Look, there are a lot of people who paint a rosy picture of things who purposely omit material information. There are always reasons for that, and they’re not always good reasons. Being a former reporter, I dig a little deeper and uncover the truth. It may sound snarky, it may offend some folks, but it’s important to know the entire story before dedicating your time and effort to a new job that could be the best thing you’ve ever done. This is the article I wish I had found before beginning my own VIPKID experience.
In a land where it’s widely known that those who can’t do, teach. And those who can’t teach, teach gym, you’ll inevitably find many unsanctioned opinions regarding VIPKID and its policies. Rather than listen to a gym teacher spout off poor advice, I offer a second look. I have studied marketing and psychology and wrote four books on parenting and human relationships. Perhaps my viewpoint may fill in the blanks between dodgeball and push-ups.
As of this writing, I’ve taught over 500 classes over three months, and I love it. It’s fun! The kids are awesome. The money isn’t awful. There are hangups and some issues, and this blog post will uncover all that. Sit down, cast aside your judgment and dispersions temporarily, and take this momentary journey with me before you begin your new teaching career.
THE VIPKID EXPERIENCE
Some genius in China figured out that since there was such a large demand for English tutors for children in today’s global economy, in which China is poised to dominate in a few short years, there was a better way to offer affordable and immersive English lessons to a mass audience. Since the unaffected North America accent is preferred over the British, Australian, or Indian dialects, VIPKID created an online teaching platform that enlists North American teachers. No, you do not need to be a certified teacher. You will need at least a bachelor’s degree in anything, and at least some applicable experience teaching, training, mentoring, or coaching children. And no, you do not need to speak a lick of Mandarin. It is nice if you can hit a nĭ hăo once in a blue moon, but it is not required and completely unnecessary.
VIPKID is a wonderful opportunity for experienced and non-experienced American teachers to earn between $16-$22 an hour from home. Is it for everyone? Absolutely not. But if you’re a patient person that has a knack for communicating with little minds, this may be the perfect opportunity for you to work from home and earn some pretty decent money.
It’s important to recognize that you will not be an employee – you will be hired as an independent contractor. That means no benefits, no sick days, no regular raises, and no W2 form at the end of the year. You will be sent a 1099 form, which means for all intents and purposes you are a consultant. That means you are officially a small business owner! Congratulations! You will need to file a slightly more complicated tax return to report your earnings, and you’ll be responsible for pre-paying any federal income taxes to avoid an end of year penalty. Chat with your tax peeps for more scoop on that headache.
The truth is VIPKID grew from zero to more than 30,000 teachers in a few short years. Like any company blessed with generous funding leading to quick and unrestrained growth, you’ll find there is a vibrant infrastructure with many gaps – unfortunately most of which are in the training arena. Teachers cannot be sure of company policies or the real intent of the educational development team due to a lack of modeling and a significant language barrier. If that information is out there, I sure as heck cannot find it anywhere in the confusing mess they call the Hutong.
VIPKID has enlisted the aid of a few “mentors” who may or may not have applicable training, teaching, or mentoring experience. In turn, those mentors offer online workshops that encourage participants to share ideas. Thanks to a lucrative referral bonus, several marketers have created their own social media groups, posts, and YouTube videos that further spread their non-sanctioned policies and opinions. In some cases, you end up with a lot of misguided and occasionally damaging information. Ironically, young American teachers seem to be the worst offenders. Like I was, you may become incredibly frustrated with this situation, hence this article to help explain exactly what’s going on. So let’s jump in.
Yes, my American friends, the earth is indeed round, and there are actually people living on the other side of it. And believe it or not, the whole world doesn’t shut down for Christmas. Naturally, you’re going to have a significant time difference. If you’re on the east coast of the United States of Murica, know that Shanghai is 13 hours ahead of you. When you’re eating lunch, it’s the middle of the night there. VIPKID offers Prime Time slots between 7 and 9 PM Beijing time that are the most popular. Unfortunately, that’s 6 – 8 AM Eastern, so it’s a wee bit early for our Central, Mountain, and West Coast peeps. I teach from 4 AM until 9 AM seven days a week, but you probably don’t have as much insane energy as I do. VIPKID shuts down after 9 PM Beijing, and re-opens at 9 AM the following morning. Theoretically, you could teach 12 hours straight from 9 AM until 9 PM (8 PM until 9 AM Eastern), but that’s just nutty. I’ve done it twice.
