What’s It Like Tutoring for VIPKID, the Chinese Company That Just Raised $200 Million?

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Several teachers are putting away their mojitos and sunglasses as they get ready the new school year. Yet, for Shannon Mabry, the trip to her classroom isn’t far. In fact, it’s right next to her bed.

Mabry is one of the 20,000 educators working for VIPKID, China’s largest online English tutoring company. It’s now valued at $1.5 billion, after having just raised $200 million in a Series D round led by Sequoia Capital. Other investors include Tencent, Yunfeng Capital, Matrix Partners China and Zhen Fund. (The Beijing-based company has now raised a total of $325 million.)

It is kind of crazy that you legitimately create real, loving relationships with these kids through the computer. It’s insane how much you can care about a child you have never actually physically seen before.

Shannon Mabry

Founded in 2013, VIPKID can best be described as a sort of Yelp for Chinese students seeking North American English teachers. Teachers interested in tutoring online can create a profile and upload videos of their instruction on the platform. Parents scroll through these profiles, book sessions, and leave and read reviews from other parents. At the scheduled time, the teacher and student engage in a live video chat for the lesson, after which the teacher can give parents feedback on their child’s progress.

Tutoring has become big business for VIPKID, which currently claims more than 200,000 paying students from 32 countries (mostly China). The company said it generated roughly $40 million last in July, through the efforts of teachers like Mabry.

“I tutored for many years for quite a few different subjects, but I wanted to get supplementary income, so I applied for VIPKID,” she shared in an interview with EdSurge. Mabry has been tutoring on the platform for 17 months. Since that time she’s noticed many changes, most notably the expansion of the number of teachers. When she started in January of 2016, there were only 800.

“When I first started I thought I would wake up, teach kids and go on with my life,” she adds. “But it is kind of crazy that you legitimately create real, loving relationships with these kids through the computer. It’s insane how much you can care about a child you have never actually physically seen before.”

Other VIPKID teachers describe Mabry as a “star” educator in their community. She runs the Facebook group with over 7,000 VIPKID educators, answers questions for them online and organizes local meetups for the teachers. She even won a contest put on by the company to travel to Beijing and meet Cindy Mi, the company’s founder and CEO. Mabry says this is the best job she has ever had.

“I wake up, wash my face, put my clothes on, get in front of my computer, and I am ready to go,” says Mabry. “I once had class in a Karaoke bar. We did the lesson super fast, and the students wanted to sing a song, and I sang a song. You can give a class on a train. Children are on their iPads so they can do it from anywhere.”

However, teaching at VIPKID is not all singing and dancing. Working for a Chinese firm means working on Chinese hours—which for many people in the United States is a graveyard shift. Martha Karmali, a teacher in Georgia, says she starts her days at 4 am in the morning prepping for classes. Before each lesson, she makes sure her computer is running smoothly, looks over the lesson plans provided by VIPKID, and reads feedback from other teachers about the student’s learning habits. She usually teaches five 25-minute classes from 5 am to 7:30 am.

“For the most part, the students I have are way more disciplined than we are here,” says Karmali, noting how her students have far fewer discipline issues than students in the United States.

All teachers on VIPKID are considered independent contractors, which means they are paid by the hour. Whether they work five or 60 hours a week, there are no benefits.

In addition, there is no guarantee that teachers will be booked. Some say they have gone several months without a single booking. Madalyn Allen, a former VIPKID teacher, shared on her YouTube channel how even with her Master’s degree and years of teaching experience she still struggled to get the same amount bookings as similarly or less qualified white peers. Other commenters in online forums have suggested that Chinese parents are hesitant to pick black tutors like her.

There are also noticeable drops in bookings throughout the summer months as families go on vacation. This inconsistency is why Karmali suggests that educators considering VIPKID make sure they have another income source to fall back on.

“What I am making from this job goes into a savings account for our family,” says Karmali. “I know other people depend on it for their bread and butter. I don’t know if you should use this job for that. In the summers there were low bookings. If you depend on a certain amount every month that just doesn’t make sense.”

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