When an Online Teaching Job Becomes a Window into Child Abuse

Exclusive | Tutoring

When an Online Teaching Job Becomes a Window into Child Abuse

By Emily Tate Sullivan     Jul 17, 2019

When an Online Teaching Job Becomes a Window into Child Abuse

THE DAY STARTED OUT LIKE MOST. Around 6 o’clock on a fall morning in 2018, Jordan sat down at her desk, donned her headset, and logged in to her account with VIPKid, a Beijing-based company that connects native English-speaking teachers like her with children in China for live, online video lessons.

Then the marathon began. In 25-minute spurts, Jordan greeted a series of kids between the ages of 4 and 12 with an enthusiastic “hello” and taught them an English lesson. By the afternoon, she had completed about half a dozen one-on-one classes and was nearly finished for the day. One of her last sessions was with a student she’d worked with just once before.

Almost immediately, something felt off. The student, a 4-year-old boy, joined from a dimly lit room. Although he was barely visible, Jordan could make out a red mark over one of his eyebrows. His mother was close by, whispering the correct answers to Jordan’s questions and shouting at him each time he made a mistake. “She just kept getting more and more animated,” Jordan recalls.

Eventually, Jordan became so nervous about the mother’s behavior that she contacted VIPKid’s 24-hour support team, known as the Firemen. A Fireman quickly joined the class and, in a chat box, told Jordan he was looking into the issue. He checked in with her once more a few seconds later, but ultimately provided no further instructions about how to proceed.

Jordan resumed the lesson, fearing that if she didn’t stick around for the full 25 minutes, VIPKid might dock her pay. Soon enough, the mother started up again. This time Jordan noticed that the boy kept recoiling, as if bracing for a hand to come down on him. And then it did. As Jordan led him through the alphabet song, the mother cut in and struck her son in view of the camera. Frustrated, Jordan paused to address the mother. “Mom, I’ve got it,” she said. “I can teach him, Mom.”

The session ended a few moments later, and Jordan quickly logged out. Then, concerned for the boy’s safety, she logged back in. His camera was still recording, and Jordan saw that the mother was using a blue plastic clothes hanger to hit him repeatedly. “It was a nightmare,” she says of the beating, which continued in plain view of the camera for several minutes. “The blood-curdling sobbing, the screaming. I have him in my ears. It was bad. … Honestly, it was traumatic.”

At the time, Jordan was a relative newcomer to online tutoring. After years working as a classroom teacher in the US, she’d recently moved to central Europe. VIPKid, she says, allowed her to continue doing what she loved—what she felt she was best at—without stopping her from immersing herself in a new culture.

But the experience with the boy left her shaken and confused. As far as she knew, VIPKid had no systems in place to address what she had witnessed. Throughout the onboarding process, and in all the company materials she’d read since, she had never come across any specific guidance. “There’s no handbook,” she explains. “Nothing like that.”

After she logged out of the session a second time, Jordan reported the incident to VIPKid. Then she drafted a post in a private Facebook group for VIPKid teachers. “Anyone ever have an issue with witnessing child abuse?” she asked. She explained what had unfolded during her class. “I already wrote a ticket complete with screen shots of the abuse, but is there anything else I can do here? I am so broken up over this.”

Jordan soon discovered that hers was not an isolated case. Some of her colleagues, both at VIPKid and on other online tutoring platforms, were struggling with the same question. In the Facebook group she posted in, and others like it, new reports of parental abuse surface nearly every week.

Of the two dozen online educators I spoke to for this story, about a third said they had never seen a single instance of abuse, even after teaching as many as 1,500 classes. The rest, however, had stories just as harrowing as Jordan’s. (Some asked that I withhold their last names to protect their job security.)

There was the VIPKid teacher who saw a mother choke her young daughter and repeatedly throw her on the floor. “I am heartbroken for this little girl,” the teacher wrote. “I wish I could go through the screen and physically stop the mother!”

There was Hannah, a teacher for a tutoring platform called Qkids, who described a session in which, every time the girl got a question wrong, “the mother would whack her on the back of the head. Once it made her fall from her seat.” Hannah, who claims to have witnessed abuse as many as 10 times in more than 1,000 lessons, also described another episode in which the parent covered the camera lens before meting out punishment. “I could only hear what was going on, but it sounded horrific,” she says.

There was Maria, who wrote that she watched her student “get slapped and tossed around like a rag doll for not pronouncing words properly. That image will be forever etched in my brain.”

There was Kayla Nelson, a teacher based in Idaho, who noticed a big bruise on a student’s cheek in class one day and asked him what happened. “My mom punched me,” she recalls him telling her.

