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."


Why foundation models in AI need to be released responsibly

Foundation models like GPT-3 and DALL-E are changing AI forever. We urgently need to develop community norms that guarantee research access and help guide the future of AI responsibly.

Releasing new foundation models doesn’t have to be an all or nothing proposition.

Illustration: sorbetto/DigitalVision Vectors

Percy Liang is director of the Center for Research on Foundation Models, a faculty affiliate at the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered AI and an associate professor of Computer Science at Stanford University.

Humans are not very good at forecasting the future, especially when it comes to technology.

Keep Reading Show less
Percy Liang
Percy Liang is Director of the Center for Research on Foundation Models, a Faculty Affiliate at the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered AI, and an Associate Professor of Computer Science at Stanford University.

Every day, millions of us press the “order” button on our favorite coffee store's mobile application: Our chosen brew will be on the counter when we arrive. It’s a personalized, seamless experience that we have all come to expect. What we don’t know is what’s happening behind the scenes. The mobile application is sourcing data from a database that stores information about each customer and what their favorite coffee drinks are. It is also leveraging event-streaming data in real time to ensure the ingredients for your personal coffee are in supply at your local store.

Applications like this power our daily lives, and if they can’t access massive amounts of data stored in a database as well as stream data “in motion” instantaneously, you — and millions of customers — won’t have these in-the-moment experiences.

Keep Reading Show less
Jennifer Goforth Gregory
Jennifer Goforth Gregory has worked in the B2B technology industry for over 20 years. As a freelance writer she writes for top technology brands, including IBM, HPE, Adobe, AT&T, Verizon, Epson, Oracle, Intel and Square. She specializes in a wide range of technology, such as AI, IoT, cloud, cybersecurity, and CX. Jennifer also wrote a bestselling book The Freelance Content Marketing Writer to help other writers launch a high earning freelance business.

The West’s drought could bring about a data center reckoning

When it comes to water use, data centers are the tech industry’s secret water hogs — and they could soon come under increased scrutiny.

Lake Mead, North America's largest artificial reservoir, has dropped to about 1,052 feet above sea level, the lowest it's been since being filled in 1937.

Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

The West is parched, and getting more so by the day. Lake Mead — the country’s largest reservoir — is nearing “dead pool” levels, meaning it may soon be too low to flow downstream. The entirety of the Four Corners plus California is mired in megadrought.

Amid this desiccation, hundreds of the country’s data centers use vast amounts of water to hum along. Dozens cluster around major metro centers, including those with mandatory or voluntary water restrictions in place to curtail residential and agricultural use.

Keep Reading Show less
Lisa Martine Jenkins

Lisa Martine Jenkins is a senior reporter at Protocol covering climate. Lisa previously wrote for Morning Consult, Chemical Watch and the Associated Press. Lisa is currently based in Brooklyn, and is originally from the Bay Area. Find her on Twitter ( @l_m_j_) or reach out via email (


Indeed is hiring 4,000 workers despite industry layoffs

Indeed’s new CPO, Priscilla Koranteng, spoke to Protocol about her first 100 days in the role and the changing nature of HR.

"[Y]ou are serving the people. And everything that's happening around us in the world is … impacting their professional lives."

Image: Protocol

Priscilla Koranteng's plans are ambitious. Koranteng, who was appointed chief people officer of Indeed in June, has already enhanced the company’s abortion travel policies and reinforced its goal to hire 4,000 people in 2022.

She’s joined the HR tech company in a time when many other tech companies are enacting layoffs and cutbacks, but said she sees this precarious time as an opportunity for growth companies to really get ahead. Koranteng, who comes from an HR and diversity VP role at Kellogg, is working on embedding her hybrid set of expertise in her new role at Indeed.

Keep Reading Show less
Amber Burton

Amber Burton (@amberbburton) is a reporter at Protocol. Previously, she covered personal finance and diversity in business at The Wall Street Journal. She earned an M.S. in Strategic Communications from Columbia University and B.A. in English and Journalism from Wake Forest University. She lives in North Carolina.


New Jersey could become an ocean energy hub

A first-in-the-nation bill would support wave and tidal energy as a way to meet the Garden State's climate goals.

Technological challenges mean wave and tidal power remain generally more expensive than their other renewable counterparts. But government support could help spur more innovation that brings down cost.

Photo: Jeremy Bishop via Unsplash

Move over, solar and wind. There’s a new kid on the renewable energy block: waves and tides.

Harnessing the ocean’s power is still in its early stages, but the industry is poised for a big legislative boost, with the potential for real investment down the line.

Keep Reading Show less
Lisa Martine Jenkins

Lisa Martine Jenkins is a senior reporter at Protocol covering climate. Lisa previously wrote for Morning Consult, Chemical Watch and the Associated Press. Lisa is currently based in Brooklyn, and is originally from the Bay Area. Find her on Twitter ( @l_m_j_) or reach out via email (

Latest Stories