A few weeks ago I wrote an introduction to teaching English online for the Travel is Life Creators because it can be a great way to supplement your income as a travel blogger from anywhere in the world.

The two biggest teach english online companies are 51Talk and VIPKID. They are similar in that they both cater to Chinese students and lean towards hiring qualified Americans as the teachers, but they are different in regards to their their student demographic, teaching styles, and work/payment structure.

I digitally sat down with a teacher who's spent the last year of her life teaching English online with both companies and living for free via pet sitting gigs at Trusted House Sitters. The purpose of this interview was to breakdown the differences between 51Talk and VIPKID to help other aspiring online English teachers decide which company to work for or whether they want to tackle working for both companies like this teacher. I've decided to keep her identity a secret as to not jeopardize her job with either company. In the interview below, you'll get a no-holds-back honest look at what it's like to work for both companies from one teacher's perspective.

PaulWhat's the hiring process like and what sort of qualifications and experience do 51Talk and VIPKID look for?
English Teacher51Talk look for teaching experience or a teaching certificate. You don't need to have been a teacher in a school system, but they want you to have some teaching experience whether through TEFL, volunteering abroad, or working with kids in an educational capacity.

If they're interested in working with you after your preliminary application, they'll contact you and ask you to watch videos and take quizzes about the videos. The next day is the interview. It's not really an interview and more like a demo. You're going to be talking to a person in China who is going to act like a 5 year old child. They shoot you over what you're going to teach the night before so you can prepare. Both companies do this – 51Talk and VIPKID – but the difference is how intense of a demo process there is.

With 51Talk, it's only a one step process. You go through that one demo and they'll be like, “Okay we'll get back to you,” and within 5 minutes you know if you're hired or not.

When you're doing this interview, my advice is to cut “slow” in half – meaning, talk slow for you and then speak at half that speed. Also enunciate more than you would normally. If the person doing the interview messes up, you correct them immediately.

From there you do a training class with six other people and it's like a 3 hour ordeal. They go through the entire company and how to teach, and then you're onboarded. After that you can open your class slots and you're good to start teaching.

The demo process for VIPKID is more intensive. They send you slides for you to prepare your lesson plan from, and then they want you to use a lot of “TPR” (Total Physical Responses) during the demo – like hand gestures, facial expressions, and over-the-top body language.

VIPKID wants a lot more during the demo than 51Talk – more of everything. They want pictures behind you, puppets, and props. They want you to make it look like you're in a classroom. VIPKID is over the top with everything.

After you do the first demo, you'll get a PASS or FAIL – and if you PASS you have to do a second demo which is the hiring one. Then after you get done with the second demo, you take a quiz, and you have to pass the quiz to be hired.

The quiz is about the different terms they use, levels they teach, and what those levels focus on – whether phonics or grammar. VIPKID is a lot more involved. I don't like teaching with them. I haven't taught with them in a month because it's just too much. It's not just their interview process… their teaching process is even more over the top.

PaulHow long after you applied did you start working?
English TeacherFor 51Talk it was about 2 weeks. With VIPKID it was about a month. And the reason is because I wasn't getting any bookings with VIPKID right off the bat. I was getting bookings with 51Talk the day I opened my schedule for classes.
PaulHow long did it take to gear up from being a new teacher with zero feedback to having a full teaching schedule?
English TeacherI don't know if I gave VIPKID a chance but they didn't explain things well during the onboarding process, and I found out later that I had to take more quizzes to bump me up to the next level in order to get more bookings. I don't want to put more unpaid time and energy into this than I have to. They're not paying me enough to sit down every two weeks and take more quizzes.

So at first with VIPKID, I was only getting trial sessions – which are students who may or may not want to do the program. And then I was getting some Level 1 students which I hate teaching. I hate teaching students who don't know anything. I don't have the patience to be like, “A is for Apple.” That's not me. With VIPKID, I opened up a full schedule for a few weeks and was only getting 2 or 3 bookings out of 14 with them so I said, “Fuck it. I can't do this.”

Whereas with 51Talk, my schedule was almost immediately full from day one. I've been working with them for a year now. At first in Europe, I was opening up my schedule to 14 classes a day and they were always full. Now I'm teaching about 6 classes a day which are always full.

PaulWhat's the most you can work in a day or week with 51Talk?
English TeacherIt depends. You can open up as much as you want. You have to teach (don't quote me on this) a minimum of 30 hours per month, and a class is 25 minutes. In Europe I was getting up at 7am and working from 8am until 2pm because there was only a six hour time difference. Here in Puerto Rico, I technically could get up at 3am and teach until 10am, but after 10am here there are no more classes because it's 10pm at night in China.

With VIPKID it's about the same minimum required hours per month, and they teach on the same schedule.

