English tutors loved teaching kids in China. Now Beijing won’t let them.

"The relationships I've made with children halfway around the world are going to be devastating to lose."

Erica Johnson

Erica Johnson holds special stars she made for her student in China who loves Mario.

Photo: Erica Johnson

Aug. 12 was Erica Johnson's one-year anniversary teaching English to school children in China via an online tutoring company called VIPKid. But it was a bittersweet milestone for Johnson, of Lebanon, Maine (pictured above): She knew she'd soon have to leave the job because of a government crackdown 6,600 miles away.

Three weeks earlier, Beijing had executed a major strike against China's lucrative private tutoring and ed-tech industry. Among the sweeping policy guidelines the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party and the State Council issued on July 24, one "strictly prohibits" private tutoring companies from hiring foreign teachers outside China to teach domestic students. The stated purpose of the rules is to alleviate the burden of homework and after-school tutoring for students.

During the pandemic, Johnson, 40, a special education teacher, said she was "traveling to China every morning" so she could stay home with her own children every afternoon. She first started teaching kids in China English online part-time via VIPKid's platform. Last November, she became a full-time VIPKid teacher, offering 50 to 60 classes a week (about 25 to 30 hours) to kids halfway around the world. Earlier this summer, with the COVID-19 threat seemingly receding, she decided to resume her brick-and-mortar school job, cutting back on her VIPKid hours.

"The experience was life-changing for me," Johnson told Protocol, adding that she first went into the virtual classroom with a sense of American exceptionalism. But soon she came to the realization that "there can be many ways to do things," and that she has more in common with people from China than she had expected. "I have a favorite regular student, a 9-year-old boy in Shanghai. One day I discovered he loved playing Mario Odyssey on his Nintendo Switch. The look on his face was priceless when I showed him I had a Nintendo Switch and the same game."

She laughed with her students, communicated with their parents and learned a great deal about Chinese culture. "Real things, not just reading about it," Johnson told Protocol. "Watching it happen, the world felt a little smaller. I didn't feel like I should spread American ideals, but absorb another culture, respect it and learn from it. It was also comforting to know kids are kids in every culture."

Johnson even got her 9-year-old son hooked on Chinese culture, and he would often lay on her bed while she taught, listening to the conversations Johnson had with her students. "He loved it," Johnson said. "It made my heart so happy when he heard a racist remark and quickly told the offending party how it was not true and how much he liked China."

All that will end soon. Like many other teachers, Johnson isn't taking new students or signups, only finishing out the courses her students had booked in advance of the crackdown. There had been earlier chatter among VIPKid teachers about China changing education rules, but no one expected international tutors to be impacted. They are still wrapping their heads around the sudden changes.

Beijing-based VIPKid is one of the leading Chinese online education startups known for connecting English tutors outside of China with Chinese students. Founded in 2013, VIPKid received $150 million in a 2019 series E funding round from tech giant Tencent, valuing the company at $4.5 billion. The company website says it hires over 70,000 native-speaking English teachers, most of whom are based in North America. Together, they teach 800,000 students from across the world.

On Aug. 7, VIPKid shared the bad news with its tutors outside China via an email, saying that students would no longer be purchasing classes with them. The company reassured them that teaching opportunities for students in other regions will remain.

Washington last year axed two critical programs that have for decades facilitated immersed people-to-people exchange between the U.S. and China: the Peace Corps and the Fulbright Program. Now it's Beijing cutting a cultural tie in the other direction. Its swift crackdown on the private tutoring sector will not only cause tens of thousands of language tutors to lose their jobs, but shut down a precious cultural exchange channel connecting people in China with people elsewhere.

"The ban on private tutoring aims to curb the demand. [And] the ban on foreign teachers seems to target the 'supply chain,'" Ye Liu, a sociologist at King's College London who studies education inequality in China, told Protocol. Liu said she's not convinced that Beijing's move is driven by ideological control, which has never ceased to exist in education. "Perhaps it is kind of [killing] two birds — the market/asset flow and ideology — with one stone."

Screenshot of Carlos Reyes and student in video chat Carlos Reyes in a virtual class with a Chinese student via VIPKid. Photo: Carlos Reyes

There's not much political ideology in the virtual classrooms anyway. Carlos Reyes (pictured above), a VIPKid tutor from La Paloma, a city in southeastern Uruguay, told Protocol that he teaches his students, ages 3 to 15, everything from basics like English letters and phonics to in-depth subjects about science, geography and culture. "The main thing is language. Never politics," Reyes said, adding that he felt there was nothing off-limits in his class. "They are kids. There's no need to teach anything like that."

To better communicate with his Chinese students, Reyes started taking Chinese lessons two years ago. Now he can pick up the questions asked in Chinese in his class. "You get to know their families, you get to know the kids, and you are kind of like part of the family after a while," Reyes said. "And I've got involved with a language. It's my idea to eventually live in China for a couple of years just to get to know the culture and experience."

Reyes, 37, will soon lose a third of his monthly income, or $1,500, without the VIPKid gig. But for Reyes, who says he has taught over 500 Chinese students over the past four and a half years, the loss is personal as well as financial. He's still processing the forthcoming end of memorable moments like watching the sunrise and sunset at the same time with his students who were 11 hours ahead of him via shared computer screens.

Reyes is scheduled to teach his last class on Sept. 19, a Sunday. After Beijing issued the private tutoring ban, his students started requesting classes on weekends, days that he usually was off. But he accepted those. "This is gonna be goodbye for us," he said. "I don't know if they know or not. I'm saving all the sentimental things until the end."

Johnson, however, signed a new contract with VIPKid shortly after she heard about the regulatory move because she's hopeful that things may change or she'll work with students through the platform. "I'll teach until there are no more students," Johnson said. "I love the company, and teaching with VIPKid has given me such an appreciation and love for a culture so different from my own. I'm not ready to give that up."


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