IDAHO FALLS – Hundreds of people throughout eastern Idaho wake up early every morning to teach kids on the other side of the world from their home computer.
Through an online teaching platform called VIPKid, instructors teach kids in China how to speak English. And for instructors, the day begins quite early due to a 14-hour time difference.
Rexburg resident Stacey Steele was one of the first local instructors to join the program three and a half years ago. She gets up at 3 a.m. every morning to begin preparing her lesson plans.
“I have students booking me two weeks in advance, and I already know who I’m teaching and what I’m teaching. They already have a pre-determined lesson plan for them,” Steele tells EastIdahoNews.com. “I don’t have to prepare much. I already know the flow of everything.”
A series of slides similar to what you’d see in a powerpoint program are prepared for each student via the VIPKid program. Steele looks over them and prepares what she calls “props” or “rewards” that provide motivation to help students learn.
“The space is so limited. You only have a screen to show your face and upper body. So, you want to be very engaging with your gestures and your tone. The props are something that engages them outside of what they’re looking at on-screen,” she says.
Between 4 a.m. and 7 a.m., Steele is busy teaching students. Each student receives one-on-one instruction and learns at his or her own pace.
Some students take classes two to three times a week. Others may take one lesson a month.
Students are between 4 and 14, and their skill level with English varies.
“Sometimes they do have a background in English. I teach a lot of students that are 4-years-old who don’t even speak a lot of Chinese to begin with,” says Steele. “If I want them to say ‘hello’ back to me, I will wave and say very nicely ‘hello’ and then cup my hand to my ear and put my finger on my mouth to encourage them to repeat it.”
The curriculum has seven levels and is divided into units and lessons. There are a variety of classes focusing on vocabulary, pronunciation and other aspects of language.
“They have made this very engaging and well-encompassed curriculum that allows parents to focus on things they want for their students and to help them retain students for a longer time,” Steele says.
And since it’s all done online, Steele says she only has to look presentable from the waist up.
“I just wear pajamas and have a nice little top. Only my face has to look pretty,” Steele says, laughing.
Steele teaches students year-round and is getting new students all the time, but she’s been working with many of the same students since she started.
“One of my favorite things (is to watch them) learn how to communicate better with me. It’s so rewarding to be able to talk to them about how their weekend went and just really get to know them,” she says.
She keeps in touch with many of her students outside of class through social media.
Though it’s challenging to wake up so early, she says the connections with these kids make the job rewarding.
“You’re building really cute relationships across the globe and exploring a culture that Americans really didn’t have access to for a long time,” says Steele. “The mystique around China is becoming more normalized and you start to realize that people everywhere are the same.”
Dozens of VIPKid instructors met at the Grand Teton Mall in Idaho Falls Saturday to meet up and get to know each other. There were different stations with a number of activities organized like an “Amazing Race” competition.
Stephanie Hansen, another VIPKid instructor from Idaho Falls and coordinator of the event, says it gave people a chance to learn about VIPKid in a really fun way.
“Since we’re online, we never actually get to meet other people,” says Hansen. “This allows us to speak with other people who actually do what we do. It also lets other people who might be interested in it come see the people who are doing it and ask them questions and learn how to get involved.
Meet-up events like the one on Saturday are held once a month at various locations. If you’re considering becoming a VIPKid instructor, Steele says you can apply anytime.
All teachers are required to have a Bachelor’s degree, but the pay increases depending on your level of experience. The pay scale is on a per-class basis. It starts at $7.50 per class and can get as high as $12 per class. It’s a convenient way to have a supplemental income for your family, Steele says, and is very flexible.
“It’s very rewarding that I can have my schedule be flexible and work with other jobs I might have or other day-to-day things I have to do. I get it over with in the morning and then go about my day,” Steele says. “You really can take it with you anywhere in the world as long as you have a stable internet connection and you’re actively participating.”