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Send in the clowns: The state of the online teaching market 2021.

I’m 67 and have a life time of teaching and experience behind me. For nearly fifty years of my life, I have travelled, worked various jobs, been educated to PhD level and had a career teaching and researching in British universities. In the last decade alone, I have moved to China, taught iGCSE for six of those years in a good Chinese High School, taught IELTS both online and face-to-face, and for the past two years I have been teaching English at a respected university in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province. I have written three IELTS books, one published in China, plus three novels. I also write for the local newspaper, and expat magazine. On an ad hoc basis I proofread for the Nanjing University Department of Translation, and currently am proofreading for the Hangzhou Asian Games 2022 magazine and for a Zhejiang TV company. In the meantime, I also continue to teach English online via a Taiwanese platform.

Yes, I am busy, but I still have spare time I would like to fill. I decided I could work for another online company, perhaps outside of China as, if you have been reading the news, you will know that that business model has been smashed by the Chinese government. I did the research; old habits die hard. Japan seemed to be a burgeoning market place so I started to look at some companies there. Being in China I am basically in the same time zone with Tokyo only being one hour ahead of Beijing time so that's an extra bonus.

I knew what I was looking for, a similar deal to what I had with the Taiwanese company, a platform where the teaching would be my business, I could set my own rates and I’d be left to get on with it while they took a slice of the pie. There are not too many of these and I swiftly scrolled past all of those that offered $8/10 per hour or less and those that want to provide the materials––the good, the bad and the ugly­­––you get no choice. Then all of my searching paid off. I found one, a company that seemed to be based in the United States. I entered their website to have a look around, and search for other IELTS teachers to check out the competition, and I got a result.

A tempting proposal

Yes, there seemed to be only one teacher offering IELTS teaching. She was promoting small classes for around six students for IELTS writing. There were two courses, IELTS writing Task 1 and another for Task 2. Each student would have to pay $20 per class, so $120 per hour. This was a tempting proposal and something I could do. In my view competition is no bad thing and if there was only one IELTS teacher then all the better for me. So I set to and started the application procedure.

I filled in the forms and then I had to make a video showing my teaching style. I worked on this showing how I teach the Task 1 writing component of the test. The video was only three minutes long as requested, and I thought I had done a pretty good job. They also wanted a sort of lesson plan which I did as well. I was pretty confident all would be well, because after all I was well qualified to teach English, and IELTS in particular.

Dear John… I’m sorry but not sorry…

In the glow of being busy getting all this stuff together I had conveniently forgotten the unprofessional and rude interviewer from iTutor group who had, two years earlier, knocked me back, and the letters from some of the other companies who flat out told me I was too old, or in the wrong country or just sent me a bland sorry, but not sorry, “Dear John” letter of refusal.

Despite this temporary amnesia I uploaded the video and pressed submit. So I was pretty darned shocked when within five minutes my email pinged with a missive from said company. Oh yes, another bland refusal.


Hi Dr,

Thank you for your interest in teaching on XXXX. Every week many teachers apply to XXXX, and we are only able to work with some. When choosing which teachers to bring on to the platform, we consider a range of factors including teaching experience, the quality of the written application, and the needs of the community.

At this time [sic] we are not approving your request to teach on XXXX. Our team is unable to provide specific feedback about your application.

End of Quote.

Am I too old or is it just “The Computer Says NO’ syndrome? Had I upset some robotic algorithm and caused it to reject me, or had some human interface had a quick look at my vid, seen my white hair, and clicked the REJECT button?

The problem is, when one looks through the terms and conditions of said platform they do not even require a degree or teaching experience per se. What they seem to want is good looking young faces who are happy to act the fool, and play the clown for very young kids who don’t know any better and get paid peanuts.

And as the old saying goes “if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys.”

And lest we forget, it is the parents who are paying for these monkeys to play the fool.

Recent developments in the online teaching industry

The online teaching industry has exploded over the last few years and in particular the English teaching niche. For example, VIPKID, who recently shut down, had 70,000 tutors based in the US, and 51Talk had over 20,000 Filipino teachers. It is a multi-million-pound industry funded by the sweat of caring mothers and fathers who want a better life for their children. In my view it is simply disrespectful to these hardworking parents and totally unprofessional to put untrained and unlicensed teachers, with no degrees, on these platforms, to “teach” young and impressionable kids.

Research by Chu Chaohui, a research fellow at China's National Institute of Education Sciences backs this up pointing out that hard pressed Chinese parents have been concerned about the qualification levels of foreign teachers and in particular those who are found online. Recently it was reported that 15 extracurricular training institutes had been fined around 37 million yuan (£4.1/$5.7 million) for faking teachers’ qualifications.

Send in the clowns

It seems I am not the only one suffering from the same concerns, another American teacher reports that he felt many of these teaching companies want online teachers to "act" more than "teach". He didn't get the job he applied for either as he wasn't "animated" enough and complained that English teaching online can turn into a bit of a circus.

His point that students want a teacher, not a clown and not an actor. chimes with my experiences. For Prof John Domingue, the director of the Open University’s research and development lab, the Knowledge Media Institute (KMI), the “online genie” is out of the bottle and won’t go back in. Let’s hope that the “genie” we get isn’t a Disney style genie, a comedic, larger-than-life spirit who acts as a servant to whomever holds ownership of the magic lamp [read online teaching platform] in which he resides.

Let’s all be digital nomads––yay!

And yet, the marketing of online teaching is really attractive isn’t it? In our minds-eye the future’s so bright we’ll have to wear shades on that beach somewhere in the tropics. A life as a digital nomad beckons, and online teaching is so easy, it's great isn't it? Everyone wants to do it. There's a great buzz. Let's all be digital nomads sitting on a beach, with our laptops, grinning inanely at the screen, our sun-bleached hair flopping in our eyes while frantically trying to remember what the English Articles are so we can explain them to a bemused student squinting at the screen of her mobile phone as she walks down a busy, noisy, street in another country.

And yet there are so many websites offering advice to the prospective “digital nomad teacher”: Such as you don’t need a lot of equipment or a dedicated office to teach English online You just need a laptop and a stable Internet connection. Then you can pack your “classroom” up and go, teaching classes on the hoof, on beaches, hotel rooms, cafes and even in airport lounges!

Clearly, these teachers are offering their students a class act––pun intended.

Welcome to clown world*!

Isn't it bliss?

Don't you approve?

One who keeps tearing around,

One who can't move...

Where are the clowns?

Send in the clowns.

(Stephen Sondheim 1973)

(*A term primarily used online to express dismay or grimace at an "ironic", silly, or depressingly stupid event.)


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