If you teach English to Chinese students (children mainly), you might wonder how Chinese parents choose online English teachers for their children. This blog answers a few questions: What is a typical Chinese parent like? What is a typical process a Chinese parent goes through to choose an online ESL teacher? What are the most important things Chinese parents look for in an online ESL teacher?
Do parents prefer British English or American English? Do they favour native or non-native speakers? How do Chinese parents feel about certain qualifications? What characteristics do Chinese parents ideally want in an online ESL teacher?
Maybe you are teaching English for an online English teaching company such as VIPKid, DadaABC, or Whales English. Maybe you are an independent ESL teacher who recruits Chinese students directly. In both cases, you will gain insights into what Chinese parents are looking for in an online ESL teacher and get ideas to improve your bookings.
My insights are:
• Most Chinese parents lack the knowledge and time to make a fully informed decision. It is important to flip the side and think like a parent in order to influence their decision-making process.
• Getting a qualification is necessary but not sufficient. Chinese parents prefer a teacher who is able to ‘read’ students and engage with them effectively online.
• A teacher’s good relationships with students and their parents have a huge impact on the progress that students achieve and, hence, the success of an online English teacher.
• Chinese parents have different expectations for children’s English learning. Their needs change as the child develops. This gives opportunities to teachers of varied backgrounds and expertise.
• Like everything in China, the early English education market is changing daily. The more this market is maturing and growing in sophistication, the more opportunity there is for everyone so it is critical to stay up to date.
1. What’s a typical Chinese parent like?
According to iresearch.cn’s white paper on “China Early English Education White Paper”, only 6% of the Chinese parents who purchased online English tutoring classes for their children have a fluent level of English language. More than 90% of them speak zero or limited English. But they value education highly and spend 75% of the education money for their children on one subject – English. Because parents see English as an essential skill for their children’s future and they want their children to acquire this language skill as early as possible.
Over 80% of the Chinese parents who make decisions about their children’s English education are female: Chinese moms. Most Chinese moms keep their full-time jobs while bringing up the family. Although part of the household duty is shared by grandparents, they face the challenge of juggling a full-time job and shouldering the majority of the parenting duty.
Lacking time and knowledge, many Chinese parents rely on external influences such as advertisements, celebrity brand ambassadors (paid by the tutoring company), and recommendations from family and friends or social media they follow.
In summary, Chinese parents are very willing to invest in children’s English education but most of them don’t know how to evaluate and choose the right teacher for them. The Chinese parents, short of knowledge and time, overwhelmed by external information, make decisions that are not fully informed.
2. What is a typical process a Chinese parent goes through to choose an online ESL teacher?
There are a few stages during a Chinese parent’s decision-making process: preparation, decision, selection and recommendation.
• This is the first stage when a Chinese parent is aware that he/she should invest in the child’s early English education and begins to prepare. It might be initiated by his/her own idea or by influence from others. Starting from here, the parent will look for resources to teach English to their children.
• More than 90% of the parents do free trial classes before choosing one platform and (in some cases) one teacher. Read the next part ‘What are the most important things Chinese parents look for in an online English teacher?’ to discover their selection criteria. Some parents record or take photos of these trial classes. That may be because they don’t have confidence in choosing an online English teacher and look for opinions from others.
• China has a strong word-of-mouth culture for referrals and recommendations. That is actually a great way for a teacher to recruit future students.
Book my workshop ‘Understand Chinese parents’ to listen to some interview recordings with Chinese parents about what they expect, how they make decisions and how you can influence their decision during each step of the process.
3. What are the most important things Chinese parents look for in an online ESL teacher?
1) What are Chinese parents looking for in ESL teachers?
About 70% of the surveyed sample valued teaching style and teaching experience. 26.3% of the people checked the ‘integrity’ box and 10.4% checked the ‘education’ box. Nationality (9%), gender (4.7%) and age (4.6%) are also factors.
If parents value teaching style so much, which kind of teaching style do they find most appealing?
In terms of the specifics of teaching style, the ability to engage and appeal to Chinese students online is appreciated the most. Around 65% of the parents voted for ‘expressive body language, vivid and engaging, appealing’.
The teacher’s ability to interact and understand Chinese students effectively online came second. 37% of the parents rated ‘interaction with children’ as important while 33.7% ticked the box ‘understanding children’.
Personal characteristics such as ‘gentle and amiable’ (19.7%), ‘logical’ (13.6%) and ‘sense of humor’(13%), and ‘responsible; (10.9%) are on the list too.
What’s interesting is that while the curriculum is important for many teachers, it was not mentioned by Chinese parents here. This is probably due to the fact that parents assume the curriculum is offered by online English platforms. Therefore, the quality of the curriculum is not part of the equation.
