When and where did you complete a virtual international internship?
VIPKid is an online teaching and education company based out of Beijing, China. Though I was approved to sign my contract in early February, I was advised to wait until after Chinese New Year to start. So, on March 1st I signed a six-month contract with VIPKid. The contract is to teach children in China aged five to 14, and after a three-step hiring process I was certified to teach levels 2 & 3 (level 2 is beginner). Extra certification is available to teach higher levels and other focused courses, such as reading, writing and pronunciation.
What made you pursue a virtual international internship?
I had previously worked with WE Charity but when the global pandemic hit, it was announced they’d be laying off the majority of their staff, including me. For over six years, my job with them involved a lot of travelling, but with COVID I suddenly found myself in lockdown, permanently grounded. Luckily, more and more organizations have been pivoting to virtual so there are more opportunities to connect globally from home. Although I’m disappointed that I can’t physically travel to China and teach in person, this is a great opportunity to work somewhere where I may not otherwise have the chance.
How did you prepare for the cross-cultural aspects of your placement? Describe any research or preparation you undertook, and how it impacted your experience.
To prepare for the cross-cultural aspects of the placement I watched many YouTube videos and sought out groups on Facebook. I honestly learnt so much from videos, like the importance of Chinese New Year and the cultural difference between elementary education in China versus North America. I learnt the roles that parents and teachers play in China as respected educators versus the much more relaxed approach in North America.
How did you manage your home workspace and schedule?
I needed a comfortable, quiet area to work. It was a bit difficult because my partner and I live in a one-bedroom apartment with a very loud cat! I bought decorations at the dollar store and moved a lamp behind my laptop to improve the lighting. I stuck colorful alphabet letters, numbers, a children’s world map and rainbow bunting on the wall behind me to make the space look bright. I like to leave my "classroom" up to save setup time. This means that my partner, a professor of political science who is also teaching from home, has his classes with a colorful children's background! But his students seem to like it and he reported back that we should leave it up because they find it cheerful.
Managing my schedule was always going to be a challenge. I would be working on Beijing time which would require me to wake up very early to work at 5am, Monday to Friday - and I am not a morning person! I set a new bedtime with the help of chamomile tea and melatonin. I made sure not to hit snooze and I used tips I found online. I learnt quickly that I couldn’t just wake up with only five minutes before I started working, I needed to buffer in a good 45 minutes so that I could feed the cat, look presentable, get some coffee down and review the materials for the day. Once I got used to it and set myself a routine it became much easier.
Did you face any challenges as a result of working remotely? How did you overcome them?
I was nervous about working remotely. It had been a few years since I had taught classes and my only experience had been in-person, where I relied heavily on group work and physical movement to help with comprehension and the language barrier. The limitations of teaching through a computer screen seemed daunting to me. Fortunately, after completing training and practice sessions I was able to implement the specific strategies to feel more comfortable.
I also had to learn to move within a confined space. The Zoom screen is very small compared to the classrooms I'm used to and now I'm wearing a wired headset and everything was backwards. At first, I got confused with directions and also had to figure out how to incorporate a small white board with important grammar notes and corrections into the frame without covering my mouth so the students could still see me talking. My first class felt like a disaster! I was tangled in my headset and pointing in the wrong direction, but like anything in life, with practice it started feeling a lot easier.
What support systems were made available to you via your school, placement agency or employer? How did you take advantage of them?
I relied heavily on the Zoom session training that I received before singing my contract. I took pages of notes and had Post-Its all over my laptop. In the first week of working, I referred back to them often now I have it down but without that training I would be fumbling in the dark. There are also multiple Facebook groups and I had a teacher mentor help me in the extensive hiring process. The company also has their own version of social media set up called the "Hutong". Similar to Facebook it is filled with posts and comments that I have found incredibly useful and also built a nice little virtual community for all the instructors.
Another extremely valuable support system they have in place is in the virtual classroom itself. There is a button that calls for help and a “fireman” can help solve any IT, behavioral or any other issues you are experiencing. I have already used this function a few times and they are very responsive and helpful. I find this helps make me feel like I have good support from the company and I’m not alone if any issues arise. Sometimes working remotely can feel isolating but they do a pretty good job of creating a live and responsive support system and a sense of community.
