New obstacles, old aspirations: post-pandemic teachings

As public schools learn new ways to cope, private institutions are faced by existential crises. Jiemian News talked to online teachers and found as many pleased with their new wealth and fame, as worried about their futures.



Covid-19 is changing the way many people work. Prominent among those finding new ways of going about their business are students and teachers. Pearson Education found that more than three-quarters of people believe education will fundamentally change as a result of the pandemic

Many teachers accustomed to simply speaking with their students were bewildered by the technology and inability to see the students’ immediate reactions. Experienced online tutors, however, had the times of their lives.

Touch nothing!

Most students are now back in classrooms and teachers are getting their charges back on track.

For Luna, a teacher in a public school, spring festival used to mean a month off. She and her son were on holiday when her hometown Wuhan locked down in January and were unable to go back home until late March, by which time all her (and her son’s) classes had moved online.

“I only owned a smartphone, which obviously would not be enough to run classes, so bought a tablet,” she said. “My friends thought I was overreacting, but I knew the online class thing wouldn’t go away any time soon.”

While Luna taught at one screen, her son learned in front of another.

“A six-year-old boy cannot concentrate for long, but he was expected to sit in front of a screen for 45 minutes at a stretch,” she said. “How do you think he is going to behave?”

At universities and colleges, things were not much better.

“Press 1 if you understand or 2 if you don’t,” said LUO Xiaoqing to her students. Only about half of them responded at all. Luo teaches textiles, and practical work is vital. She learned how to make short videos a couple of years ago and now she has to learn about live streaming.

While she droned into her laptop, she couldn’t help wondering what students would learn without touching any fabric. Tedious theories are just unnecessary distractions in a subject as practical as textiles. “The best I can do is play videos to show them how the fabrics were made,” she said.

Luna also used video to break down math questions in pieces so the perplexed kids on the other end of the screen could understand what she was talking about. Her fifth-graders had started solid geometry, so Luna cut carrots into cubes to show how length, width and height and are connected with volume. Students who don’t immediately understand can watch the video over and over.

Public school teachers like Luna and Luo do not have much to worry about with their “iron rice bowls” - stable paychecks and welfare. But for those outside the system, there are much bigger problems to solve than a stuck video.

Smart footwork

Abandoning the stability of a public school is risky. Those who do leave are usually either looking for a higher salary or just don’t fit in. They rarely throw away their “iron bowl’ on a whim, but that is exactly what XUAN Yi did.

Xuan worked in a Beijing public school for years before he started his own business last year with two other teachers. They rented a small classroom and taught Chinese, English and math. Business was good and Xuan made 400,000 yuan (US$60,000) last year.

When the pandemic brought classes to a standstill, everything went online.

“Online classes cost half of the offline courses,” he said. Though he eventually found the income was just as high, but his story is the exception rather than the rule. YANG Qianqian, a private kindergarten teacher, took a major pay cut.

The kindergarten where Yang worked for was an expensive one, and she usually earned more than 10,000 yuan a month. In February, her salary was cut to the Beijing minimum, 2,200 yuan.

With 3,000 yuan of rent to pay each month, something had to give. “Some of my colleagues couldn’t make it and decided to leave Beijing,” she said.

Her way out turned out to be online education as well. For both public school teachers and private educators, working online is now inevitable.

While the orthodox like Luo and Luna questioned the wisdom of online education, agencies quickly came up with whole ranges of products. As a publicity stunt, an online school owned by ByteDance offered teachers one million yuan a year, something an ordinary teacher could never imagine.

In 2016, SHI Jianfeng threw away his iron bowl and joined Xueersi, an online education agency owned by TAL Education Group.

Behind a good online course is a dozen of hours of hard work by teachers. All teachers in Shiu’s group prepared classes on the same topic, then they chose the best lecture.

“How to lay out the key points and when to bring in the exercises are all planned,” he said. “A successful online lecture must be an interesting one.”

Shi well remembers the embarrassment of his first class. He was late for two hours due to technical problems, which actually brought him closer to the students. “We could be miles apart physically, but I can feel the students’ enthusiasm,” he said.

When Xueersi offered free lectures to the public, Shi was the coordinator. “Every day, tens of thousands of new students are turned up for classes,” he said.

Shi is comfortable and proud to be an online teacher, and he believes the future of education lies behind the screen, not a desk.

“Online education is not just more convenient. It encourages teachers to be creative. When your methods are being examined by thousands of students all over the country, you have to step out of your comfort zone.”