At 3:15 a.m. Thursday, Suzanne Tribble was halfway through her first cup of coffee when a tree fell across West Main Street a few hundred feet east of her home, ripping through power lines and providing a horrifying light show of sparks flying from buzzing transformers.
Then her electricity, along with much of the city’s, was out and would be for the next several hours.
Halfway around the world, a child in China getting ready for his English lesson had no idea how this felled tree would affect him. If Tribble had anything to say about it, it wouldn’t.
Tribble found her husband Mark’s fully-charged iPad, a cell phone to use for a hotspot and gathered candles and flashlights to place around her work station so her face would show well enough on the iPad camera.
At 4 a.m., just in time, Tribble looked into the iPad and said, “Hello, Bao Bao,” offering a familiar Chinese word akin to “Sweetie.” The child on the screen returned, “Hello, Teacher.”
Tribble spent much of the next three hours offering one-on-one tutoring sessions remotely to Chinese children, something she’s done most every day for about three years. Thursday’s circumstances, she said, were a first.
“We used everything we could find in the house,” Tribble said. “My phone wouldn’t do a hotspot so I had to use Mark’s. … He (spent some of the time) outside on the porch playing his guitar because he didn’t have his phone.”
Tribble is one of 100,000 teachers in the United States and Canada working for VIPKid, a Beijing-based company with offices in San Francisco that pairs Chinese children, ages 5-13, with one-on-one remote tutors for immersive English. She said a cousin living in Tampa, Florida, encouraged her to apply in 2018.
For the younger children, these 25-minute sessions start with identifying things using English words, but it evolves to reading comprehension and cross-curricular lessons in mathematics and social studies, Tribble said. When she starts teaching at 4 a.m., it’s 6 p.m. in China, and her students often are seeing her after completing a full day of their regular studies.
“In China, there’s a big push for students to learn English in their schools,” Tribble said. “They have to pass tests just to get into high school, and if they don’t pass, they have to go to work. … Some need the supplemental help, so that’s why they are doing (VIPKid).”
The “big deal” for the program, Tribble said, is to push students to speak English in complete sentences, rather than just answer questions with one word. The older children usually become more comfortable with having entire conversations with her in English.
“Some are only children,” she said. “So they are happy to have a conversation with anybody.”
Tribble, who holds a master’s degree in technical education and a PhD in community college leadership, retired from Mississippi State University in 2017 where she helped develop curriculum for vocational-technical centers all over the state. Her “retirement” still looks a whole lot like working.
Not only does Tribble teach six sessions a day in the winter — and eight in the spring and summer — for VIPKid, she also is an adjunct instructor at East Mississippi Community College, teaching courses in human growth development, child and adolescent psychology.
But it’s all worth it, Tribble said, even as her 3 a.m. alarm each day sets her about preparing her teaching workspace in the corner of her dining room, which now is decorated for the Chinese New Year her students are celebrating, for another day of lessons.
“You get to see a smiling face on the other end,” she said. “So it’s kind of fun.”