Behind closed doors: my life as a private tutor

16th August 2013 at 01:00
The market for home tutoring is booming. But although the autonomy offered by the job is seductive, teachers must contend with neurotic parents, chaotic houses and troubled children. Liz Lane, a former deputy principal who now coaches 15 children a week, tells her story

I left my full-time job in a school because of the growing burden of paperwork and because I wanted to spend more time actually teaching children. Tutoring has certainly helped me to achieve that. It also gives my working life extraordinary variety: no two days are the same.

I have tutored the brilliant and the troubled, and have dealt with parents who were helpful and others who were desperate and neurotic. There is no typical week: each is full of challenges and rewards. But being a private tutor is not for the faint-hearted. If you are considering it, read this sample of my experience before you give up the classroom.


4pm Lord of the Flies with James*, a bright, curious 12-year-old who is starting to really enjoy English. As we discuss the character Piggy, I feel guilty that I nearly gave up on James after our first lesson. It was nothing to do with him - it was the house, the smell and the grime. But as I was preparing to leave, James' mother invited me into the living room where she, her husband and their three children each have a musical instrument. They played a mesmerising version of Baker Street, Gerry Rafferty's 1970s classic, complete with haunting saxophone solo. What struck me most was the closeness of the family and their joy at playing together. This was a house full of love and suddenly the fact that it was a bit grubby no longer mattered. When they asked if I would carry on coaching James, I said yes. He passed his exams and I am still tutoring him, as well as his brother and sister - although I do bring a cloth with me to wipe the table before we get down to work.

5.30pm To a leafy avenue and the grand house of a well-known, successful author. She hired me because, she said, she was unable to teach her 10- year-old daughter Amy how to write creatively. Inside, the house is stark, cold, forbidding. The walls are bare and, strangely, no books are on show, no pens, no paper. Amy's English is poor. There's a lot of work to do here. Today's lesson goes well; there is a spark. But Amy's mother is hopelessly absent-minded, mixing up her dates and writing cheques that often bounce. Who would have thought?

7pm A difficult lesson with 17-year-old Rena. She is studying for her GCSE English independently and a year later than normal because she had been excluded from school for being disruptive and swearing at the principal. She speaks openly about her problems: anorexia, bulimia and self-harm. But she loves the theatre and Shakespeare in particular, and quotes huge chunks from memory. Her favourite novel is Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, and as we discuss the role of women in the 19th-century, Rena talks intelligently and passionately. I don't know whether her problems will prevent her from sticking with our lessons, but I hope her love of literature will at least offer some relief from her anxieties.


4pm "What does `getting your knockers done' mean?" eight-year-old Millie asks me. And minutes later: "What's a Page 3 girl?" The questions arise because she has read David Walliams' book Billionaire Boy, which she brought home from school.

5.30pm To Alex, a cherub-faced eight-year-old with a lively mind and a thing about a girl at school named Katie. He says he "hates" her, but mentions her in every lesson. We examine passages from Krindlekrax by Philip Ridley. In the book, a character breaks a window. "That's just like Katie," he says. "I don't like Katie." Tomorrow, Alex and his schoolmates will be playing "opposites". I ask him for an example. "Well," he says, "if I say I'm going to kiss Katie, I will actually give her a smack." He looks at me, waiting for the shock to register. "So what's new?" I say, calmly. "We always hurt the ones we love." He looks at me again, unsure what to make of my response, but says nothing. "Shall we carry on with Krindlekrax?" I suggest.

7pm Romeo and Juliet with 13-year-old Daniel. He's enjoying it, despite the tough language. Like many boys, he has quickly taken to a tale that includes fights and disobedience. He asks for a "top 10 list" of the play's most famous speeches. If it's famous, he wants to learn it; if it's not, he's not interested. I tell Daniel that many of the speeches in Romeo and Juliet are famous, so he'd better start learning them all.


4pm Sixteen-year-old Tom is reading Below the Green Corrie by Norman MacCaig, a GCSE syllabus poet. He shakes his head, baffled by why anybody would be moved to express their feelings about mountains. I talk about the human need to share experiences and feelings with family, friends and now a much wider audience through social media. "It's a bit like Facebook," I say. Tom looks at me quizzically for a moment and then he gets it. "Do you think he'd post pictures if he was alive today?" he asks.

