Most days, Lisa Newhouse, a library media specialist with the Upsala Area schools in Minnesota, wakes up at about 4 a.m., gets ready for work, and sits at her computer to teach her first students of the day—who live in China.
Newhouse is one of the more than 60,000 American and Canadian tutors who work for VIPKid, a Beijing-based online English-tutoring company.
After her one-on-one lessons with the elementary-school-age children in China, Newhouse heads off to a full day in her district, where she wears many hats: working in the library, assisting with technology integration, and managing after-school programs. Her days are long but manageable, said Newhouse, who took on the second job, which brings in about $12,000 annually, to help pay off her student loans.
“I just drink coffee at 2 p.m. and I’m good,” she said.
Frustrated with their salaries and looking for second jobs they can work around school hours, some U.S. teachers have turned to teaching Chinese students online for a source of additional income. Peak tutoring times in China line up with early-morning hours on the East Coast and in the Midwest.
English-language tutoring has become a booming industry in China, as more parents seek to prepare their children for a globally competitive marketplace. And while teachers say they appreciate the flexible schedules and opportunity to make extra money, some say working a second teaching shift in the morning can be exhausting.
VIPKid, which is one of the largest online-tutoring companies in China with more than 500,000 students in China and 63 other countries on the site, requires that teachers have a bachelor’s degree and one year of teaching experience. The company would not provide information on how many of its tutors are U.S. K-12 teachers but did say that its tutors include current and retired private and public school teachers, as well as home-schooling parents.
While it’s difficult to know exactly how many U.S. public school teachers are working for Chinese tutoring companies, these platforms are often a topic of conversation in online teacher forums. Of U.S. teachers, who have a second job, more than a quarter say the extra gig is in teaching or tutoring, according to 2015-16 data from the National Center for Education Statistics.
Tutoring with VIPKid doesn’t take much planning time, as the company provides tutors with a set of slides that cover the lesson material for each student, said Newhouse, the Minnesota educator. Lessons are 25 to 30 minutes long, and she makes $10 per class. VIPKid’s pay range is $14 to $22 an hour, according to the company’s website.
“I’ve been a teacher for eight years, but it’s totally different online, so you get a little nervous at first,” Newhouse said.
Students are half a world away on a screen, so teachers have to be patient in different ways than they would in a brick-and-mortar school, she said. If a student doesn’t understand a certain direction she gives over the video chat—for instance, “Circle the letter ‘t’ "—Newhouse has to figure out a creative way to get that message across. “If I was there with you, I could just take your hand and show you, ‘Circle this letter,’ ” she said.
Like many VIPKid teachers, she uses props to help convey lesson content. “If a kid’s having a hard time, I’ll model with the monkey,” she said, referring to the stuffed animal she uses to act out conversations for her students.
Not all student-teacher interactions on the site have gone smoothly. VIPKid has come under public scrutiny after black teachers spoke about experiencing race-based discrimination on the platform.
Tameka Bazile, a VIPKid teacher and an administrator of a Facebook group for tutors of color on the site, has spoken out on YouTube about teachers who have reported being called names by students in reference to their race.
In a highly publicized incident in 2017, Beatrice Carre-Alleyne, a black VIPKid tutor, posted a video to Facebook of a student calling her a “monster” and “ugly.” In the video, Carre-Alleyne calmly challenges the girl, telling her she isn’t ugly and asking the student if she is the first “brown face” that the girl has ever seen. Her student says yes. “I gave her a lesson on the beauty of all colors, and we ended up friends,” wrote Carre-Alleyne in her public Facebook post. The company later apologized to Carre-Alleyne.
“In the rare cases where offensive or inappropriate behavior is reported by teachers or students, we address these matters on our platform immediately and take all cases seriously,” the company said in a statement to Education Week. “It is company policy to review all reports of inappropriate behavior and, where necessary, take appropriate steps to address it.”
Flex Schedules, Long Hours
Teachers on these online-tutoring platforms work as independent contractors. And like other teachers who have joined the gig economy, these tutors often aren’t guaranteed a steady stream of work. Adelaide Watson, a middle-grades teacher at the South Carolina School for the Deaf and Blind in Spartanburg, said she completed 32 lessons in one week earlier this month—a high number for her. But she says the number of bookings can vary, especially when students are out of school for holidays.
On most platforms, teachers can set their own hours of availability. Once a class is booked, though, last-minute scheduling changes can be difficult: Several companies implement financial penalties if teachers cancel too close to the start time or if they cancel more than the allotted number of classes per month. But for many educators, the convenience makes online work more attractive than other second jobs.
Tutoring at home in the morning was easier than trying to work after school, said Teresa Danks, a former teacher with the Tulsa public schools in Oklahoma. She often didn’t leave the school building until 4 p.m. or 5 p.m. Danks rose to internet fame last year as the “panhandling teacher” when photos of her asking for donations for classroom supplies on the side of a highway went viral.
Danks started tutoring with VIPKid and Landi, another Chinese platform, this spring, after she participated in the Oklahoma teacher walkouts. She worked from 4:30 a.m. to 6:30 a.m. before school. “I had some days where I was exhausted,” she said. “But it was supplementing my income a lot, and I needed the money.”
Research suggests Danks’ experience isn’t unique and having a second job can take a toll. In a voluntary survey of Texas State Teachers Association members with second jobs, conducted by researchers at the Sam Houston State University in Texas, 79 percent of teachers said that moonlighting hurt the quality of their teaching.
But feeling overwhelmed and frustrated, Danks didn’t give up the tutoring—she gave up her public school job. Now, she said, she’s making more money working 25 to 30 hours a week as a tutor than she did working full time as a teacher.
She said she might go back into the classroom one day, but “right now, the online teaching wins.”
A version of this article appeared in the September 19, 2018 edition of Education Week as New Teacher Side Gig? Online Tutor