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Let’s face it: education is not exactly known for its great pay and benefits.

The contract hours are fairly decent, and you get holidays, most weekends, and most evenings “off” (although truthfully, we spend much of that time prepping, planning, and grading), but the pay is not sufficient as a living wage for many people who solely depend on teaching as their career. 

In fact, according to this report by the Pew Research Center, 1 in 6 of us has to work a second job to make ends meet. 

As fellow educators, we understand that struggle, so we’re going to do some research and find some things that may be perfect for your second gig. We think teachers could use a helping hand, and we hope this fills that need. 

This first blog deals with teaching ESL students in China online. 

Teaching ESL to Chinese Students Online

What It Is

It’s hard to believe that this industry didn’t exist a decade ago. In fact, one of the biggest companies in the industry, VIPKid, has only been around since 2013. 

We have socks older than that!

Yet, VIPKid alone says it employs about 65,000 ESL teachers. That’s larger than the current population of Bermuda!

There are dozens of other companies that have since joined the industry, and although they generally don’t share the numbers of how many teachers they employ, it is definitely safe to say that this is a thriving industry at the moment.

These companies were born out of a desire by Chinese parents for native English speakers (meaning people whose first language was English) to teach their children to speak English fluently and at the rate of a native speaker.

In other words, Chinese parents want their children to sound as though they are midwestern Americans, British, Canadians, or Australians (mostly - other accents are acceptable for some, but many companies only accept people born in one of these countries as teachers). 

These companies each have their own online teaching platforms. Students and teachers meet in an online “classroom” - a space online where both the teacher and the student can access the same thing. It’s similar in concept to programs like Facetime or Skype. 

It’s actually most similar to a program called Zoom, so if you’ve ever had an online meeting with several people and “shared” their computer screen, you’ve got the idea. 

The lessons themselves are usually in the form of interactive powerpoints that can be virtually written or typed on. Some platforms provide various other ways to interact with the information being presented. Many platforms feature materials from popular companies like Disco Channel Education, National Geographic, or Oxford Reading Tree. 

Some companies offer one-on-one, personalized lessons, while others may have one teacher working with up to four (or even more, in some rare circumstances) students at a time.

Most of these companies hire teachers to work with children who are up to age 18. The beginning age varies. Often, companies say they take children 4 and over, or 5 and over, but many offer classes to children that are younger - even infants.  

There are some companies that are not Chinese, but only a few. Most of them pay incredibly low wages (from $4 to $10 per hour or less) and the internet is not as easy to rely upon in many of the included countries, so the Chinese companies are what we’ll mainly focus on here. 

What Teaching ESL Online Is Not

A Full-Time Job 

    Parents in China work all day, and children go to school. There is no homeschooling. Most children then are busy during the day, so the peak hours for tutoring are before and after school, on the weekends, and over Chinese holidays (which are not on the same schedule as most holidays celebrated in America).

    Classroom Teaching

      It’s more of a hodgepodge of skills you would use if you were playing a television teacher on a kids’ show, being a game show host, herding cats by voice only, and a smidge of classroom teaching. 

      Similar to Working for American Companies

        Work Culture

        Although many of the teachers are British, Canadian, Australian, or American, the company and the majority of the people teachers interact with on a regular basis are Chinese. That means policies, the culture, and all of the business aspects are Chinese.

        Although it may seem obvious, nothing about working with these companies is guaranteed by typical “American” or European standards.

        Many first-time ESL online teachers are shocked by the cultural differences, so if you choose to pursue a job in this field, keep in mind that ideas like free speech, worker’s rights, and things like family leave are genuinely “foreign” concepts, at least in the way we may experience them here in America. 

        Also, there are no guarantees. You’ll sign a contract, but you’re not an employee. You’re a freelance worker, and at any time the company may choose to stop working with you for any reason. They can also dock your pay, pay late one month, or simply choose not to pay you at all. There have been occasions where individuals have never received any pay for working with one of these companies.

        There is no governing body assuring that Chinese companies pay their overseas American contract workers, and pursuing any sort of legal action is completely unrealistic. Working with these companies, then, requires a certain level of blind trust.

        Thankfully, these circumstances are rare and shouldn’t keep anyone from considering the work as an option, but people new to the field should be aware that the instances are more than zero. 


          In addition, American holidays are not observed, so you may be expected to work on Thanksgiving, Christmas, or the Fourth of July. Most companies have gotten better about at least offering unpaid leave for these holidays; however, be sure to check the fine print or ask the representative before you choose to work with one of these companies. 

          There will also be Chinese holidays in which the companies will close for a week or more (and teachers will not work, which means no payment). If you’re depending on that paycheck, you’ll want to schedule ahead. 

