Merry Buelken

Me dressing up for Halloween, the bao baos loved it!

Meredith “Teacher Merry” Buelken

Instagram – @merryhappy25

Your Location
Cairo, Egypt

Company you teach for
VIPKid is my main gig!

Ahmad and I, with three dogs in the back. Crazy but fun!
Ahmad, my boyfriend, with the dogs!
Pippin and I hiking in the local protectorate desert area, Wadi Degla, Cairo.

Tell us about yourself!
First of all, hello! Thank you for the chance to introduce myself to the FeedbackPanda community, as it has been a true lifesaver this past year with VIPKid! I am 367 days in, start my third contract in April, and I am certain I couldn’t do it without all the amazing feedback angels! Y’all are the real MVPs.

I am originally from Washington D.C, then Maryland, and most recently Michigan. However, in the past 4 years I have lived in Cairo, Egypt. I am not a world traveler at heart though, I’m a homebody and an introvert with a love for the simple things. There is nothing better than spending all day with my dogs. I have one rescue dog (Pippin), the boyfriend has 2 dogs (Zeus and Drogo), and we have a couple of homeless dogs (Jackie and Scout) that we care for and stay with us like roommates who come and go at will.! It is a bit of a madhouse at times, but I love it! I try to fill my time with coffee-filled mornings, long board game sessions with friends, and listening to an eclectic mix of 90’s hits and Korean-Pop. I highly recommend K-Pop to wake you up for an early morning of teaching! 😉

What is your teaching journey?
In 2014 I graduated from Michigan State University (Go Green!) with a bachelors in Elementary Education, then earned my teaching certificate the following year still at MSU (Go White!). I know many teachers are brave (heroic, superhuman, better than I) and teach in public schools. However, after witnessing a lot of public school systems, nothing scared me more than working the long, underpaid, and underappreciated hours. I was more inclined to travel elsewhere for different opportunities, so I decided to take a chance and I accepted a job in Cairo, Egypt in an international private school. I taught 5th grade English for three years. I moved here as a first-year teacher, 23 years old, and have been running with it ever since!

What led you to start teaching online?
Some of you may have seen the VIPKid YouTube video about Teacher Arielle when she visited the Beijing office and featured in “What it’s really like to be an Online Teacher in Egypt: Teacher Interview Series EP.1.” Small world, she was actually a teacher in my school! When she started doing VIPKid as a weekend side gig she recommended I check it out. No commute, no admin meetings, good pay…it sounded too good to be true! I applied and luckily received bookings right away. After a couple of months of teaching on the weekends only, I declared that this would be my full-time job.

What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced and obstacles you’ve overcome transitioning to teaching online?
At first, the biggest challenge was simply overcoming my natural state of anxiety before every day of teaching. I was always worried about the internet, the class material, the student, and don’t get me STARTED on trials! My blood pressure had to be at unhealthy levels when I first started. I would wake up hours before I needed to, and was having nightmares filled with Teacher No Shows! Thankfully, after a few months, things began to feel routine and I was able to chill out. Now, thanks to FB and Google Slides, I am cool as a cucumber and able to finally be a “zero prep” teacher.

Have you found anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
No exaggeration, teaching online changed has completely my life. Cairo is an amazing city with many great things. Culture, history, food. The traffic? Not one of them. Check out the picture of a casual day of traffic. This isn’t abnormal, this is all the time. There are no lanes, no speed limits, and usually a lot of honking.

I was spending two hours a day minimum on the commute. My day was devoted to work prep, work, work travel, from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. 12 hours of my life gone, not to mention after school grading, which we all know is the biggest scam of all time (can I get an AMEN?).

With VIPKid and the lovely time zone here, I start teaching at 10 in the morning and end at 4 in the afternoon. I give myself two breaks in between as well which is plenty of time for feedback. I now have time for life in the morning, afternoon, and I am not perpetually exhausted. All hail VIPKid, in my opinion.

Before online teaching with VIPKid: “I was spending two hours a day minimum on the commute. My day was devoted to work prep, work, work travel, from 5am to 5pm. 12 hours of my life gone.”

How does online teaching complement your lifestyle?
Well, I already raved about the time I have daily, but it is also amazing to be able to travel back home in Michigan whenever I need to. When I worked in a full-time B&M, I was only able to travel in the summer for one month, and Christmas for a couple of weeks. Now, I can go back and forth whenever I want and not miss a beat. I teach here or at my parent’s in Michigan, or take time off if I like. I feel so much more in control of my life. I was able to travel to Germany for this past Christmas, and I’ll be going home in April just because I feel like seeing family and friends. I don’t have the need for another job currently, as I do not have children, and the cost of living in Cairo is very cheap.  My parents have visited me, and will come again soon!

