A few weekends ago, having accepted that her time as an online English-language tutor had reached a fateful end, Lexi Henegar decided it was time to pack up and clean out her “teaching closet,” a tiny, refurbished storage room in the basement of her Indiana home.
She pulled down the curtains and the twinkling lights that lent some warmth and coziness to the space. She gathered up the dozens of two-dimensional props she’d amassed over the last four years, most of which were laminated and attached to popsicle sticks. And she made plans to re-distribute the many lamps—eight bulbs in all, shining directly onto her face—to her children, whom she homeschools.
Honestly, Heneger says, her husband and kids did most of the work of excavating her closet. “It was hard for me to do, hard for me to get rid of things,” she says, explaining that her role teaching children in China had “kind of just become part of my identity.” She’d been doing it almost every day for more than four years.
The task, though, was somewhat time-sensitive. She was starting a new job the following Monday and did not want puppets or props or clutter encroaching on her first day.
Henegar is one of tens of thousands of American tutors who have been impacted by the new education regulations announced this summer by the Chinese government, including rules that effectively ban private tutoring with foreign educators. In the last several weeks, some tutoring companies, such as GoGoKid, have shuttered completely. The rest, planning to host lessons until their last prepaid class packages run out, have still had to scale back to weekday-only class offerings as the now-enforced Chinese regulations prohibit holiday and weekend tutoring.
Meanwhile, Americans who had come to rely on tutoring for part or all of their income have been grappling with a painful reality: The job that once seemed too good to be true might, after all, be just that. Some like Henegar have taken this news in stride, insisting that they never expected this arrangement to last forever. But others are devastated, perhaps even in denial, pledging to teach through their very last booking—and even beyond in the form of private, underground tutoring. What happens when a $120 billion industry disappears overnight is anybody’s guess, but companies and tutors are already scrambling to make contingency plans.
Getting out of ‘the Hustle’
When Henegar first came across the online tutoring company VIPKid several years back, she and her husband both thought it was a scam. In time, though, they began to see it as a godsend.
Henegar has seven children, ranging in age from 3 to 15. For a long time, she homeschooled them while her husband worked in a corporate job. But a few years ago, when he left that position for a teaching role at a university, their finances took a hit.
“I wanted to find something to make up that gap in our income, to cover the extras—family vacations, sports, extracurriculars,” Heneger explains.
It made up the gap and then some. Henegar developed a following on her YouTube channel, where she posted videos about how to get hired by some of the lesser-known online tutoring companies such as Zebra English, and from there became not only a paid tutor but a mentor and a recruiter for several of the companies.
Over the years, she helped about 80 teachers get hired with Zebra and, by her account, about 10 a month get positions at Magic Ears. For every successful new hire she referred, Henegar would collect between $80 to $150. On average, she made $3,000 from tutoring and recruiting combined, but some months, especially in the summers when her husband could help out more with the kids, she earned up to twice that sum.
In early August, when the tutoring companies began to announce their plans for complying with the Chinese policy changes, Henegar made a swift decision to resign her positions with all of the Chinese companies and close out her teaching schedule. “Everyone is in a panic right now. It’s been really sad to watch,” Henegar shared in an interview last month. “It’s why I decided to step back for August. I can’t be sucked into this black hole of panic.”
She redirected her energy into trying to get hired at tutoring companies based outside of China. But many of these upstarts pay significantly less than the $22-25 an hour she made tutoring for the Chinese companies—and offered paltry returns compared to the $30-40 an hour she made from hosting training workshops. One Korea-based company called NIL English offered her a starting rate of $1.50 for every 10 minutes of teaching. (Her reaction: “Ouch!”)
What she began to understand, as she heard back from each additional company, is that the pay she’d come to expect from tutoring over the last few years would not easily be replaced.
“In so many ways, it was going to be lost pay,” she explains. Not only were the rates lower, but the bookings were less consistent. The companies were less established. The systems were shakier. And the hours were less favorable.
