The World from a Chair


Today, I spoke to an Iraqi man about the lasting effects of the American intervention in his home country. A half hour before meeting him, I spoke with a Catholic priest from Brazil who was studying “Canon Law”. Every week, I spend hours talking with people from South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and other nations.

Madrid is an international hub, but these interactions are all happening online from the semi-comfort of my office. Sitting in the fifth “bedroom” of my flat near Ventas, I speak via my laptop’s camera to people from all over the world while hints of sunlight slice through the wooden slats of the blinds behind me.

As an effort to augment my income, I signed up with an online English teaching website when I first landed in Spain. Now, using it a few hours every day, it has actually become my main source of income in any given month.

There are at least a dozen websites like the one I use – Cambly – where teachers can help students learn English (or another language) from their living room. Some are built for more structured lesson plans where each session is essentially no different than a literal classroom, while others are better suited to causal conversation where students can practice speaking and listening in a no-pressure environment.

Cambly is the latter, though I have certainly had plenty of opportunities to brush up on my Phrasal Verbs and Past Perfect verb tenses. Usually, when I get a call, it’s someone who needs to improve their spoken English for school or their career.

I start with a few basic questions (“What’s your name?” “Where are you from?” “Why are you learning English?”) and allow the conversation to develop from there. Sometimes this leads to weekly discussions with regulars about art, politics, and traveling, and other times I spend five to fifteen minutes pulling teeth out of a reticent partner. And then there are the kids just looking to mess with a foreign teacher. Not every call is a winner.

There are higher paying teaching gigs, certainly ones that provide more stability, and I’ve had my share of frustrations in the six months I’ve been on the site, but I also wouldn’t be paying my bills without it (so much as I am paying my bills…). If my career ambition were to be be a teacher, this gig wouldn’t fulfill that dream, but as a means of traveling to different cultures on a budget, it’s oddly effective.

When not offering gentile critique of my partner’s English, I’m helping people with their writing (like the Buddhist nun in South Korea who needed help with a US Visa application) or listening while someone practices a speech or school lesson they have to give. One woman was a tour guide who gave me a virtual tour of her Korean town so she could practice for a group that would be there the next day.

Then there are the times I’m just there to provide an ear for a broken heart. I vividly remember the Japanese boy the day after Christmas who called because his girlfriend had broken up with him and he just wanted to talk to someone.

I think almost every day of the Saudi woman who had walked in on her husband’s act of infidelity and, eight months later, was still utterly broken up about it. As she wept, she told me she couldn’t forgive the betrayal (no matter how much her friends and family told her to), but she also couldn’t leave. She had no recourse, no clear path forward. And all I could do was listen. 

Of course, I could have worked on Cambly in America. I have one regular student I tutor here in Madrid and a couple other inconsistent or potential teaching gigs, but most of my work is done remote and there’s no specific reason I had to be in Madrid. There’s no specific reason I had to be anywhere, and that’s the beauty of this arrangement. I can be anywhere, and thus I can go everywhere. Theoretically. (Still waiting on that call for the Mars shuttle.)

For anyone looking to make a little extra income or dealing with unwanted downtime, I’d recommend teaching online. Cambly is just one of the options, but it’s as good as any, and hey, if you follow this link and say I (Joseph NY) recommended you, we both get a bonus. You know, hint hint, or whatever.

I’ve got to go now, I’m about to do another hour of online teaching. Who knows who I’ll meet next?

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One thought on “The World from a Chair

  1. Sounds like a really cool thing to be doing! A few people have mentioned to me about teaching English but I’ve always felt like it’s something I wouldn’t have the confidence doing. But something like this would be much easier and more natural!

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