A year after the online tutoring industry was roiled, teachers are still searching for stability
Author： EnglishTeacher 2022-10-17
Log on to the website for the online tutoring company VIPKid, and a pop-up will appear asking visitors to select which part of the world they’re in. Users can scroll through more than 230 “regions” across six continents, including Madagascar, Mexico, Morocco, Montenegro and Myanmar.
It’s a marked change from the education company’s origins, which, up until about a year ago, catered almost exclusively to students in China, offering one-on-one English classes with tutors from the U.S. and Canada.
But the “double reduction” policy announced last summer by the Chinese government prohibited live education classes between Chinese students and foreign educators, forcing VIPKid, along with its many peers in the industry, to collapse or adapt.
Screenshot from VIPKid homepage
Some of the tutoring companies shut down, with immediate effect. Others ended operations more gradually. Still others sought to survive, with perhaps the most concerted effort coming from VIPKid, which also happened to be the biggest player in the space, at one point claiming to serve 700,000 students in China. VIPKid debuted a global education platform last fall, shortly before offering its final live lessons in China.
Ask the instructors of those online English classes - the tutors, mostly North American women, many with formal experience in classroom settings - how the changes have been playing out, and they’ll tell you it’s been a sorrowful, steady decline in bookings and income since their once-familiar arrangements began to slip away in summer 2021. Many have tried to make it work in spite of the tumult in the industry, but few have seen meaningful success.
An Oversaturated Industry
For a handful of years, the online tutoring industry was booming. It capitalized on two almost divinely crafted complementary parts: the underpaid American educator seeking extra income, and the striving Chinese parent looking to give their child a competitive advantage through English language proficiency.
“It was just, like, a perfect storm of opportunities for both countries,” says Natalie Grove, a former VIPKid teacher who lives in northern Minnesota.
Businesspeople agreed, evidenced by the ever-increasing number of companies that wanted in. There was VIPKid, but also Magic Ears, Qkids, GoGoKid, Whales English, Zebra English and countless others. Tutoring approaches varied, but often the classes were one-on-one - one child between the ages of 4 and 12, and one native English speaker - for about a half-hour at a time. Teachers typically earned between $18 and $25 an hour, depending on their experience and the company.
When the policy went into effect, online English teachers panicked. Were they out of a job? Would they be able to make up that lost income elsewhere?
The answers came pretty quickly.
Mary Hulme, an American living in Canada who previously worked as a school counselor in Chicago, says she used to make $1,500 to $1,800 per month teaching for the company Magic Ears.
“Now, I’m barely getting $300 a month, if I’m lucky,” Hulme says. “I keep my time slots open - 5 to 10:30 a.m. - but no one is booking.”
She adds: “Few and far between are making what they did [before].”
Joelle Daddino, a resident of Long Island, New York, who homeschools her two teenagers and previously taught for GoGoKid, Magic Ears, Whales English and others, was able to get her income back after the policy change, but only by working about twice as many hours as before. The company where she’s worked most consistently since last summer is Cambly, which has a presence in a variety of countries but only pays $10 to $12 an hour.
“It doesn’t pay well,” Daddino explains, “but it’s something rather than nothing.”
The new landscape in online tutoring often requires teachers to pick their poison, as it were. Some companies might allow a teacher to get regular bookings but pay much less per hour than teachers were accustomed to a year ago. Others have inconsistent and unreliable demand, particularly tutoring companies that serve students outside of China - say, a small Middle Eastern country with too few students signing up for classes on the platform. And a number of companies overhired teachers, many of whom were left in the lurch after being disconnected from their Chinese students.
Even when other companies and countries have demand, it’s not with the same volume or ferocity that was seen in China.
“In one fell swoop, all these companies closed their doors. Some immediately, drastically shut down. Everyone at once needed a job,” says Daddino. “Now you’re competing with other great teachers. It’s not about qualifications and experience. It’s a numbers game - luck of the draw at that point.”
In short, the online tutoring market is now oversaturated with teachers. But because so many of those teachers are determined to make it work - to stay in the industry - the remaining companies are in a position to take advantage of their desperation for bookings and income.
“There are a ton of companies out there now. So many. It’s crazy,” says Allison Winzurk, a former classroom teacher who lives in the Atlanta metro area and taught for VIPKid until last October. “It’s like tens of thousands of teachers going for the same three jobs.”
