Very Important People: Kids

A big bathtub full of pillows made Julie Zrust want to become a teacher.

Her parents both worked in education, but it was Zrust's first-grade teacher, Mrs. Hoffman, – and the bathtub in her classroom for reading time – that sealed the deal for Zrust's future career plans.

"She was just perfect. She was everything you would want in a teacher," Zrust said. "She was fun. She was exciting. She made me love learning and reading."

Now a David City preschool teacher and 18-year NSEA member, Zrust has been in the classroom long enough to see her first group of preschoolers graduate high school.

She loves teaching so much, she even does it during her time off.

Teaching English 'in' China

Zrust joined an online teaching platform, VIPKid, in December 2017. She has spent nearly four years – and countless early mornings – connecting with students in Beijing, China, and teaching them English.

"It kept popping up on Facebook. I started reading the comments that other people were saying about it and it sounded really interesting," Zrust said.

She wakes up early to teach her first lesson at 5 or 5:30 a.m. – that's 6 p.m. in Beijing. She can fit in a couple of 25-minute, one-on-one lessons before getting her own kids ready for school and heading to her classroom for a full day of preschool.

VIPKid students range in age from 4 to 12, though she tends to focus more on the young students who are just beginning to learn English.

"It's very basic things like learning how to introduce yourself. I do color words, shapes, the alphabet. There's always a lot of singing involved in my lessons," Zrust said, holding up a toy microphone she uses as a prop.

The lessons and slide shows are pre-made by VIPKid, so Zrust said once she set up her teaching space in her home, she doesn't have to do a lot of prep work.

First, a test run

VIPKid employs about 100,000 teachers and has more than 800,000 paying students.

The company requires a bachelor's degree, but it doesn't have to be in a teaching field. Zrust referred her husband, who holds a biology degree, to join the platform, too.

"They want you to have coaching experience or mentoring experience. My husband has done a lot with Boy Scouts, and he also coached our boys' baseball teams, so he teaches some of the older kids," Zrust said.

VIPKid uses a five-step acceptance process when hiring teachers, starting with an application and explanation of one's teaching experience. If the teacher makes it through round one, they prepare a short lesson with props and a background.

If the judges like what they see, the teacher gets a chance at a longer mock lesson, and then a meeting with one of VIPKid's mentor teachers. If all goes well, they sign a six-month contract.

Parents are able to book teachers for certain age levels and time slots. The parents can watch the lessons along with their child and give feedback on the teacher's performance. If they like what they see, they tend to book the same teacher again and give ratings for other parents to see.

Enhancing preschool

Zrust uses what she has learned by teaching online to enhance her lessons in her preschool classroom.

"I use a lot more props. I slow down more if there are concepts they're not understanding. I just think about more ways that I can bring things to life for them," she said.

When COVID-19 caused schools to move to an online format, Zrust had a head start because of VIPKid.

"I definitely had a good heads up on being very lively. I felt a lot more comfortable because I was used to having people watching me through an online teaching format," she said.

Bonus income

"My husband and I are always thinking about ways to save money and pay things off fast," Zrust said, "so I thought this was a good way to try to do that."

Zrust pointed to research from the National Center for Education Statistics that showed at least 18% of public school teachers hold a second job outside the school system. A quarter of those work in teaching or tutoring of some kind, in addition to their main teaching jobs.

"A lot of my friends who are teachers have second jobs," Zrust said. "I think it's sad that teachers have to have second jobs, but we just do what we have to do."

Nebraska ranks 30th in the nation for average teacher salaries, up from 43rd in 2010, thanks in part to bargaining on behalf of NSEA members, and 47th for average starting salary, with an 82-cent pay gap for educators compared to other professionals with the same education and years of experience, according to NEA.

"I think it's important for people to know just how much we do and what is all involved," Zrust said. "Through COVID and the shutdown, I think a lot of parents realized, being at home with their kids, there's a lot they didn't realize went into what a teacher does, and how they have so many different learners and they have to meet so many different needs."

A rewarding experience

Zrust has built a core group of repeat students through VIPKid, but she has taught more than 400 students through the platform.

She stays in touch with some of the families she has taught through a Chinese social media site called WeChat, outside of the VIPKid platform.

"It's really neat to be able to see their progress," she said. "There are 6- and 7-year-olds who can read fluently in English already."