What professional accomplishment as an online teacher are you most proud of?
I’d have to say the amount of my classes I’ve done this year make me proud. As of writing this interview, I’ve taught 2,000 classes, with no cancellations. More than the paycheck, I feel the significance of how many minutes that is of teaching, and how I have been giving my 100% for every one of those classes.

What personal goal have you been able to reach because of online teaching?
My goal when I joined VIPKid was simple. “Be able to live life outside of work.” I have achieved that in many ways. I’ve been able to devote more time toward animal welfare too. The one stray that we have been caring for I have found an adoptive home for in Michigan and I will be bringing her in April! I hope to be able to take even more time to rescue and rehome dogs in the future.

What is your favorite lesson (or level) to teach?
I don’t know if I have a favorite? I teach level 2 – 5, and I usually love the level 2 lessons because the kids are adorable. I love level 3 kids because they like to joke around and have more confidence to do so.  I love level 4-5 because the kids are starting to have real conversations and I can learn more about their lives in depth. It’s a bit like comparing apples and oranges. As long as I don’t have a trial (which I have removed from my certifications, hallelujah) I’m happy!

How has FeedbackPanda changed your daily routine or enriched your life?
Before: Crying into my keyboard as I type out each personalized feedback, questioning my life choices, sad

After: Click, click, DONE. Go have a snack and dance around, crying happy tears into my Dino doll.  

But seriously…the best money ever spent. I teach 10-13 classes a day, 5-6 days a week, and writing feedback was simply taking much too long. Now, not only is it quick, it is higher quality. I enjoy the level of thoroughness and professionalism FB allows me to maintain, and my parents continue to mention this in their feedback. They appreciate the specific and helpful comments and they trust that I am paying close attention to each part of the lesson.

Me with some of my fifth graders!
5th grade graduation, dressed fancy with the kids.

Describe your Feedback Style/Structure:
I always include a greeting (Hello from Teacher Merry!) and goodbye signature reminding them to leave parent feedback if this was a 5 apple class—gotta make that 25% 5 apple feedback quota. In between, I use the pre-made templates with occasional tweaks to match the student’s performance in class. When students are doing well I make sure to write a couple of sentences of my own to really let them know I am proud of them. Nothing warms my heart more than parent feedback that responds to this, letting me know the kid really appreciates my notes.

Complete the sentence: Good feedback must contain...
a thorough analysis of the lesson! With FB there is no reason not to! The feedback should review each portion of the class, along with how the student did. Do they need to practice? How can they practice? Did they do well? Be specific and tell them what you loved about the student in class that day! It only takes a couple clicks then some tweaking to make this a reality. And parents LOVE it.

Favorite In-Class moment or student anecdote?
One of the students I have been teaching since the beginning comes to mind. Her mom connected with me on WeChat, and she has consistently booked me 2-3 times a week since the start.  I can remember how at first she was painfully shy, and so serious. I thought she was angry, but I realized she just wanted to do perfectly, and she was so nervous about any mistake. But after a month or so, she was bubbly and playful. She started to joke, show me her pet, ask me questions…it was amazing! Seeing a student change like that over time was so special.  

Another student is older, 14 in level 4. We share similar interests in video games, television shows, and hobbies. Every time she showed me a picture of a character or game and I knew it, she was excited and couldn’t wait to share more with me. With her English level, we are able to do the lesson as well as discuss her friends in school, her plans for the future, and discuss cultural idiosyncrasies. It is so cool to have this virtual pen pal of sorts with a student in China. We have even made plans to play the same game online together, and her mom is so pleased that her daughter is enjoying the lessons so much.

Any advice for new teachers just starting out?
Move to Egypt! Just kidding…only a little. But for anyone looking to start out, I would just say be yourself. Do not feel pressure to mold yourself to a certain teaching style. The teaching you show will be appealing to some parents, and they will book with you. Don’t worry and you’ll find parents who want exactly what you are!

Any other comments you wish to communicate, please use our platform to share your story… : )

As I said previously, I try to rescue animals here in Egypt. I have already helped bring back 5 dogs to different homes across America and bringing one more in April. With little research, you can learn about the rampant homeless animal problem in Cairo. Thousands of cats and dogs roam the streets and often have short, painful lives. If you or anyone you know is looking to adopt a rescue animal with the coolest origin story ever, please reach out to me! Baladi dogs of Egypt are some of the smartest and loyal dogs in the world. My own Pippin is one, and I couldn’t recommend them more! You can follow me on Instagram to see pictures of the most recent dog I am helping rehome—merryhappy25 is my handle. Thanks a lot!

Hot air balloon ride in Luxor, Egypt!
Long walks with Pippin in the morning and afternoon are the best!
Our girls, Jackie (back) and Scout (front) come and go as they please. Scout stays more on the couch these days though, in preparation for Michigan life!