During my interview with Chinese parents, only one Chinese mom (who is also a teacher of English herself) brought up the importance of a well-designed curriculum. According to her, what matters most at the beginning is whether a teacher can keep a student interested, focused, and engaged. A well-structured, step by step curriculum matters more later on.
2) Which kind of ESL teachers do Chinese parents prefer?
The survey conducted by ‘China Early English Education White Paper‘ asked Chinese parents what is an ‘ideal online English language teacher’ in their eyes. This ‘ideal teacher’ pictured by Chinese parents is a female teacher between 25-30 years old with a master’s degree and a US nationality. Her teaching style is ‘expressive body language, vivid and engaging, appealing, highly interactive, and who understands (Chinese) students.’
Having said that, there are plenty of examples quoted by Chinese parents whose demographic data does not fit this profile. What matters eventually is a teacher’s ability, passion, and commitment.
3) Native speakers or non-native speakers?
It is true that when a Chinese parent chooses an online English teacher for beginner English, they prefer a native speaker. The rationale is that at this stage of English learning, many parents want their children to acquire a native accent. However, that is not to say there is no market for non-native speaker English teachers. As the children’s language skills and overall education situation develop, their language learning focus is shifting too.
Parents might look for ways to improve their children’s school performance or subject knowledge in English. They might start to plan a pathway for their children to study overseas.
As parents’ expectations and goals for their children’s English education change during the children’s development, their needs for English products and teachers change accordingly. There are plenty of opportunities for teachers who have developed expertise and experience in varied niche areas.
4) British English or American English?
Currently, the desire for American English is more prevalent. There are several contributing factors: in the later 1970s, the USA was one of the first countries that opened up to China after its isolation from the West; many English language teaching materials in the Chinese education market are imported from the USA; so are blockbuster media (‘Friends’, ‘Big Bang Theory’, etc). Last but not the least, US higher education attracts a huge number of Chinese students for overseas studies and exchanges.
In summary, it is not that the Chinese market discriminates against other forms of English. It is more due to the fact that for a long time, American English was perceived as the ‘only’ English for people growing up during the 1970s and 1980s who are now parents making decisions for their children’s English education.
But things are also changing very fast. More English-speaking countries have become popular destinations for Chinese students’ overseas education. Chinese middle-class families travel more and watch more media content streaming from other English-speaking countries. Social media channels such as Tiktok offer people numerous contents at their own pace and preferences. Parents have begun to discover that English is more than American English. They also learn to tell the difference between British English, Australian English, etc.
The more this market matures and grows in sophistication, the more opportunity there is for everyone.
5) How do Chinese parents feel about specific qualifications?
For well-educated moms and parents, qualification is important. But again, among the many Chinese parents whom I talked to, most of them don’t know what qualification entails. Only one mom knew about TESOL (but not CELTA) as she used to work with an English language education company.
So, let’s look at things from a Chinese parent’s perspective and think like them just to understand how they see things and make decisions. Chinese parents probably expect that online English learning platforms have already chosen teachers with qualifications. Therefore, they don’t need to know the nitty-gritty of it.
In the eyes of parents, it matters more ‘what my child gets out of a class or a teacher’ than ‘what the teacher is/has’. A Chinese parent is naturally ‘child-centric’.
6) What characteristics do Chinese parents ‘ideally’ want in an online ESL teacher?
Again, this is a very interesting question and shows the different perspectives parents inside China and online English teachers outside China take.
While teachers ask questions about parents’ preferences of teacher’s accent, nationality, style, personality, characteristic, parents often come up with answers that are child-centric.
They like teachers who are responsible and with good work ethics. They want a long-term relationship between their child and the teacher. They feel uncomfortable when the child has to change teachers too frequently. They take huge pride when their child suddenly utters a few English words in an authentic context.
Again, maybe Chinese parents initially choose a teacher who is qualified and able to interact well with a child. Over time they naturally will focus on their children ‘how does my child feel?’, ‘what does my child get out of these classes’. Therefore, a teacher whose focus is on the students and who has the passion, soft skill, knowledge, and commitment will achieve long term success.
To summarize the findings of how Chinese parents choose online English teachers,
Chinese parents (especially Chinese moms) are keen to invest in their children’s early English education. But they don’t necessarily have the knowledge or means to make a fully informed decision.
Having the essential qualification is a basic threshold. On top of that, Chinese parents prefer teachers who can ‘read’ and engage effectively with children online.
Although accents are important initially, parents’ expectations and goals for their children’s English education change during the children’s development. Therefore, there are opportunities for teachers with varied backgrounds and expertise.
Most times parents and teachers are on the same side. Sometimes, however, what matters most to a teacher does not overlap with that in a parent’s eyes. It’s helpful to get into a parent’s shoes.
A teacher’s good relationships with students and their parents can have a huge impact on the progress that students achieve and, hence, the success of an online English teacher.