Roused by the alarm at 2:15 a.m., Susan Jensen quickly dresses, starts the coffee and flips on the lights in the office of her Savage townhouse. By 2:30, she’s applied coral lipstick, popped on a headset and positioned herself in front of a colorful bulletin board.
“Hello!” she says cheerily as she smiles and waves into her camera-equipped laptop. “What did you do today?”
Via a Skype-like video portal, Jensen begins a 25-minute session, teaching English to a child in Beijing, where it’s 3:30 in the afternoon.
Jensen, 62, is part of an army of about 40,000 North American educators who are bringing the fundamentals of English into Chinese homes through an educational platform called VIPKid. It’s among the largest of several platforms that beam English teachers into thousands of homes on the other side of the world.
“I’ve fallen in love with online teaching,” said Jensen, who works most mornings and adds time slots some evenings as well, drilling phonics, initiating conversation and practicing intonation.
“You can cover a lot of concepts in 25 minutes. It’s a very effective way for them to learn.”
Based in Beijing, VIPKid was founded in 2013 by a Chinese teacher who operated an English tutoring center. Frustrated by a shortage of North American teachers, she decided to use technology to pair students and tutors.
It also gives retired teachers such as Jensen a way to keep working with kids and allows younger teachers to supplement their earnings without the testing pressures, parent conferences and after-hours paper grading that accompany a traditional classroom job.
VIPKid reports it reaches about 300,000 Chinese children ages 5 to 11. The company supplies the platform and lesson plans; the tutors provide the pedagogical know-how.
“There’s a growing upper middle class in China,” said Kevyn Klein, VIPKid’s global director of community. “In the past, to show their status, it was about material goods and brand names.
“Now it’s become about education and how much opportunity you can give your child.”
Betsy Parrish, a professor who founded Hamline University’s TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), agrees.
“There’s a perception in China that English is a magic bullet, the international language for business,” she said. “Those with means will invest in anything that will give their child an advantage.”
Mandarin in Minnesota
While millions of Chinese parents see fluency in English as an advantage, a growing number of Minnesota parents want their children to be bilingual in Mandarin for the same reason.
According to the University of Minnesota’s Confucius Institute, Chinese immersion and language programs now operate in five Minnesota public school districts and two charter schools. Their combined enrollment has jumped 164 percent in the past six years.
“With the large number of Fortune 500 companies and global businesses in the Twin Cities, parents see opportunities for their children if they have those language skills that can build bridges and open doors in the workforce of the future,” said Joan Brzezinski, executive director of the Confucius Institute and the university’s China Center.
“In order for us to compete in the world, global learning has to be a priority,” said Molly Wieland, world language and immersion coordinator for the Hopkins school district, which began its Chinese immersion curriculum 11 years ago and today enrolls roughly 500 students, from kindergarten through high school.
“Parents look at Chinese as a language that’s becoming more important, and they view proficiency as a gift, an edge that they can give their children,” she said. “It’s not just language, it’s understanding cross-cultural communication.”
For love and money
It’s nothing new for teachers to work outside the classroom. According to a June report from the nonpartisan National Center for Education Statistics, one in five public school teachers holds a second job during the school year.
“The gig economy is moving beyond driving and delivery jobs and into the professional class,” said Sarah Kessler, author of “Gigged: The End of the Job and the Future of Work.” “The number of people with full-time jobs who take work as independent contractors to make ends meet is growing.
“It’s not just people working at McDonald’s and Starbucks who can’t make a living working full-time, it’s also people who’ve invested in college degrees.”
Technology now allows some of them to tap their teaching skills to augment their paycheck, rather than working in retail or restaurants.
VIPKid teachers are independent contractors who earn $14 to $22 an hour, a rate set by their education, experience and performance in an interview. Teachers earn incentives when they take on more classes, begin and end classes on time and accept a class on short notice.
With 30 years as an educator, Jensen was ready to leave the daily duties of the classroom but wary about giving up teaching altogether. She started her VIPKid career in 2016, during her final year in a traditional school. Before heading to work in the Shakopee district, she’d log on and teach a few classes.
“I wanted a transition plan,” she said.
She added, “Once I retired, to market myself and really learn what this was about, I decided to say yes to all the requests that came in.”
On a typical day, Jensen books 11 25-minute classes, often teaching back-to-back sessions, moving from a sitting to a standing desk in her makeshift home classroom. In their interactive sessions, teachers and students can see each other and both can write on a digital screen. Lessons are adapted to the age of the students and their English-speaking ability.
Animated, friendly and, with her expressive eyes and ever-present grin, Jensen is skilled at connecting through the screen, cheering on students with high-fives and fist bumps.
She has developed a following among Chinese parents who watch her at work, then request her for regular sessions with their children.
Jensen is pleased with the flexibility of online teaching. She can control her schedule around time with her grandchildren and travel with her husband. In the winter, she logs on from Arizona.
“Students can be anywhere in the world, too,” Jensen said. “I’ve taught children traveling with their families in Egypt, Dubai and New Zealand.
“As long as there’s the internet, we can connect and they can learn.”
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.