PaulDo you have a problem with cancellations?
English TeacherYeah that happens all the time. If there's a no-show you get paid half the rate of the class.
PaulWhat a double edged sword. On one hand it's nice to get paid something not to have to work, but on the other hand, you already allotted the time in your day for the class, so you might as well work it and get paid the full amount.
English TeacherYeah, it's annoying when people no-show.
PaulCould you cram the minimum number of hours per month into one week and take off the rest of the month?
English TeacherYes.
PaulWould that type of schedule affect kids who like you and want to work with you each week if you're not available to teach?
English TeacherI've kept pretty much my same schedule for a year. Now I take off usually Sundays and maybe a Monday, but yeah, I have students that will book me out 2 weeks in advance. If they know that I'm open and they want to take a class at 8pm at night, they'll go ahead and fill it. On 51Talk, if a student favorites a teacher, then it notifies them if the teacher has availability.

If you're not consistent with it, you're not going to make the money you'd like to make. I've had my students for a year now. I'll have new ones once in a while, but 90% of my classes are repeat students now.

PaulHow long did it take you to build up a student base before it was all repeats?
English TeacherNot long – like a month.
PaulYou said that 51Talk and VIPKID were very different, but they sound identical. Can you explain how they're different?

English TeacherThe hiring process is similar and so are the way that things are laid out, but the way they want you to teach is completely different, and so are WHO you teach.

With 51Talk, they give you different levels to teach – and the students can be of any age within the level. For example, I can have a 60 year old women sign up or I can have a 3 year old. Whereas, with VIPKID, I ONLY teach kids, and I was just teaching one level because I didn't want to do all those freaking quizzes. I could add more levels but it takes more time that I dont get paid for it.

With VIPKID I was teaching really little kids, and it's not a text book – they're slides and more comprehensive than 51Talk. With 51Talk, there's usually about 13 slides that you have to do in 25 minutes, whereas with VIPKID there's 30 slides to roll through.

With each company you have to do the wrap up slide which is the last one, but you have to do all the stuff previously so the kids will know what's on the wrap up slide. VIPKID is very speedy – about 1 minute with each slide, versus 2-3 minutes per slide in 51Talk.

With 51Talk, the child preselects their books and it's pretty self explanatory. There's a teachers edition of each book with questions that you're supposed to ask the student. The characters and stories are already built into the student curriculium, and the kids know the characters because they've already learned about them in their classrooms.

There are characters in VIPKID but not ones the kids would know. I feel like VIPKID goes by faster because there are more slides, but I don't think the kids learn as much because you're moving through all the slides so fast.

51Talk is simple and I just follow the directions and teach what's on the slides. I don't use props, I don't have puppets, I don't have to draw a smiley face and add special things like teeth for congratulations. There are just stars on the board that I can give. 51Talk doesn't care. I'm giving the students digital rewards like high fives and stuff.

But with VIPKID they want you to have your room setup like a classroom. And you need to be super animated, have all these props, and say things like, “Yay you're doing so good!” There are stars and smiley faces with teeth and all sorts of rewards to it.

PaulWhat are the teaching platforms like?
English Teacher51Talk had a lot of issues this past year which they know they needed to fix – and now they are doing better. Their teacher support was really shitty for a long time and so is their user interface. For example, when I go into 51Talk to teach a class, I have to open up the MyPage website which is my dashboard, open a separate app called AC which is where the classes are held, and then I have to open up Skype because that's where teacher support and tech support take place. So that's annoying. I really fucking hate having to do three steps.

When I teach on 51Talk, one-third of the screen is a chat box with video. The kids can see me and I can see them. With 51Talk you login and wait for the kid to come online. You have to enter the classroom a couple minutes early because you can't enter after the start time. If you do, you get dinged for entering class late and that's a penalty. You also cannot leave class early or that's a penalty.

Everything is all in one with VIPKID. All you do is sign into your dashboard and click on the kid and it's just the classroom from there. With 51Talk, if I enter the classroom early, the kids can hear me and see me, and it's obnoxious because I don't want to start class 2 minutes early. But I have to arrive early or I'll be late. However, with VIPKID I get in, I click into the classroom from the dashboard, and the camera and everything is off. Kids can't see or hear me until class starts, and then I enter the classroom which is a better setup.

PaulSo VIPKID sucks dick to work for you but like their platform better?
English TeacherRight, yeah.
PaulWhat happens if a kid gets to slide 8, for example, and has a lot of questions?
English TeacherIf that happens you answer their questions. There are slides that don't count, so you can skip them. Slide 5 is like slide 3 but in a different manner, so you can just skip it. Sometimes I do have kids that just want to talk. They'll do the lesson real quick and if they want to talk, I'll ask them general questions like, “How was your day?” I'll never get personal with them, but they want to practice, so I'll keep it light with easy questions and correct them when needed.

