VIPKID: What’s Different About Teaching Online?

Humble Pie

Recently, I spoke with someone who told me their VIPKID experience has been humbling. Not because of the other “co-workers”, staff, or students but because going from the typical “Brick and Mortar” classroom to a window on a screen is a whole knew ballpark. During the interview process, your starting pay and level tags (these denote what level of student you can teach) are determined. Many teachers are surprised when they’ve been teacher for 20+ years and they are offered the lowest pay or are not hired at all. Why does this happen? Performance during the interview!

VIPKID is fair. This is a job where no matter how many degrees you have or how many years you’ve spent teaching, you must seriously prove your skills before entering this new realm. Quite frankly, no matter how good you sound on paper, you may not be cut out for this online experience. Don’t fret! Learning to understand the needs of Chinese ESL students and honing in on the skills involved can help.

So what exactly causes this situation to be so different than a traditional classroom? Why are teachers with little to no classroom experience so successful while others struggle? What is VIPKID really looking for?

Let’s take a look at some of the top factors in teaching online vs. teaching in a traditional classroom setting.

ESL and the Techniques

When I first heard about VIPKID, I put a great deal of research into ESL
(English as a Second Language) curriculum. This also brought about many exciting expat blogs and Ads for many different teaching degrees and certifications. My eyes were opened to the possibility of teaching English in a foreign classroom. While that is out of my means right now because I am just not ready to travel with my feisty 2-year-old, the reality of visiting China in the VIPKID online classroom was looking better everyday.

There are two major differences to teaching ESL in an American classroom versus ESL in a foreign classroom. That is: full immersion. VIPKID uses the full immersion method, much like other foreign classrooms. Teachers for this usually get a TESOL or TEFL certificate and gain training on how to teach English in the way a baby absorbs language from its parents. Personally, I looked into Texas ESL programs because that’s where I live. I’ve found that it is required to learn Spanish in order to teach the influx of Spanish speakers in the Texas classroom. Around the time I was researching all of this, I substituted for a private school with a large population of Chinese boarding students. For a week I subbed for an ESL writing course where the teacher had painfully warned me that they were behind in class and waiting for a Chinese teacher to acquire a VISA to come teach these students. It has been proven time and again that the full immersion method is more efficient and lasting. Why then does the American classroom not adapt more of these methods? (THAT is for a different blog post.)

Many people ask how in the world I teach Chinese students without knowing a word of Chinese, the answer is simple: I’m not teaching them Chinese! Foreign entities, like VIPKID, see the use of the child’s native language in an English class as a crutch. By using immersive techniques, we are able to teach without merely translating vocabulary and phrases.

The Top ESL Full Immersion Techniques used in VIPKID: (Hyperlinked to great resources)

The Online Platform

Teaching the words “flag” and”stripes” Student is holding a tiny pink flag, which conveniently covered her eyes so I could share this moment!

There are actually MANY online classrooms. While VIPKID is the forerunner in online ESL, there are many competitors like Magic Ears and DadaABC. In addition, VIPKID has their own sister companies like SayABC and Lingo Bus. No matter which company you work for, they are in their own universe far away from the typical classroom setting.

Here are the key factors that make online super different than B&M as I’ve experienced with VIPKID:

  • Teaching from a box takes some getting used to.
    • I’m in a little window.
    • My student is in a little window.
    • The slideshow is in a medium window.
  • Internet Connection Issues
    • It is crucial to have good internet for online teaching. This makes it difficult to have this sort of job if you live in a bad internet area. Not to mention that China often has poor internet.
  • Is my mic off or is the lag really that bad? (or is my student still in the “silent” phase?)
    • It can be a tad confusing when a student isn’t answering or responding. Sometimes this is because they are in the stage of language development called “the silent period”. This is simply where a student is absorbing the language but is not quite ready to use it.
    • Other time you forgot to turn your mic on and have a slight embarrassing moment.
  • Back-to-Back Timing
    • There is no “The bell doesn’t dismiss you, I dismiss you.” as your next class waits outside the door. You must manage to finish all the course material in time, exiting the class, then opening the next class.
    • There are penalties for being late if the student or tech support decide you aren’t showing up so they cancel class. Now, instead of making money you owe money for the parent and student’s wasted time.
  • Are they seeing what I’m seeing?
    • One of the most frustrating moments is when the slideshow is fine on your side, by for some reason it hasn’t loaded on theirs. This is typically because of the student’s connection. Older kids can typically express what’s going on, but the younger one get a little worried!
    • A safe tip is if a child goes from active and participating to dead stare, something probably froze on their end. You can refresh and the classroom will reload on both ends!


Dancing crazy with a student who just earned a star for learning a tough concept. Way to go! I am typically a low-key teacher, but this student responded better to my activeness. PS: parents can see our teaching behavior tags on our profiles (E.G., Low-key, encouraging, pronunciation correction)

This is a term that I see all to often lost in the public school setting: adaptability. That is, can the teacher adapt to the individual needs of the student? While I will save my rant about the public school’s lack of ability to adapt to student needs for another post, let’s focus on adapting in the online ESL classroom. There are multi-student online classrooms out there, but VIPKID (with the exception of their School Classroom program and Rural Education program) is 1-to-1.

This is really where that huge difference between B&M teachers and raw never-done-this-before teachers comes in to play. If a person has never taught in a classroom, they are basically forced to research all the terminologies and techniques they hear about while preparing to apply. A B&M teacher is more inclined to relate everything back to classroom experience, American public school systems, and whatever they learning while getting their degree. I’m here to tell you: you need to research if you’ve never taught English in another country to a foreign student. I have a Bachelor’s of Fine Art. That’s right. Fine Art. I’ve always tutored for English because writing is a hobby and I enjoy breaking grammar rules, and you must know them to break them. That being said, I spent hours researching and PRACTICING these teaching methods. I found that experimenting with TPR with my own daughter to get her to copy movements and not just pronunciation ultimately increased her memory of words. I mean, wouldn’t you rather your toddler be able to say “I’m so frustrated” instead of throw a fit? Well, now my toddler throws a fit in complete sentences. I digress.

The materials are made for you. The teaching instructions are there. You’ve probably watched tons of YouTube videos on how to do these slides. Regardless, nothing can prepare you for how a real student will really react. This is what your interviewers are looking for: are you just able to copy Nancy Taylor, or are you really a good teacher with great ESL techniques?

As parents, we naturally do the “I do, We do, You do” method without realizing it. It helped me greatly to remember that my VIPKID students need patience and guidance, and may not know what to do. And don’t forget: they know so much! They’ve already learned most of the course content it in their native language. It is just my job to teach them how to express these things in English. Complete, clear, correct American English. You aren’t cheating by modeling the correct answer! You are giving them the tools to succeed on their own!

Let’s Get Teaching!

All of this to sum up with: I don’t think B&M are bad teachers and there are MANY who are doing an excellent job with their VIPKID students. However, when I hear complaints and negativity about VIPKID it is usually from a former or current school teacher who has no clue as to why VIPKID only offered them the lowest pay grade or didn’t hire them at all. Take a deep breath and apply again with another email address if you didn’t make it. Hopefully since you’ve made it to the end of this post, you have a broader idea of what to improve and what a foreign, online ESL business is looking for.

If you are ready to apply, get on it here!

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