Chinese culture has been carefully crafted to ensure the safety and wellness of its citizens. Yes, it is a modified communist society. It’s not perfect, but it seems to be working better than most societies. Americans are always taught that communism is bad – although we’re never taught why. That’s an entirely different blog post. Complete freedom isn’t always the best way to raise children, as we’re learning here in the States with two to three generations of idiots who firmly believe all news is fake news, rap is music, Kim Kardashian is talented, and Donald Trump is a hero.
Chinese children are pushed hard. Before they’ll see your smiley-happy face, they’ve probably been to school, attended an extracurricular activity or music lessons, done a ton of homework, and watched a pre-class VIPKID video to prepare them for the lesson you’re about to give. Most of these children are exceptionally bright and very well behaved. Sure, there are the outliers. After all, they are just children. But for the most part, your heart will melt when their bright eyes stare into yours seeking your guidance in the English language.
THE HIRING PROCESS
You’ve probably been bombarded by smooth-talking social media mavens who will promise you great riches if you click on their referral link. Some supposedly offer coaching too. Here’s how all that works.
First of all, your new best friend gets a $50 – $100 kickback if you get signed with VIPKID and actually teach a class. She’s not bringing you on because she likes you, you’re talented, or the great person your momma thinks you are. You’re nothing more than a meal ticket to her. #Truth.
VIPKID will have one of their untrained mentors evaluate you during an online “mock interview,” where a middle-aged woman will sit there on camera, stare at you blankly, and pretend to be a 4-year-old Chinese girl who speaks no English. Yeah, it’s totally Twilight Zone weird, bro. She’ll make some notes and let you know how you did. If you pass that test, you’ll move on to a second interview, if needed, or directly to a background screening.
You’ll be assigned to a particular level from 1 through 6. The more energetic folks will be assigned to Levels 1 and 2. That’s awesome, because that’s where the lion’s share of the VIPKIDs end up, so you’ll have the opportunity to teach more often.
VIPKID did request copies of my college transcripts to prove I graduated. They also did a background check to see if I had a criminal record. You will need to provide a bunch of personal information to proceed to the next level. If you’re not comfortable giving your life story and social security number to a foreign national online, you might want to hang it up now.
It takes a week or two to process all this cray, and they’ll only contact you via email.
Congratulations! You’ve passed the muster and you’re now one of the not-so-few VIPKID teachers. Now what?
The single biggest complaint is new teachers failing to get any classes to teach. If you don’t teach, you won’t get paid. That dingaling from the social media thing didn’t mention that, did she? Figures.
The first thing you’ll need to do is set up your marketing profile. You’ll need some hopefully professional photographs showing you as you hopefully look today. It’s probably not a good idea to set expectations using your 1997 prom photos if you look nothing like that today. You’ll need one really great profile picture, and two miscellaneous pictures of you teaching or doing something creative. Some yentas say use pictures of you and your family, but that doesn’t sell. Everyone has a family, but not everyone can teach.
Secondly, you’ll need a brief bio. Here’s where you’ll tell people where you’re from, what your degree is in, and any applicable experience. Keep it short and fluffy. Remember – English translated to Mandarin is often weird. Run your bio through one or more online translation programs to ensure it reads the way you intended.
Finally, your cornerstone will be a short 15-40 second video of you introducing yourself. You’ll want this to be fun, energetic, and as professional as possible. This is very important, since it’s what Chinese parents and children use to choose the teachers they want. There is a company in Florida that can script and edit your video for $295 – it was the best $300 I have ever spent. I’ve been sold out for MONTHS. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for the skinny.
When all that has been completed, you’ll go to the VIPKID website and open up your schedule. If you can open those prime time slots, you’ll have better luck getting bookings.
AM I TOO OLD?