Both companies record the classes, so I make it a point to say, “Okay Sally, do you want to do the lesson again or just talk?”

I'll have college students, really advanced students, or a 65 year old grandma who just want to speak and practice in English. But that's only with 51Talk, not VIPKID.

PaulIs there ever a 25 minute lesson where all you do is talk?
English TeacherWith 51Talk it's called FREE TALK.
PaulDo you like those better or not as much?
English TeacherThey're fine. It's okay. Sometimes it's hard to find things to talk about, common ground, but it's not bad. It's 25 minutes and anyone can talk for 25 minutes.
PaulLet's talk cabbage. Cheddar. Greenbacks. Dead presidents. Benjamins. Bills. You know what I'm saying… How much do you get paid?
English TeacherFor both companies whenever you do your interview, they'll tell you what level you're at and offer you $XX amount of money.

When I was a newbie with 51Talk they offered me the lowest amount and I had to do more demos to gain money. Straight out of the box I was making the lowest with 51Talk, and with VIPKID I was making $20/hour from the start. I was pretty much making as much as I could with VIPKID.

PaulThat doesn't sound too bad. But if you're making good money, you're working the entire day start to finish? That sounds exhausting.
English TeacherWhen I was teaching in Germany, I taught like 7 hours a day. My dad was like, “You look exhausted. Did you just wake up?” And I was like, “No I've been teaching all day long, literally.”
PaulHow do you make more money with both of these companies?
English TeacherWith 51Talk you go through training sessions that you don't get paid for and you have to do more demos to move up to different levels to make more money. I think there's like 5 or 6 levels. I'm on level 2 because I don't give a fuck. It's not worth it to me. The extra $2 an hour I just don't want to deal with it.
PaulSo you teach level 1 day in and day out to everyone?
English TeacherIt's not curriculum levels. With 51Talk you have to interview to go up to their next teaching level. It's like a pyramid starting with entry level teacher, beginning teacher, experienced teacher, etc. It's bullshit. You have to pretty much reinterview at each level. There's no change in your students though. It's just to make more money.

I don't know how you make more money with VIPKID because I entered into that making as much money as I could.

PaulWhat could make your life easier as a teacher working for either company?
English TeacherIt's the same story with 51Talk as it has been for years. They don't give a shit. They see us as a means to the company making money. If you have a concern, it's not taken seriously. We're supposed to have “trainers” but I haven't spoken to my person in months. If you have an issue, they're like, “Who the fuck cares?”

If the internet goes down, you get charged. Say something happens with the Internet here and I'm about to teach class but can't connect – I'm marked as absent, and I get charged $16 for missing that class.

English TeacherRight. Say the Internet goes down here, and I have a full day of classes to teach. What's $16 x 7? I get charged $112 essentially.
PaulHas that happened to you?
English TeacherIt happened to me my first day in England – the Internet at my house sitting gig went out. I did everything I could to try and find a different Internet connection but I didn't know the area well yet.

51Talk wrote me up and charged me. They said I had to get a letter from the electric company in order to dispute it, and I said that's fucking bullshit. I was about to quit at that point, and another trainer who wasn't assigned to me – he just happened to be in the chatroom when I needed help – was like, “I understand your frustration but please don't quit.” He ended up getting the penalty removed for me. My trainer didn't give a shit. I had walked 30 minutes to the nearest coffee shop to communicate with them about the problem and my trainer was like, “Can't you just teach from there?” And I'm like, “I'm in a tiny ass coffee shop and I'm whispering to you. Do you want your customers to see their teacher in a coffee shop teaching? Does it look good for the company?”

PaulSo on your first day you got charged but hadn't made any money yet?
English TeacherThis was my first day in England – not my first day teaching. I had been teaching for several months already up to the point. And this experience was with 51Talk.

If something happens within the computer system, like a glitch, you don't get charged with VIPKID. Their system can tell who's issue it is and you don't get charged for missing a class either way. But with 51Talk, their AC platform gets fucked up. Sometimes it doesn't work and you get on support and they don't help and if you miss a class you get charged. You have to take screenshot after screenshot to prove that it's their issue and it's very hard to prove.

PaulIf both platforms essentially teach students during the afternoon, how do you manage booking classes with both?
English TeacherI learned since I was only teaching litte kids that I would book VIPKID classes first. The first half of the day I would do VIPKID and the last half I would do older kids or adults with 51Talk.
PaulBut now you mostly work for 51Talk?
English TeacherWith VIPKID, I got paid more but had to do too much. I also wasn't getting enough bookings. Whereas I don't make as much with 51Talk, but get fully booked and don't have to deal with using props and entertaining kids.
PaulHave you ever gotten a raise with 51Talk?
English TeacherYeah, I went from the minimum to the second one up. So it's like $15/hour.
PaulWhat's the good stuff about this job?
English TeacherThe thing is that it's mobile. I can do it from anwhere as long as there's Wifi. It's easy once you get your set kids. You get a relationshpip with these children.

