Chinese parents are paying for their kids to learn English from US online tutors. Here's how the job works

Yan Zhang

Every morning at 5 a.m., Autmn Fletcher walks into her home office in Monmouth, Illinois, and switches on her laptop, just in time to teach English to Chinese children arriving home after school in Beijing.

“Elephant!” the child says through the computer screen, prompted by a hand puppet that Fletcher displays to a web camera.

“E-le-phan-t,” Fletcher responds, correcting the pronunciation. Sometimes, she uses a whiteboard and flashcards to make her point.

Fletcher, 31, a mother of three, has worked as an online English tutor for five months, teaching Chinese students who are mostly 5 to 11 years old. Using her laptop, headphones and web camera, she teaches basic English grammar, the idioms of daily conversation and songs. In March, she worked up to 30 hours a week, earning $2,100 in this small town in western Illinois.

Tens of thousands of Americans are teaching English remotely, connecting to a massive Chinese population eager to learn the language, and aided by advances in global communication technology and huge investments in Chinese online education companies. Proponents say tutoring can offer meaningful work from home in rural communities far from major job markets. Many such towns have lost residents and jobs in recent years.

More companies, more tutors

The trend is also adding an international flavor to a U.S. gig economy that has seen a growing number of Americans juggling freelance and contract jobs, often from home.

There are about 100 Chinese-based online education companies, estimates Quincy Smith, founder of ESL (English as Second Language) Authority, an online teaching job board. And the firms are always hiring English teachers, making online tutor among the most common U.S. jobs workers can perform remotely, according to FlexJobs, a job search site specializing remote, part-time, freelance and flexible positions.

VIPKid, which employs Fletcher, had just 10 teachers and a handful of students when it was founded in 2013. It's now one of the largest China-based online English tutoring platforms, with around 70,000 teachers in the U.S. and Canada, up from 20,000 in 2017, and 600,000 students online, mostly in China, up from 200,000.

Teachers are required to be native English speakers, hold a bachelor’s degree and live in the U.S. Working experience with children is a plus. Average pay is $12 to $20 an hour, with most teachers starting at around $14 an hour, Smith says. Each tutoring session lasts 30 minutes.

Most of the online teachers are independent contractors, which usually means they don't get health coverage or 401(k) plans.

“The online tutoring jobs are particularly well suited for college-educated Americans looking for jobs with lower barriers to entry,” says Sara Sutton, founder and CEO of FlexJobs. It is also “a really compelling option for people who live in rural areas, have long commutes or places with less economic opportunity,” Sutton adds.

The number of remote job postings in the education field in FlexJobs’ database jumped 37% between 2015 and 2018.

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Before she started tutoring, Fletcher worked in sales and marketing and endured more than an hour-long commute. “I spent countless hours away from my family, and my son was constantly getting sick from being in day care.”

Then she got in a bad car accident nine months ago. As she lay in a hospital bed with 13 shattered bones, wondering if she’d ever walk again, Fletcher thought: What would she do for a living?

She noticed on Facebook that a friend was tutoring Chinese kids in English online, and it piqued her interest. She applied for the job and, aided by a walker, went to an interview and training session last December in Chicago.  

Fletcher earns about $18 per hour and can choose to be paid monthly or bimonthly through PayPal or a bank transfer. The job helps reduce or eliminate expenses related to commuting, buying work clothes, child care and other costs. Fletcher works until 9 a.m., then plays with her kids.

“I am now able to put my family first and still have a rewarding career,” she says.

She says the job has helped her provide for her family and recover from the accident.

The online tutoring companies, meanwhile, are highly profitable. Chinese students pay what amounts to $49 to $80 an hour for the classes, significantly above the $12 to $20 tutor wages.

VIPKid is valued at over $3 billion, according to a Forbes report in March, and has well-known investors like Kobe Bryant.

51Talk, another leading Chinese online education company, has 14,800 English teachers in North America and other English-speaking countries. Bling ABC, launched by New Oriental , a large private educational company in China, attracts over 1,000 American applicants a month for its online tutoring jobs.

Countries like South Korea, Japan and Russia also have strong demand for online English tutoring, but “China remains the biggest market,” Smith says. His company, ESL Authority, lists 100 to 300 tutoring openings each month.

A drive to learn English

Several trends are driving China’s voracious demand for tutors. More than 17 million babies have been born in China each year since the government began allowing two children per household in 2016, up from one child. “Chinese parents remain enthusiastic about English language acquisition and the monotonous public education couldn’t satisfy their diverse demands,” says Jianglu Wang, a scholar of educational financing in Beijing.

At the same time, the Chinese government has invested $182 billion since 2015 to boost internet speeds.  From 2015 to 2017, broadband subscriptions in China increased to 394.2 billion from 277 billion,according to the World Bank.

Online tutoring also has been boosted by a 2016 law allowing private investment in the education industry. The industry's growth has led to vigorous competition among companies trying to recruit online English teachers in the U.S.

“The newer companies ... drive the majority of new jobs because they need to build up their teacher roster," Smith says. "They will typically try and offer higher wages (and) lower requirements for the initial hires."

Many tutors are retired teachers and stay-at-home moms.

Embracing another culture

Sarah Keane, a mother of two who lives in Oakville, Connecticut, began working as an online English tutor last October. She works from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. most days, and 8:30 p.m. to midnight or even 2 a.m. on Friday and Saturday. Last December, she left her full-time job as a day care worker to stay at home with her children and rely on the tutoring for income. She says she believes the work “has been a financial blessing,” adding that she has found her “dream job."    

Keane’s youngest student is 3 and her oldest is 14. She tutors them in grammar and test-taking, among other subjects. Many students have given her tours of their homes remotely and introduced her to family members online. One student had a class with her while he was out at a restaurant in Beijing. He stepped outside and showed Keane around downtown Beijing. “All the lights and buildings were amazing to see,” Keane says, “You are able to embrace their lives and cultures.”

Nicholas Jiang, a Chinese elementary school student who lives in Hong Kong, has taken online English tutoring classes from 34 teachers the past 11 months, including 30 in the U.S.

“I treat it as a small talk but not a class. It’s very fun.” Jiang says. Sometimes, he plays online games with teachers to improve his English proficiency. His parents paid nearly $1,000 for 26 classes.

Yet it’s hard to tell if the online courses improve the English skills of Chinese kids. It could be tough for companies to monitor the quality of the education as the number of tutors grows rapidly. Chinese parents complain that the teachers vary in their skills and it’s hard to make reservations with popular tutors.

In response, Magic Ears, among the online tutoring companies, has toughened the application requirements for teachers.  

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Chinese parents are paying for their kids to learn English from US online tutors. Here's how the job works