HA! Here’s where age trumps beauty. Unlike your more familiar surroundings, Chinese culture values age and wisdom. Younger teachers are routinely skipped for us older folks, because we are smarter, more experienced, and more patient. Here’s the thing – you can be older, but make sure you’re still patient with children, and you have a ton of energy.
If you’re a dude, that’s a good thing. Since there are very few male teachers on VIPKID, you’ll be scooped up quickly.
Yes, younger teachers are hired too. It’s really based on your profile and your video.
WHAT WILL I NEED?
You’ll need a decent computer with a webcam, or a later model iPad for the best experience. You’ll also need a stable and hopefully fast broadband internet connection, since we are streaming video in this platform. Think at least 12 Mbps. Faster is better. You can check AT&T’s offerings in your neighborhood here: https://www.att.com/local/
Standard webcams in most laptops aren’t great. Here’s a link to a terrific HD webcam with a built-in microphone: http://amzn.to/2FM0gwF
And always use headphones. Any headphones. Even the earbuds that came with your smartphone. Feedback from your speakers into your microphone is incredibly distracting.
You’ll need a dedicated area in your home or work that is free of distractions – especially those of the moving or audible varietals. No television on in the background. No children running around screaming. No barking dogs in the background. No gunshots, ambulance sirens, kickboxing classes, or rap battles please. Find a quiet room, even if it’s a closet, and make it your teaching space.
Some yentas preach you need an “educational background,” but I wholeheartedly disagree. I’d rather see a blank wall than shelves filled with doodads and knick-knacks that will distract your student’s attention.
I teach primarily Level 1 and Level 2 classes, known previously as “Pre-VIPKID,” whatever that means. Children are placed by age and not ability, so you’ll need to adjust your teaching based on your evaluation of their abilities. In Level 1, you’ll see children as young as three and as old as seven. I have two seven-year-olds in my classes, even though my mentor tells me that’s impossible. See what I mean?
Level 1 has recently updated is curriculum to an “interactive” platform. While the rest of the VIPKID training platform is static PowerPoint slides with words and pictures, Level 1 offers limited sounds and the ability to drag-and-drop certain elements on the screen. You’ll have to sing unit songs you won’t know on non-interactive slides, so be prepared for that. Sometimes the interactivity helps the lesson. And other times it’s incredibly useless and even distracting. You can turn off the student’s mouse in the interactive platform, and you’ll learn from experience exactly when you should do that. I’ve offered to redesign the poorly designed slides, but I have been shunned on several occasions. Now they’re gonna have to pay me.
As a new teacher, you will probably be saddled-up with “trial” classes. These are for Chinese kids who haven’t decided if they’re going to sign up for the VIPKID experience just yet. Personally, I’d use this as a marketing opportunity and place my best and brightest teachers here to increase conversion. VIPKID doesn’t see it that way. Expect a lot of no-shows and completely awkward classroom situations due to the combined inexperience of you and your student.
You will be able to preview your classes on a PC up to several days in advance. I definitely recommend doing that. This eliminates awkward pauses while attempting to decipher what the class architect had in mind while designing the class, because there are no modeling videos. Remember, there are not only cultural learning differences, but a language and translation barrier too. The preview better prepares you and your students for a better English learning experience. The iPad limits you to a certain number of hours prior to a class, so use a PC if you can.
Some of the vocabulary words will not make sense. Try to avoid frowning when the word YURT appears in Level 1, and FOP comes up in your Level 2 classes.
Oh, and there’s this thing called incidental language. Basically, these are English words outside the lesson plan that you should not use to enhance or explain what you’re trying to teach. Remember, these children do not know much English. The more you throw at them, the more confused they’ll be. Keep it simple, even if you risk sounding like a caveperson.
Level 1 contains 12 individual units with 8 classes each. Students in the lower levels will probably be younger, but I’ve seen a wide range at this point. Mentors keep talking about some “silent period” where lower-level students may remain silent throughout your 25-minute class. Think that bad 80s horror movie where people just stare at you and their heads explode… oh, nevermind. I have a ton of three-year-olds in my classes, and in over 500 classes, I have yet to encounter this situation. Maybe those women are just scary people. Who knows.