And then there was Ben Acker, who, after teaching 2,000 lessons without incident, watched a 6-year-old student being abused “hardest as it gets” because the child had missed a word in the lesson. Acker says he started crying and had to end the session abruptly.

Go behind the story: Listen to an interview with reporter Emily Tate about her six-month investigation into teachers witnessing child abuse on online tutoring platforms.

The teachers post in these private Facebook groups because they aren’t sure how to process, much less report, what they saw. They ask one another the same few questions in many different ways: Has this ever happened to you? Is what I’m feeling normal? How should I respond? Will the company do something about it?

Some worry, too, about foisting their values on another culture. But China itself has moved to restrict parents from hitting their kids. In 2015, the country passed a law that, in addition to banning domestic violence, requires staff members at kindergartens, schools, hospitals, and other community institutions to report violence against children. Jing Xu, a Chinese-born anthropologist at the University of Washington, says most parents in her native country “would frown upon” the disciplinary tactics that English teachers have described seeing onscreen.

Nevertheless, many US teachers still feel they are better off staying out of it. As Mindy, a VIPKid instructor from Michigan, puts it, “We can go to many places in the world, and children are not treated the same way. They don’t have a time-out chair they sit in. There are much harsher things people do to discipline their children.”

JORDAN IS ONE OF ABOUT 70,000 TEACHERS—mostly Americans, but some Canadians—who work as independent contractors for VIPKid, which launched in 2014 and now serves more than 600,000 children in China. Of the dozens of companies vying to cash in on the tutoring business, it is by far the largest, having raised $825 million in investment capital since its founding. Other major players include Qkids, Magic Ears, DaDa, and Gogokid, all based in China. According to the Chinese market research firm Yiou Intelligence, online tutoring will be an $11.4 billion industry by 2022.

These companies have caught on quickly, in part, because they offer an ideal arrangement for both their customers and their contractors. Most Chinese students learn English in school from a young age, but the tutoring platforms give them access to native speakers, who help them refine their grammar, pronunciation, and listening comprehension skills. The teachers, meanwhile, get that treasured trifecta of decent pay ($14 to $26 per hour), flexible scheduling, and a premade curriculum.

Nearly all of the online tutors I spoke to are current or former classroom teachers. They usually log into the tutoring platforms early in the morning, when families in China are just getting home for the evening. Some squeeze in a few lessons before leaving for work; others spend the rest of the day caring for their own children. Tutoring, they say, is an easy way to bring in extra cash. Jordan has earned as much as $3,000 a month through VIPKid, and in spite of the incident last fall she has no plans to quit. “Sometimes I have to remind myself I get to live this lifestyle because of it,” she says.

But like all thriving young industries, online tutoring has begun to feel serious growing pains. “This has gone boom, straight into live video feed, with all the extraordinary benefits that brings but also with the potential problems,” says Stephen Balkam, founder and CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute, an international nonprofit whose members include VIPKid, Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Verizon. All global tech platforms must learn to adapt to a wide array of legal and cultural norms. But VIPKid and its ilk have a special challenge, Balkam says, because they have to do it “in real time and with the intimacy of people’s actual homes and their children.”

Jordan’s experience appears to be fairly typical. Soon after she reported the incident to VIPKid, she was informed that the video recording of the session would be deleted. (The platform keeps an archive of all live lessons.) Beyond that, the company said, there wasn’t much it could do; it had no right to advise parents on how to discipline their children.

But nine months later, as recently as this July, the offending video is still viewable on Jordan’s account. She can still see the child’s profile, too; he is continuing to take lessons on VIPKid, though not with her. It now seems clear that what Jordan witnessed was not an isolated event, at least not for this boy. In February, a different tutor commented in a private, teachers-only space, “mom did not hit today.” And on June 20, another instructor wrote, “I do not like the verbal abuse and the threats of beatings with a broom.”

Adam Steinberg, a spokesman at VIPKid’s US office in San Francisco, said in a written statement that “the safety and security of teachers, students, and parents is a top priority for VIPKid and we take these matters very seriously.” Although he couldn't say precisely how many reports of abuse the company receives each day, he wrote that “we have a process to address these very rare instances directly with the parties involved to ensure their welfare.”

That process, Steinberg said, includes ending classes before the full 25 minutes, deleting the video, and following up with both teachers and parents about the issue. Late last year, about a month after the incident Jordan witnessed, the company also introduced a “critical safety concern” button, which makes it easier for teachers to alert the Firemen if they think a child is in danger. VIPKid declined repeated requests for further interviews on this topic, and would not elaborate on its procedure for referring reports of abuse to local agencies.