What cross-cultural communication issues did you notice during the placement, and how did you adapt?
The language barrier is huge! I was told in my mock class that I had to slow down while speaking. For me, this required extra concentration because I'm a naturally fast talker. I also had to adapt my way of speaking when giving students directions. The goal is to be as succinct as possible and to eliminate any excessive words while still speaking in full grammatically correct sentences. This again feels odd and challenging at first but now I am rather used to it and prefer it to how I was giving instruction before.
What steps did you take to learn about your employer's home culture?
I have a Chinese friend who is also a new mother. I called her and picked her brain for a bit. She turned out to be a great resource who gave me some insight into her experience learning a second language growing up in China which helped me understand the importance that is placed on education and more specifically learning ESL. It also helped me tailor my teaching approach especially for providing feedback and assessments to the parents.
Do you have any advice for professional communication via online channels (online meetings, Skype, chat, phone messages, file management, etc.)
My advice is to try and be aware of your space and frame. I make an effort to brush my hair and put on a professional looking top so I put my best foot forward. I find it not only makes a difference for the person on the other end of the screen but also for my personal frame of mind. I also try and stay upbeat, cheerful and positive while on my Zoom classes. This is to try and keep the people on the other side of the screen engaged. I find the more upbeat I am the better the meetings go and the connection feels more positive and genuine.
What did your placement teach you about your own cultural framework and approach to the workplace?
I have made an effort to ask more questions but not just random questions, things that I am genuinely interested in. I have a degree in anthropology and have traveled and lived in many different countries, so naturally I’ve always been very curious about different cultures but I have learnt to not be afraid to ask more questions which I think comes with experience and confidence.
Describe a situation during your virtual international internship that required you to use your cross-cultural awareness and adaptability.
In North American culture we aren’t very fond of awkward silences. As a result of this I keep finding myself accidentally talking over students in Zoom meetings. Whether there’s a lag in the connection or the student is simply taking a while to answer the question because of the language barrier. I have had to try and be as patient as possible and learn to embrace the awkward silences. I try and take a couple extra beats before I put in my two cents. Nobody appreciates someone talking over them or constant interrupting. This is much easier to do in person with social cues and body language.
Do you have advice for others hoping to pursue virtual international internships?
Do your research and be prepared there is nothing worse than walking into an interview and being caught off guard. You can always wing it but you will go above and beyond if you are well prepared. If you are like me and get very nervous about interviews, being well prepared can help calm your nerves. I find that the virtual aspect helps with my anxiety. There’s something about interviewing from home, in my own space, that makes it less daunting.
I would recommend only trying out international internships if you are genuinely curious about other cultures and willing to make an effort. My last piece of advice is working virtually from home is much different from working in an office environment. It can be hard to get your work done when you are at home by yourself. You have to be self-motivated, set yourself a schedule and stick to it religiously.
What are your future plans for international learning, travel and/or your career?
I’m very excited to travel again in the future, when the world gets back to normal and people are vaccinated. However, after already spending quite a long time abroad, I think I will travel more for leisure than work. After having this year off, I’ve realized that traveling constantly for work was tiring and working virtually with other cultures has been a great transition. I hope to continue working remotely for as long as possible.
Danielle demonstrates a genuine interest in making cross-cultural learning a part of her life in an ongoing way. It’s clear that her previous long-term experiences abroad have informed the respect with which she’s approaching her current virtual position. Bravo! We commend her for her efforts to research her students’ home culture and create an upbeat, effective learning space online. We also recommend that Danielle considers traveling to China once it’s safe to do so, in order to compare her online experiences of the culture with in-person experiences. We also suggest that when looking for her next jobs, she incorporates the many international skills she has built into her updated resume! We look forward to seeing where your future travels take you! For those who want to follow in Danielle’s footsteps, teaching English and pursuing online experiences, check out the following links:
- One of the most popular articles on this topic is Teaching English As a Stepping Stone to Your International Career. Check it out!
- Skills for the Virtual Workplace is a good place to start for those interested in international internships.
- Boost the Cross-Cultural Value of Your Virtual Internship discusses top techniques for making the most of your global experiences online.
- Showcasing International Skills on Your Resume tells you how to make the most of your experiences in your next job search.