaker Chinese skills could study intensively prior to opening classes and make it. Someone who only has 6 months of prior teaching experience rather than a year, might be able to make up for that inexperience through hard work. But if an ad says extensive training is involved and the applicants have to be willing to work Monday through Saturday, it’s a bit unreasonable to apply just for one class time slot and be unwilling to train first!

Short-term mercenaries

To an extent, I can understand why a prospective employee would want to get as much money as possible for as little work as possible from the very beginning. In general, everyone wants the best deal they can get. I suspect that the reason so many people looking for this job are looking for the best short-term deals they can get are due to the low-trust nature of the job market for teaching English in Asia. Local message boards are full of horror stories about bosses who promise the stars and renege once they’ve got leverage over their teachers. I’m sure that many of the stories are true, but it’s so bad that many foreigners I know living in Taiwan discount job bonuses completely when they evaluate potential schools. If people think the raise and bonus system is some sort of scam, they won’t be willing to put in the work necessary to get started. Maybe in a year or two, when I have a teacher making well in excess of 100k/month and telling his friends, then recruitment will be easier. For now, sadly, there isn’t much I can do to make applicants trust me.

The Interviews

So far, everyone who has actually come in for an interview has been a pretty good candidate. Obviously, no one has all the necessary skills before training begins, but I’m happy with the people I’ve seen so far. More than anything, they seem to have a genuine interest in education.

The difficult part will be finding someone looking for a long-term position. Most EFL teachers are understandably cautious about taking a multi-year position.

Last week, I encountered a dilemma of the sort that I’m really not qualified to deal with… and yet I had to. A new virus has been all over the news in Taiwan. To me, it doesn’t seem like much more than a particularly nasty flu, but a few children have already died from it. Some of the more excitable newscasters have even compared it with SARS. While I fully understand the need to effectively quarantine outbreaks, I felt that the media and the populace at large panicked to an undue degree during the SARS outbreak a few years ago.

One of my students’ schools closed her classes down for 10 days. She wasn’t sick herself; it was a precautionary measure. I hadn’t even been aware of this fact, until some of my other students’ parents started suggesting that we not let her come to my classes for a week and a half. I thought this was ridiculous. If they felt the risk was that high, they could keep their own kids at home. Barring any occurrence of conclusive symptoms in her, or a fever at the very least, it seemed unfair to bar her from my class.

Without my knowledge, the secretary called her parents and said something to the effect that all the parents would need to meet before the next class and decide what to do with her. Her parents mistook that to mean that we didn’t want her there, and decided to pull her completely. They were wounded at the idea that everyone thought of their daughter as a “disease carrier” or something to that effect. The speed at which these events happened was pretty shocking. Others seemed likely to pull their own kids if she weren’t kept out of the class. Virtually as soon as I knew anything was wrong at all, parents were taking sides and passions were flaring.

What a mess. In the end, a great deal of talking and smoothing of ruffled feathers (along with a drop in media coverage of this flu) smoothed everything out. We really should have a standard set of procedures to deal with this sort of problem.

I’ve been glossing the Penguin Reader version of White Fang for my students tomorrow. It’s the story of a 3/4 breed wolf/dog who lived around the Mackenzie River. The book’s a bit harder than what my kids have been reading, but it seems pretty accessible to them since it has so many animals in it. After having read Pocahontas last semester, some of the kids like the idea of reading another book with Indians in it, too.

I kind of wish I’d had a chance to see some of the natural beauty in that part of Canada myself. Unfortunately, I fell into the same trap everyone else does during my last visit. I made a beeline for Vancouver and stayed there the whole time.

One of the great things about teaching EFL is seeing the different responses of each class to the same material. My old Monday/Thursday class finished reading Pocahontas (the 45 page Oxford Bookworms version) a bit back, and they enjoyed it quite a bit. One student had a few difficulties with all the new words, and the Indian names in particular, but even she got into it by the end. The interesting thing with this class, though, was their reaction to the story.

Most classes talk about how they think it was great that Pocahontas lived with in Jamestown and learned English, or how it was exciting that she went to England, or how John Smith should have married her, or how the Indians should have killed the English settlers. Not this class, though. Nope. All they wanted to talk about was how bad John Smith was. And not for how he handled the Algonquin, either. Nope. He was veeeerry bad because he went back to England while nearly dying from an illness and didn’t send a letter to Pocahontas, who was only 14 and didn’t know how to read yet anyway. What an insensitive jerk!