“I wanted to get out of the hustle. I felt like I was having to hustle so much,” Henegar says. “It’s like a jigsaw puzzle trying to figure out what hours to open with which companies to book up fully. I kind of just wanted to simplify.”
She knows that others are making it work. But the reality, she says, is that most of them are taking a pay cut to do so. In her new role—a full-time, remote position with benefits—she will make about the same as she did from tutoring. And she doesn’t have to leave the education space; she’ll work with a consulting company to staff roles such as bus drivers and substitute teachers at public schools in the United States.
Recruiting Castoff Tutors
Plenty of tutoring companies outside of China have sought to capitalize on this moment of upheaval in the industry. That includes those based in the United States. One company, iTutor, has actively recruited teachers affected by the changes to Chinese policy and is already seeing dividends.
In the last three to four weeks, iTutor has seen 70 new applicants whose most recent experience was with China-based online tutoring companies, according to data shared by staff.
iTutor officials believe they are offering something comparable, or perhaps preferable, to what these tutors are accustomed to. The company’s minimum pay is $27 an hour, but most teachers earn closer to $35 an hour, they say.
“Teachers are some of the most underpaid, undervalued members of our society,” says Hayley Spira-Bauer, chief academic officer at iTutor. “It’s important to us that teachers are respected and elevated. The idea of their mortgages being in jeopardy”—from the lost income from China-based tutoring companies—“it’s devastating.”
The catch is that, unlike most China-based tutoring companies, iTutor requires its contractors to be state-certified teachers in the U.S. They want to ensure that their tutors are trained and qualified. So a handful of those 70 applicants have been outright rejected for not having adequate state certification.
“Right now we are actively looking for state-certified teachers to support our school districts,” Spira-Bauer says. “We are hiring by the hundreds. Teachers affected by China have come to our info sessions. They know what it takes to engage kids and get them excited about learning.”
Going Down with the Ship
Melissa Miller understands why some tutors have decided to walk away. But she still plans to continue booking classes and teaching students in China until the bitter end.
Miller, who lives in La Grange, Ga., homeschools her three children and signed up to teach for VIPKid a few years ago when she was looking for extra income to cover her kids’ homeschool curriculum.
As the story so often goes with online English tutors, the gig was more of a windfall than Miller could have imagined. She handily paid off the homeschooling costs and then found herself with extra spending money to use elsewhere—she has since bought a van, put a down payment on a house and is aiming to pay for her daughter’s college tuition with that tutoring money.
Miller has only ever tutored for VIPKid and describes herself as fiercely loyal to the company. “I tell people, ‘I bleed orange,’” she says, referring to the color of VIPKid’s vibrant logo and branding. “I put my heart and soul into this company.”
More than just teaching for VIPKid, she also serves as a mock coach, a workshop mentor, a manager of the company’s official Facebook pages and a superhost who plans company events. Recently, she has had to help communicate to other teachers on Facebook how the changes in China will affect their jobs, while also privately trying to figure it out for herself.
“It’s been hard,” Miller says. “I feel like, in a lot of ways, I’ve had to keep on a brave face, just to the community. But when the camera shuts off, when I sign off social media, I’m sad. Because this has been so good for our family. And just personally, it’s been good for me.”
Even as she hears of others resigning their positions, ending their contracts and deleting the tutoring apps from their desktops once and for all, Miller is resolute about continuing. For her, it’s more than a world she enters through her computer screen. She has traveled to China with VIPKid, where she met the parents of some of the students she teaches. She has shared Peking duck, a Chinese dish, with families she first met online.
“I’m grieving those relationships,” she says. “I guess I’m not willing to leave it all behind yet. I am here until the wheels fall off this train—even if that means I’m teaching one class per month, I’m going to stick with it.”
Things aren’t quite so dire yet, but the class volume has started to dwindle since the changes went into effect last month, she says. Weekend classes have been canceled for good, reducing her schedule—and income—by about 30 percent. Training sessions for onboarding new teachers have naturally tapered off.