In private Facebook groups where many online tutors network and build community, new posts every day reveal the instability to which many of them are resigned.
“Who is hiring?! I need to work and have consistent classes,” one teacher posted recently.
Another wrote: “Bookings are spotty. Who wants to help me get hired on at a company based in Asia?”
In early September, one online teacher, who tutors her former Chinese students in a sort of underground arrangement that seeks to skirt the Chinese government’s oversight, posted: “I did it!!!!! I am finally at the same income I was with VIPKid! I started teaching privately on November 8th, 2021 and today marks my goal achieved! It can be done!”
Winzurk and Grove, both long-time teachers on the original VIPKid platform, have active contracts with VIPKid Global, the alternate offering the company rolled out in October 2021 in the wake of the new regulations. But that, too, has proved disappointing for them.
“I haven’t gotten a single booking with Global,” Grove shares. “I’ve had my slots open for the last several months and literally not gotten one class.”
“It’s such a bummer,” Grove says, explaining that for the prior two years, she was booked solid with Chinese students on VIPKid.
Winzurk has made less effort to get bookings for herself on VIPKid Global, but she stays in touch with a community of online tutors and has heard similar concerns.
“Teachers are just not getting a lot of students,” Winzurk says. “Everything I see from teachers is that there’s not a lot of work.”
Officials from VIPKid declined a live interview but did answer questions via email about the pivot to a global education platform.
“The first year of VIPKid’s global expansion has been a learning process, but that is not surprising to us,” a spokesperson wrote. “It has also shown great promise.”
The countries and regions where VIPKid Global is most popular, according to the company, are the Middle East, Korea, Japan and Vietnam. It’s also widely used by “Chinese families around the world.” In addition to the live global lessons, which remain in the one-on-one format that VIPKid has always offered, the company offers adult English classes and prerecorded, self-guided courses for students in China.
The spokesperson said that VIPKid has learned that it needs to be adaptable during this period of “growth and transformation.”
“Though some teachers have moved on to new opportunities, a large percentage of the teachers remain active on the platform and engaged in the community, while we build up demand for global one-on-one English lessons,” the official wrote.
Why They Remain
When most teachers first got hired at VIPKid and its ilk, the pandemic was still well into the future and remote work was a novel concept. Their alternatives, if they wanted to work from the comfort of their homes, clad in pajama pants and slippers, were limited.
But now, remote employment opportunities abound. Why don’t the online English tutors find work elsewhere?
For many, it’s not just any remote work they seek. They are specifically looking for early-morning hours - before their kids wake up or before they need to head to their full-time, 9-to-5 job. That’s why U.S.-based tutoring companies like Outschool don’t really fit their needs.
But it’s about more than schedule constraints.
“The majority of people that were doing ESL [tutoring] want to stay in ESL,” says Winzurk. They’re committed to it.
Daddino, in New York, agrees.
“We invested so much of ourselves,” she says. “Think about the props people used to buy and print out and set up, the scheduling, getting [positive reviews] and recommendations and teaching certifications. We invested all this time already.”
She compares it to losing a house in a flood. People might say, “Look, you have all this insurance money. Move. Find another place. Don’t bother rebuilding here. It’s too much work.” But that flooded house means something. That house was a home.
“You put your heart into it,” Daddino says of the tutoring work. “You’re not like, ‘Eh, I’ll just do this job.’ No, I put in time. I learned so much technical stuff and juggling stuff and practices to teach. Sure, I could use [what I learned] in other ways. But I invested myself into this.”
Still, Daddino is fed up with the players in the industry. She’s tired of signing contracts that aren’t honored, of waking up at dawn to teach a couple of “unruly” kids for a few bucks. She misses “the good ole days,” as she likes to think of the time preceding summer 2021.
“We’re all hustling. We’re all trying to find ways to keep it together. But it is very sad,” she says.
Daddino hadn’t intended to offer private lessons to her Chinese students. Not when the companies shifted last year, not ever. But recently, a parent approached her about it and she found herself saying yes.
Now, she’s got a roster of seven kids in China. She’s tutoring them in English twice a week each.
And she gets to set her own pay. She’s charging $40 an hour.