Fear and despair seized Stephanie Prestigiacomo, 30, on 6 September 2017. The full-time mother and native of Florida saw Hurricane Maria devastate Puerto Rico, the Caribbean island she lived on, ransacking her house and leaving her husband jobless eventually.
Ms Prestigiacomo lost almost all hope until a Chinese educational start-up offered her a part-time English teaching opportunity. The gig not only helped drag the family out of a cul-de-sac but became the family’s main source of income.
“I’ve never been happier in my life,” she said. “With the part-time job I was able to continue to work despite a major natural disaster wreaking havoc on our lives.”
More than 100,000 foreign nationals outside China now earn decent money by teaching English to young Chinese on online educational platforms. To be sure, not all faced life-altering situations, but what they earn by teaching English online supplements their regular income, helping improve the quality of their lives.
Chinese internet-based companies have created thousands of such part-time jobs for foreign nationals outside China. These companies are not as big as Tencent or Alibaba; what they offer are flexible roles and competitive remuneration, with a promise to sweeten the deal further later.
“It makes eminent business sense for Chinese online education providers to attract overseas teachers,” said Zhou Zhe, audit partner of PwC China.
“This helps access intellectual resources globally.”
The Shanghai online education company iTutorgroup has also attracted more than 15,000 foreign teachers from English-speaking countries, including Australia, Britain and Canada. Analysts said earnings from Chinese online education companies are competitive in terms of time and energy spent, especially considering that US public school teachers are often underpaid and struggle to make a decent living.
Catherina, 46, a former public school teacher from Kentucky, now works part-time with VIPKid. With an average of five classes a day, each of which lasts 25 minutes, she is paid between $24,000 and $36,000 (£18,000-£27,000) a year.
The more she teaches, the more she earns, and executives of the Beijing company said a foreign teacher could earn more than $70,000 a year, rivalling the average annual income of a public school teacher in the US.
Chinese companies follow the local laws applicable to the tutors, who work in the capacity of independent contractors, so they pay taxes on their income locally. Typically, payments after tax deductions are made directly into their bank accounts in local currency.
“In addition to earnings, flexibility is another important reason that foreign teachers apply for the part-time jobs as they can take advantage of their spare time to teach,” said Lyu Senlin, founder and chief researcher at the Learneasy Times Online Education Research Institute, an industry research consultancy.
Online platforms’ foreign teachers can arrange classes to suit to their convenience. They can log in and teach from any quiet place. Prestigiacomo, who had a baby and could not work during the day, is now able to take care of her baby and at the same time teach six days a week. Catherina agreed that working like this was perfect because she could teach at a time that suited her.
“It’s also a shining example of economic globalisation,” she said. “Online education, as the latest form of the internet economy, is overcoming the limits of geography and time zones.”
For long, China has identified education as a top priority. Since 2016 the government has been spending more than 3 trillion yuan (£331 billion) a year in education. This accounts for about 4 per cent of gross domestic product.
Chinese parents have high expectations of their children and are willing to spend big money for high-quality education. Jing Zhiqiang, 42, of Beijing a father of a 9-year-old son, parted with 10,980 yuan for a set of 72 classes.
The boy attends four classes a week on an online education platform. The family spends 2,400 yuan a month for an online English course. That is half of Beijing’s per-capita monthly disposable income of about 4,800 yuan last year.
For Jing, the first reason behind choosing the online course is that his children can take one-on-one personalised tutoring from native English speakers. This, he believes, will help his son.
“Also, home-based tutoring is a great relief for my wife and me as we don’t have much time to pick up and take our son to tutoring institutes. Particularly in Beijing where the traffic is often terrible, we actually save a lot of road time... Time is money, isn’t it?”
Zhou of PwC said: “It’s apparent the biggest demand for foreign- language tutoring comes from China. The market will continue to grow, driven by demand for studying abroad, business trips as well as travelling.”
His view is in line with a report from UBS Securities that the market is expected to be worth more than 714 billion yuan by 2025.
“Such a burgeoning business determines that the country will surely provide more and more flexible opportunities to foreign nationals outside China in the future, bringing more and more benefits for both Chinese and foreign economies,” Lyu said.
In a sense, China-based online education start-ups could be said to promote international economic and cultural ties, given that employment and unemployment are big issues in many countries, and trade tariff disputes tend to sour people-to-people sentiments.
Kim Saylor, 52, an English-language teacher in Texas, has taught 450 students in more than 2,300 classes on VIPKid. She said she was pleasantly surprised to find that she had forged many warm relationships with Chinese families.
One of her students made her a birthday card and held it up in front of the computer camera to greet her. For her part, Saylor makes cupcakes and dispatches them in a special parcel to China for her students’ birthdays.
“I was so moved when [a student] took out a cardboard violin, put in a CD and serenaded me,” Saylor said. “Opportunities to connect with students outside of the classroom make these connections so much stronger.”
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