LAND O' LAKES — Julie Roberts' classroom measures maybe 6 square feet. In that tiny spot in her Land O' Lakes home, she teaches six classes a day starting at 6 a.m.
She smiles into the faces of students about 8,000 miles away, meeting new ones nearly every day and knowing it's unlikely she'll ever meet them in person.
Roberts is one of more than 60,000 instructors teaching English to about 100,000 Chinese children, according to VIP Kid. The 5-year-old company connects teachers with Chinese families eager to have their children learn English. With a 12-hour time difference, the 4- to 10-year-old kids who Roberts teaches already have attended school all day. Many participate in more than one online evening class.
One morning (evening in China), Roberts was conversing with a small child. Then, there was silence. Thinking it was a computer connection delay, Roberts continued.
Suddenly, the small child blurted, "I sleep!" Tiredness had overcome the young student.
Roberts' "classroom" has kid appeal, with colorful bins, flashcards, games, books and a magnetic board for displaying stars or "Hello Kitty" stickers that students earn as rewards.
Dino, a stuffed dinosaur mascot of the VIP Kid program, perches facing the computer camera, gazing over Roberts' shoulder as she guides children through 25-minute lessons.
The company encourages making lessons fun. Roberts says her students are much like kids everywhere. They're often hesitant initially, but warm up with conversation, and they love earning rewards.
"I've also found these children, just like many American children, have trouble saying 'spaghetti,'" Roberts shared with a laugh. Roberts earned her elementary education degree from Ball State University in Indiana.
She and her husband, a minister, and their three children moved to the area two years ago. Roberts had taught for 5 years in Tennessee, but with small children, she sought work that would allow her to stay home. An ad on Facebook for VIP Kid popped up.
Roberts checked it out, liked what she found and knew the pay would contribute to her family's income. Roberts likes the flexible teaching hours, including weekend hours if she chooses.
She says tech support is great, lessons plans are completed by the company and teachers need only to speak English. Feedback is given for each student after every lesson, with parents responding, and translators bridge language difference gaps. Roberts also likes that parents can recommend good teachers to other parents.
"This really is very much 21st-century teaching," Roberts said.
For more information on VIP Kids, go to www.vipkidteachers.com To connect to Roberts, use her referral code: julie0209.
Times Correspondent Gail Diederich is a retired teacher. She has 32 years of experience, including 28 years in Pasco County Schools, where she taught gifted students and was a reading specialist. She also taught education, general studies and business leadership at Pasco Hernando State College and at Saint Leo University..