No, that’s not an acronym for Toilet Paper Roll or Texas Public Radio. Although, the way it’s treated on VIPKID social media sites, it could be either. You’ll hear a LOT about Total Physical Response (TPR). So much, in fact, that you’ll think it’s the best thing since sliced bread. The cure-all to all ailments. The second coming of Jesus. The truth is TPR is not all that revolutionary or complicated, and it is not as important as many of these inexperienced and non-sanctioned mentors say it is. TPR does help the learning process in certain situations, but it’s useless in many others.
Basically, TPR is an ancient learning mechanism explained by some 1960s trippy psychology bro that involves eliciting a physical response from your student – hence the word response. No, you cupping your ears, pointing, jumping, dancing, or whatever is you think is TPR is not TPR. Total physical response requires your student to act out and perform the desired result in conjunction with the word, term, or phrase you’re trying to teach to enhance understanding. You can model the desired response, but it’s not TPR unless that kid is doing it too. Think explaining the word RUN. You run in place, and if your student also runs while saying the word run, that’s TPR in full effect. Good job. You get a trophy.
When the yentas scream “USE TPR!”, what they really mean is for you to use physical movements, or a modified form of sign language to help your students understand what you’re teaching. When you want them to speak, you cup your ear. When you want them to look, you encircle your own eyes. When you attempt to explain the terms THROW, GRAB, and CATCH to a small child over ten thousand miles away via a two-dimensional screen, well, teach gym! Sometimes it works, and other times it won’t. Do the best you can.
If you really want to learn more about TPR so you can impress your social media pals, pick up James Asher’s book here: http://amzn.to/2DIwOa9. I’ve read it. Don’t bother.
Another textbook example of the Dunning-Kruger effect (Google it) displayed by certain mentors involves an exaggerated reliance on teaching aids, or props. Props may include puppets, printed pictures, flashcards, realia, or whatever you think might enhance your lesson and further a student’s understanding.
In many instances, props are more of an unnecessary distraction than a learning aid. If you’ve got the word APPLE displayed along with a clear illustration of an apple on the screen during your lesson, it’s pretty darn clear that it’s an apple. Why would you need an external prop of an apple? That would take the child’s focus away from the word on the screen you’re trying to teach and places it on the cheap plastic dollar store crap in your stupid hand. Although ironically your prop was probably made in China, it’s not necessary to enhance the lesson in this example.
When would a prop be helpful? Perhaps in certain situations better explained with a three-dimensional example. Think throw, grab, and catch, which is unfortunately a VIPKID favorite Level 1 topic. A real ball, a piece of crumpled paper, and a cup help explain this and other silly games covered in some Level 1 lessons. Crumpled is incidental language and not a vocabulary word. Good luck with that one. This lesson should be saved for Level 2, but it ain’t. I’ll fix this later when I’m promoted to Director of Education in six months. You can thank me later.
Another online teaching platform I’ve interviewed with makes props mandatory. Ostensibly, they’re admitting their teaching materials are lacking content and not effective. Unfortunately, they refuse to supply or recommend appropriate props. Yeah, it’s that kind of industry.
In a land where everyone gets a trophy for breathing, another ridiculous emphasis you’ll see on social media is placed on secondary reward systems. Old-school teachers and social media Sallies go NUTS on this one. In one workshop, I giggled as one woman bragged she baked a cake for one of her students as a reward. Think about that for a moment. She showed him the cake she supposedly baked for him on the screen. I imagine immediately after that class, that teacher added two or three slices to her already extended waistline.
Sure, rewarding students for a job well done is a powerful motivational tool. But conventional rewards are effective only when they’re sitting in front of you in person, and displayed in front of peers. A one-on-one situation during a cross-cultural video call renders most of the traditional teacher rewards ineffective. Verbal praise is often misunderstood and considered incidental language.
VIPKID’s platform offers the option to provide students with up to five digital stars for each lesson. That digital currency supposedly enables students to purchase branded swag from a special store available only to them. That reward is really the only thing necessary to promote great performance. However, you’ll hear a book-sized tirade about secondary reward systems. Some teachers offer hand-drawn tigers’ teeth, emoji stickers, small statues, and a quiver of other silly things that don’t really provide an educational boost or any real semblance of motivational value.