Angela I've had for an entire year now. She wasn't able to read one damn sentence and now she reads paragraphs. That's really rewarding. Plus I'm getting paid so I can still do other stuff. I wake up early and am done with work by 10am.

PaulDo you find that you're super exhausted the rest of the day to do other things?
English TeacherNot anymore. At first when I was teaching 14 classes a day, I was done for the day afterwards. I didn't make one video. I didn't do anything when it came to the blog. I was so tired! I was exhausted after work. And now I work less so that I have more time to write, come up with ideas, go out and explore, volunteer with the turtles, snorkel and so on.
PaulWhat advice do you have for someone who's just getting started with teaching English online?
English TeacherBe as patient as possible. Working with foreign companies that aren't the same culture as yours is another culture shock in itself. They're not going to do things they way you think they should be done. There's no time sensitiveness. It's always, “Okay okay we'll get this information to you.” They may or may not answer your question. They may not get back to you. And you have to be able to deal with that.

You're not going to become a millionaire off it. If you live on a budget and work it right, you can make enough money to survive, but you're not going to be able to live luxuriously. If you're a minimalist it's perfect. The only way I was able to teach in Europe was because I was doing Trusted House Sitters where I had a free place to stay. So literally all the money went to a phone bill, plane tickets, food and entertainment.

PaulSo 51Talk or VIPKID? Which one?
English TeacherI can't answer that for other people. It's what you want. I stuck with 51Talk. I have the same students, it's consistent work, and I don't have to jump through hoops to go to another level to get paid. But if you don't like talking to adults, or high school students, or college students, don't do it. If you like little kids who can barely even speak in Chinese, then do VIPKID. I can't make that decision for anyone.
PaulDo you feel like you're walking on thin ice with 51Talk or does your job feel pretty secure?
English TeacherWith 51Talk they've actually contacted with me to be in their beta test for group classes. So yeah, that's more money. I need to talk to them because I'm really confused. They told me I have to disable or uninstall their AC app and reinstall a different program. I'm like, “But I have to have AC to work, so I can't uninstall it to install the other one. I need to Skype the guy tomorrow.
PaulWhat's the most annoying part about the job?
English TeacherChildren that don't pay attention. Like, I had a child today and she was just doing other things, not paying attention in class, and like taking 30 seconds to answer a question even though she speaks perfect English. I could hear clicking on the computer so it was obvious she was doing other things. And it really bugged me. It's a waste of my fucking time.
PaulDo you have any idea how much the students are paying versus what you're getting paid?
English TeacherIt's like something stupid. I dont know the exact number but it's like $20-$30 per class.
PaulHow many regular students does it take to reach a full time schedule?
English TeacherRight now I'm teaching 6 classes a day 5 days a week. A lot of them are the same. Probably I have about 20 regular students.
PaulYou're responsible for your own taxes, right?
English TeacherUH HUH! That's a whole other thing that I have to deal with this year. There's no W2.
PaulThis has been really helpful. You get paid for referring other teachers, right? Do you want me to post your referral links?
English TeacherI don't get paid until people get through their first month teaching. I think it's about $100 referral. I've referred like 20 people but have never gotten paid a referral fee because either they haven't gotten hired or didn't make it through their first month of teaching.

VIPKID only hires Americans and Canadians. 51Talk only hires Americans and Filipinos. And the Filipinos only get like half of what a normal salary would make. They only get paid $3.25 / class.

We decided not to use this teacher's referral link because it would identify her with the interview, and as you can tell, she was kind enough to be completely honest about her feelings working for both companies and I wouldn't want to jeopardize her standing at either. So instead, if you found this article helpful in determining whether you want to work with 51Talk or VIPKId, please use my affiliate links below. With VIPKid, I can earn a little revenue for this website even though I'm not a teacher, but with 51Talk, you have to be a teacher in order to refer other teachers, so I'm cycling through a few referral links from members of the Travel is Life Creators who will be thankful for the commission.

51 Talk ==> Apply Now

VIPKID ==> Apply Now

What's it like for YOU working for 51Talk or VIPKID?

If you're currently working for 51Talk or VIPKID, do you agree with this teacher's perspective on either? Or do you feel that she didn't invest enough time and energy into VIPKID to form a proper opinion? How has your experience differed from hers? Drop a comment below and let me know what your thoughts are on working for 51Talk or VIPKid.

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