As for VIPKid’s plan to pivot seamlessly from its current customer base in China to new markets, Miller is skeptical. She sees it as being “remotely feasible,” but doubts it could be a viable source of income for the number of teachers VIPKid now works with.
“I know that they are trying,” Miller says. “But I am hesitant when people talk about it … as a save-all. Even if it happens and it grows, it’ll grow like the company did—slowly and starting small.” Miller notes that a few years ago, VIPKid had only a couple thousand U.S. tutors, not the veritable army of 100,000 Americans and Canadians it employed at its height.
She is herself a contracted teacher with BookNook, one of the companies VIPKid has partnered with to try to become more versatile in its offerings. Miller used BookNook during the month of July, she says, “and I never once saw a student join my classroom. Not a single student.”
In the event that Miller finds herself out of a job sometime in the next few months, she does have a backup plan. She has a contract with an education company called SplashLearn, where she teaches math to students in the U.S. The classes pay a little more but run longer than she’s used to—45 minutes to an hour, instead of 25 minutes. And she’s actively looking for another remote teaching job alongside that.
Weighing the Risks and Benefits
A number of online English tutors have turned to private tutoring as a work-around to the new regulations, despite China’s ban on that too. Many teachers are trying to build out their own businesses and bring on former students and families from the tutoring platforms as clients.
Miller, for her part, is not comfortable tutoring Chinese students in that capacity—although parents have asked. She thinks the risk of repercussions is too great.
“I have told my families that once I’m done with VIPKid, I’m going to delete WeChat,” she says, referring to China’s omnipresent communication app. “I’m worried about their safety. They’re going to be the ones in trouble if they’re caught with a VPN on Zoom talking to an American teacher.”
Another tutor, Sarah, sees it differently. (She has asked that her name and personal details be withheld to protect the families she tutors. “Sarah” is a pseudonym.) The families that bought classes through tutoring companies such as Qkids and GoGoKid will find a way to get their children additional education services, she argues, and Sarah cares about those kids. If someone is going to tutor them, she’d prefer it be her.
Soon after the changes to the Chinese tutoring market began to take shape, parents of some of the students Sarah tutors contacted her on WeChat about continuing lessons in an unofficial capacity. What if they paid her directly? They’d just be eliminating the middle-men—the companies.
Three weeks later, Sarah was teaching nearly 20 students on her own, over Zoom.
“It’s been as easy a transition as I could have hoped to have,” she says.
She had to figure out the payments, curriculum and scheduling, but once those hurdles were crossed, the rest came together pretty quickly.
For now, all of her students—who she tutors one-on-one, as before—are ones she’d met through the company platform. She thinks she could recruit more if some of them were to drop off, but right now she is fully booked.
Sarah teaches each child for 45 minutes at a time, rather than 25 minutes, at the parents’ request. The families pay a little more per class to get that extra 20 extra minutes of tutoring for their child, and Sarah, meanwhile, makes a little less money. Since each tutoring session begins at the top of the hour, she can only fit in one session per hour. That translates to about $400 of lost income per month. “Which is a lot to me,” Sarah says, then counters: “But the stress level isn’t there.”
She works closely with parents to make and manage her schedule and to ensure she receives her payments on time. Classes are booked several weeks out in advance.
“It’s a tradeoff,” she says. “I would say I’m tentatively happier. I’m certainly not happy with the financial loss, but I feel incredibly grateful.”
If there’s a silver lining, it’s that many of the online tutors have found that their experience teaching, recruiting, training and generally working closely with kids has set them up well to move on to other roles.
Sarah has learned to advocate for herself—and now finds herself running a small tutoring business on the side while she teaches in a brick-and-mortar school during the day.
And Henegar, the mother of seven in Indiana who just took a new full-time job, remarks with awe that her only work experience in 15 years was with Chinese tutoring companies, and it was enough to help her land a job that she can feel good about, that pays well and that will still allow her to homeschool her kids.
It’s been a little over a month since Henegar gave up online tutoring, and she finds that she is sleeping better and stressing less.
“It was hard,” she says of quitting the industry, “but having made the decision, I feel really relieved.”