5.30pm A sunny afternoon. Jonathan, aged 9, can't wait to tell me his thoughts on Judith Kerr's book When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. "It was fantastic!" he shouts, jumping up and down. I feel like jumping up and down, too. Like many children - especially boys - Jon is a reluctant reader. Two days ago, I told him in conspiratorial tones that when I was his age, I used to read in bed with a torch under the bedclothes. His eyes widened as he listened to such rebellious talk. I told his mother about our conversation and suggested she buy him a head torch. She did, and told him it was strictly for family camping holidays. The trickery worked wonders: Jon is now a voracious "secret" reader. His mother is delighted with his progress - and with his sudden willingness to go to bed early.

7pm This lesson is with Oliver, 9, who is also a "bookophobe" but with whom I took a different approach. In the last lesson, we did a comprehension exercise that ended with a cliffhanger: "Thud, thud, THUD ." Someone was coming, getting closer, but we didn't know who. Oliver wanted to know what happened next. I told him to buy the book, Varjak Paw by SF Said. As I arrive for today's lesson, he runs to the door: he has read the book and is keen to tell me all about what happened next.


4pm High drama with 10-year-old Toby. Minutes into the lesson, grappling with grammar, he asks if he can go to the bathroom. I agree, but suspect he is trying it on. A few minutes later, when he hasn't returned, I shout to him to get a move on. No answer. I go to the bathroom and the door is open: Toby has gone. The au pair and I check all over the house. Still no sign. His mother is abroad so we telephone his father, who rushes home from work to help look for his son. We search up and down the street, but the au pair finally finds him curled up in a ball in the garden shed. "Why did you run away?" I ask. "Because I've just played a five-a-side tournament and I'm tired," he replies. His father sighs: Toby has form. "He once ran away on a school trip to the Isle of Wight," he tells me.

5.30pm Edward, aged 11, is struggling to find a simile for the word "tall". His suggestions are weak, but his precocious three-year-old sister, surely destined for the gifted and talented set, pipes up. "I've got one. `As tall as a giant .'," she says. "That's rubbish," her brother replies. Sticking out her tongue, she adds: ". standing on his tiptoes."


4pm A lesson at the House of Chaos. I sit with 11-year-old Sarah at the big kitchen table and we go through a past English 11-plus paper for a top school. To our right, her mother, a nurse, is cooking and cursing the fact that she doesn't have the right ingredients. To the left, her father, who works from home, is changing the baby's nappy. Over by the French windows, two other children, aged 4 and 6, squabble furiously. Granny pops in, listens to the lesson, and offers suggestions when I ask Sarah what the word "fungoid" might mean.

5.30pm What a contrast. I am in a neat, orderly house with nine-year-old Ben, doing verbal reasoning, and I have my own teaching room, a constant supply of coffee and more stationery than WH Smith. I have taught everywhere from children's bedrooms to attics, conservatories and once, when a child was locked out, on a doorstep - his father came back, apologising profusely, just before the end of the lesson.

7pm I teach 10-year-old Rebecca creative writing while her father watches rugby on television and drinks beer with his friends in the next room, separated by sliding doors. As I go to the bathroom, I glimpse in the hallway mirror the normally oh-so-respectful father, unaware that I can see him, pick up the coffee cup I had been drinking from, turn to his friends, laugh and give the cup a long, lecherous lick.

*All names have been changed

Private practice

  • In 2011, a survey by the University of London's Institute of Education found that 72 per cent of students at two grammar schools in England had received private tuition to help them gain entry. Nationally, 22 per cent of children had been privately tutored at some point.
  • Studies carried out this year by EdPlace, an organisation that provides subscription-based educational resources for parents, found that 28 per cent of UK families use private tuition. One in three felt it was a necessity.
  • Parents spend pound;6 billion a year on private tuition and more than a quarter of families are using tutors to boost their children's education, according to EdPlace. Average weekly tutoring sessions last 2.6 hours per student.
  • Market research firm Global Industry Analysts, Inc. released a study in 2011 predicting that the global private tutoring market would surpass $102.8 billion (pound;67 billion) by 2018.

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