I must admit I did succumb to pressure and came up with a supplementary, not secondary, reward system. I picked up a bag of sparkly adhesive stars at Michael’s. My stars are different colors, so I use them as an educational aid to help teach the English name of colors. When I issue a colored sparkly star, I ask or mention the color of it, then accompany it with some flair and always a digital VIPKID star.
Regardless of your student’s performance or behavior in the class, suck it up buttercup and always award five VIPKID digital stars, located in the upper right corner of your digital classroom. If you don’t, there may be parental repercussions.
HOW ABOUT THEM APPLES?
You’ll be required to evaluate your student after each class, checkpoint, and assessment. It’s a short evaluation, so don’t be nervous. You should always provide great fluffery, always praising the child for the tremendous progress towards complete English fluency she made during your 25-minute session, as well as noting the shortfalls you emphasized that may require a little more out-of-class practice.
In turn, Mom will rank you from one to five apples, and she gets the opportunity to write a review on your performance. Some of these mothers are mean. I’ve been scolded for ending a class at 25 minutes rather than 28, for being “dull with no sparks for collision,” and many other strange translations I cannot seem to decipher. Yet in others, I’ve been invited to spend a week in China with a family, and I think I received an offer to date a student’s mother. It may have been a weird and inaccurate translation, but I’m going with that.
You will spend your VIPKID career striving for apples. Anything less than five apples is a failure. This is important when it comes to renewing your contract. Pay raises are based on your subjective performance as rated by Tiger Moms throughout China. Don’t crash and burn – learn to be as obsequious as possible, and utilize several translation programs so your messages are always positive, happy, complementary, and clear. Great student feedback can save an off-kilter teaching performance. We all have bad days.
Lower level classes were recently updated to accommodate the interactive platform. Many good changes were made. But many poor teaching examples remain. Level 1 students are expected to repeat single words. Full sentences are not required. If your student can hang and speak in complete sentences, that’s awesome. Most can construct simple sentences. Many cannot. Some of the phrases and terms in Level 1 classes are ridiculously cumbersome for the younger students. I’ve wasted countless hours trying to help younger Level 1 students assemble the phrases cup of milk and look at my face. I have learned to skip past those unless my kids are ready for such trivial complexity and save those for Level 2.
Every student is different. You will need to evaluate your students and their aptitude accordingly. Some kids will breeze through your lessons, leaving you with up to ten minutes of awkward silence to fill, because it’s a huge no-no to end class before the 25 minute mark. Here’s where you’ll need to be prepared to extend your lessons. Add some relevant terms or sentences. Have them write letters or words on-screen. Converse with them if they’re ready. In other cases, you may find it difficult to end your class in 28 minutes because your students cannot seem to grasp the lesson materials – but it’s more likely that you weren’t aware what you could skip. In that case, you’ll learn to sneakily skip some slides so that Tiger Mom thinks you have everything under control.
Don’t worry – familiarity comes with experience. The more classes you teach, the more things you’ll experience, and the easier this entire fiasco will become.
VIPKID records your classes. It’s no secret that they’re watching everything. And since it’s largely funded by venture capitalist groups, they’re seeking a healthy profit relatively soon. VIPKID’s largest expense is its contractor payroll – us teachers. You’d be a fool if you didn’t think they’re not thinking about taking all that recorded footage, analyzing it with big data and artificial intelligence, and planning for a future with smart algorithms that will eventually replace teachers altogether. This isn’t rocket science, folks. A few years ago, Siri was a dream. With existing facial recognition and virtual reality technology, we’re just a few short years away from automated animated teaching with a perfect American English accent. Jump on this gravy train while you still can, and invest those earnings into AI. That’s exactly what I’m doing.
I do recommend taking the plunge. It’s a great gig, and you can’t beat the convenience. They pay in full and on time before the 15th of the next month. I have never had a problem. No, I will not provide my referral link here, because I am not a referral whore, and it won’t do a darn thing for you either. But I am sure you can find one if you really want one.