          Pride in Years of Service, Professional Accomplishment, and/or Degrees

            One other thing usually surprises American teachers. Your degrees, teaching certificates, and years of experience will help qualify you for the job and in a  small way, they help to determine your pay. No one is going to be impressed by your degrees or experiences, though.

            Many American teachers begin pursuing their side-career teaching English with a great amount of pride for what they’ve earned and acquired in their careers. In our school systems here in America, they are our badges of honor and social standing. 

            Your new colleagues will not only decidedly not care, but they may also find it incredibly offensive if you expect them to show some sort of extended respect or treat you differently than a cog in the company wheel or a number.

            Part of this is cultural in general. Giving and accepting compliments is not something done in Chinese culture. It’s considered bad-mannered to accept praise for things that are expected of you. In fact, it’s sometimes considered rude to make someone uncomfortable by complimenting them, so your Chinese counterparts may be trying to make you more comfortable by ignoring your accolades!

            It’s nothing personal! They aren’t intentionally being mean or cold. The culture is different - and that’s okay! (But it’s definitely nice to know it’s coming!) 

            On Your Schedule

            The day-to-day schedule is also not American. First, most companies use military time, so if you aren’t used to that, it’s a bit of an adjustment. Secondly, depending on where you are located in the U.S., the time difference will be between 12 and 15 hours and will vary if your time changes according to daylight saving’s time (China does not have daylight saving’s time). 

            As mentioned before, you likely won’t be teaching during hours where children are in school or when they are sleeping. There are “peak” times most companies observe. 

            American Education

            Education, like many things, is really different in China when compared to America. There is a lot of rote memorization. Some content and standards will not be what American educators consider age-appropriate or best practice. You will be expected to adhere to Chinese standards in many situations.

            Going to Last Forever

            Many educators who have been in positions of ESL online education for some time are feeling worried about the longevity of their side-careers with these companies. The market is currently saturated, U.S./China relations are on shaky grounds at the moment, and the advancement of technology which may make it easier for teachers online to be replaced by technology are all worrisome for those educators who hope to have a long-term gig.

            Most teachers are not worried about any of that, though, and feel comfortable continuing their relationship with these companies.

            It would be wise to keep an eye on world news and an ear to the ground if you do choose one of these jobs so you won’t be caught by surprise if a change is on the horizon. 

            Why Do Teachers Do This Work?

            Given some of the stark realizations above, you may wonder why anyone would even want to do this job. There are quite a few positives to counter any difficulties you might face, and many teachers genuinely LOVE this job. Here are  a few positives: 

            1. The pay is usually pretty great! Many of the companies advertise that you can make “up to” $20 to $30 dollars per hour, but few of them actually pay anyone quite that high. It’s pretty typical to make between $17 and $20 per hour, though, even from the beginning. 
            2. You get to teach in pajama pants if you want to because the camera usually only shows your torso and head. If you’re the kind of teacher who lives for “jeans” or “pajama” day at school, this is totally the side gig for you. You don’t even technically have to brush your teeth! (lol)
            3. It’s an amazing cultural experience! You are immersed in the world of your students - you see their homes, you often see them eat, you may meet their families, and if you teach one-on-one especially, your students can become as much of your family as your classroom students can. It’s a rare, unique opportunity. 
            4. Some online schools have reciprocal programs where you or your own children can enroll in Mandarin (Chinese) lessons. 是的,请 (yes, please)! 
            5. Prep and planning are minimal, and there is no grading. Most companies do require you to provide feedback, and in the beginning that feedback may take a while. After you get used to it, it may only take a few minutes to complete feedback. After a while, you pretty much roll out of bed, turn on some bright lights, and teach!
            What Do You Typically Need to Teach ESL Online?
            • a bachelor’s degree in education or a related field
            • a 120-hour TEFL certificate from an internationally accredited institution (your state or local certificate won’t count, although those ESL programs are typically much more rigorous and extensive)
            • 2 years of classroom teaching experience (student teaching or practicum hours don’t count)
            • a criminal background check
            • a computer with internet access (specific requirements vary by company)

            Resources for Further Information

            Online Teaching Jobs - and Teach Away - are both hubs for finding these jobs, applying for them, and helping you locate resources to teach well once you’ve gotten the job.  

            Online Teachers Club is similar, but it’s our favorite and first choice. Check out their “Mega List” of online schools. There isn’t a more complete, updated list in existence to our knowledge. Here’s the link:

            Facebook group - Online Teacher Workshop - James Marshall has been involved in many of the top Chinese companies since their earliest days. He’s got a lot of “insider” information, has the best ideas and resources, and even has a side job that supports his side job!  He makes adorable “Pubbets” - puppets specifically for use in the online ESL classroom setting. James is an expert on this subject, and he’s always got tons of helpful information available.

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