According to VIPKid, these policies have been conveyed to teachers through the weekly newsletter the company sends out. They’re also described on a support page accessible to instructors through the platform’s online portal. But several of the teachers I spoke with—even those who read the newsletters religiously—said they’d never noticed any such policies. One of them finally succeeded in digging up the newsletter from December 11, 2018, in which the “critical safety concern” button was described. It is the seventh item in the email, appearing after notices about new VIPKid-branded merchandise, new augmented reality stickers, and a competition to see who can create the most “fun and interesting holiday-season classroom backgrounds.” The announcement, moreover, does not explain what the Firemen actually do when summoned.

Still, the industry seems to be coming to terms with the challenges it faces. Last month, Qkids sent around an email to its teachers reminding them that reporting of abuse is “strictly required.” It added, though, that instructors who flag inappropriate behavior will not receive any follow-up information from the company, for student confidentiality reasons. “We assure you that our teams will address any concerns in a prudent manner,” the email says.

Magic Ears, which allows up to four students in each class, now advises teachers who witness abuse to mute the audio and shut off the camera to block other students from seeing any disturbing behavior. According to a statement provided by the company, teachers can also report the issue through a help button and Magic Ears will follow up with parents “if needed.” (DaDa and Gogokid did not respond to requests for comment.) As Balkam puts it, “We’re making this up as we go along.”

MANY ONLINE ENGLISH TUTORS, especially those with formal classroom training, are familiar with the concept of mandatory reporting. In the United States, as in many countries, teachers who see or suspect that a child is being abused or neglected are required by law to report it to the designated authorities in their state. Yet the line at which physical discipline crosses over from corporal punishment to abuse is subjective and differs across cultures.

The psychologist Robert Geffner, founding president of the nonprofit Institute on Violence, Abuse, and Trauma, says that China has been “late” in acknowledging the harmful effects of excessive corporal punishment, which include heightened anxiety, loss of attention and concentration, increased propensity toward crime and violence, and lower academic performance. But attitudes in the country are changing.

Even before the 2015 domestic abuse law passed, parents had started to embrace a more Western approach to disciplining and child-rearing, says Jing Xu, the University of Washington anthropologist. In the 1980s, when Xu was growing up, she says it was quite common for teachers to rap younger children’s knuckles with a ruler or for parents to give them a light spanking. They saw it as “a means toward a good end—to care, to edify, to teach,” she says.

Although the laws have changed, Xu gets the impression that they have not received enough publicity. Many people may not even be aware that domestic abuse against children has been banned, she says. A 2015 analysis by UNICEF China found that more than a quarter of children aged 17 and younger have experienced physical abuse. Other studies have put the figure much higher, particularly for smaller children.

Some of the teachers I interviewed for this story feel that their duty to report abuse is universal, regardless of where their students are located. “I see that a lot on the Facebook groups: ‘It’s just a cultural thing,’” says Kayla Nelson, the teacher from Idaho whose student had a bruised cheek. “Who cares if it is? It’s not OK.” Elizabeth Gershoff, a psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin who studies the effects of parental discipline on child development, says numerous studies reinforce Nelson’s point. “There’s no evidence that just because it’s common in a culture it’s good for kids,” she notes.

Nor is it good for teachers, even if they are on the other side of a computer screen, thousands of miles away. In fact, some of them may experience vicarious trauma as a result of witnessing child abuse. “It’s like first responders to a disaster,” Geffner explains. “It produces almost the same type of trauma as if you were in the situation yourself.” The less tutors know about how to remedy the situation, he adds, the more helpless and hopeless they feel.

Beyond mandatory reporting, experts say there are policies VIPKid and other companies can put in place to protect children and teachers. For instance, Gershoff says, they might follow the example of many hospitals, schools, churches, and other community centers around the US, which have adopted “No Hit Zones.” Even though the laws on corporal punishment vary widely from state to state and are rife with gray areas, these places insist on a special level of protection. Online tutoring companies, Gershoff suggests, could create a policy that essentially says: “If we see it, hear it, or hear you threaten it, we’re ending the lesson and you don’t get your money back.”

Geffner believes the companies should also coach their instructors in how to identify abuse and neglect, “in the same way classroom teachers get training warning that it might happen, spotting it if it does, and reporting it.” The companies could even come up with a program for educating the parents on different parenting approaches, including corporal punishment—what it is, what research says about it, and whether it is effective. (It isn’t.)

For Jordan, who recently moved back to the US for a classroom teaching job and has cut back on her hours with VIPKid, any of those proactive tactics might have been useful. “Feeling like I had more control over the situation would’ve been better,” she says, than “having to sit there and just watch this horrible act and feel like I couldn’t do anything.”

Updated 7-17-19, 2 p.m. EDT: An earlier version of this story stated that Mindy did not report suspected child abuse to VIPKid because she felt it was not her place to do so. In spite of her discomfort, however, she did in fact file a report.

This article also appeared in WIRED.

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