High society

12th June 2009 at 01:00
One-to-one creative lessons, good money and international travel. Private tutoring has come a long way since the days of the governess

Do you feel overworked, underpaid and constrained by the national curriculum? How does a job paying a six-figure salary to teach one student in a plush family mansion sound? You will be given a car, separate accommodation if you need it and you will probably get to travel the world on the family yacht and private jet.

You will also get to take a more creative approach to delivering the curriculum - tailoring it to your pupil's every need - and back it up with extravagant educational trips and experiences at the drop of a hat. It's also paperwork free. Welcome to the life of the elite private tutor.

At the top end of the scale, the salaries and perks offered to long-term private tutors would flush the cheeks of academy chief executives across the country. The highest paid position placed by agency Tutors International paid the candidate $400,000 for an after-school tutoring position in the United States, complemented by accommodation, a car and international travel.

Despite the recession, demand for private tutors appears to be growing. The agency has received close to 60 inquiries from clients so far this year - from the likes of movie stars and high-profile business figures - when it normally receives about 80 in a full year.

So it is not surprising that mainstream teachers - overworked, burnt out and forced to leave their jobs with inadequate payouts, according to Patrick Nash, the outgoing chief executive of the Teacher Support Network - are turning to this often lucrative sister occupation.

Adam Caller, Tutors International director, used to be a teacher and has undertaken private tutoring placements all over the world. He says he receives hundreds of inquiries from teachers each week and that about 8,000 teachers have registered on his company's website.

Zoe Stephens is one of them. And the pay isn't the only reason she's doing it. Having taught in schools for four years, she felt her teaching was restricted and decided to try private tutoring, starting with a placement in Beijing.

"The pay is a great deal better than it would be in the state system. Then there's the bonus of being able to travel. But my main reason for doing it is being able to deliver the depth and breadth of material that I couldn't in school due to issues such as behaviour management. You can really get your teeth stuck into the subject matter."

Being a private tutor is liberating, she adds. "I'm a creative person and like to engage the children in different ways and support that learning beyond the classroom. I can take my pupils to exhibitions without having to push lots of paperwork through. It's fantastic to have that freedom and be in control of what you're delivering."

Miss Stephens followed her placement in China with a position in Manchester and is now in the process of applying for a number of international posts.

The scenarios that private tutors find themselves in vary greatly from one family to the next. About 80 per cent of Mr Caller's tutors live in separate accommodation provided by the client and only 20 per cent live in the client's home. One family may require a full-time tutor to, in essence, be the child's school. Another may send the child to school and hire a tutor to teach them in the evenings and at weekends. Some may even send the child to school for one term and have a tutor teach them solely at home the next.

A common misconception about private tutoring is that the profession is dominated by female, governess-type figures. In fact, a large number of men have made a career of long-term tutoring, as have couples and even families. Mr Caller says that about 60 per cent of his tutors are men, mainly because most of the pupils they cater for are male.

Sam Dickinson has been a private tutor for four years, two of which have been spent in his current position in the British West Indies, working for a family who spend half the year there and half in Switzerland. He home- schools their eldest son full-time and the family provides him with a house and a car.

Working with big classes frustrated him as he found it difficult to give each pupil the attention they needed to get the best out of them. "I saw this as an opportunity to see what could be achieved at the other end of the spectrum," he says.

As well as finding the idea of working with pupils one-on-one appealing, he wanted to stretch his ability to come up with new ways to teach. "One of the great things about home-schooling is that it allows me to deliver the curriculum in interesting and exciting ways that really hit home. Last summer we were studying volcanoes in geography and ecosystems in science, so we went off to Costa Rica and studied both of them first-hand. There's nothing like seeing a lava flow or hearing the sounds of the jungle to get the point across."

The job never gets boring because the opportunities for learning any subject are constrained only by the imagination, he adds. "I put everything I have into thinking up the best way of teaching a subject and bringing practical applications into it. Just before we left for Switzerland we were studying mapping. After doing all the normal classroom work we went and mapped a previously unknown local dive site. Over a series of five dives my tutee developed a highly detailed map of the site and then built a scale model that is now used by visiting divers. Not bad for a 12-year-old."

Married couple Gordon* and Julie* undertook their first placement as a tutoring couple when they spent a year travelling around the world with a family that decided to take some time out.

Having to cater for three different ages spanning primary and secondary, they effectively had to equip themselves to act as two mobile schools. Without knowing how well or not the children were doing at school, they decided to pack for the eventuality that each child was doing either better or worse than average for their age - meaning they prepared themselves to teach five different levels of the curriculum.

"We hedged our bets because we knew that once we were off, that was it. So we had to take all kinds of things - microscopes, materials for science experiments, textbooks, art equipment, whiteboards and so on," Julie says.

Having the time to focus on the art of teaching without distractions such as behaviour management, paperwork and targets is a big part of the attraction for teachers. Having worked as teachers in mainstream schools before turning to private tutoring, they noticed significant differences between the two in this respect.

"I liken classroom teaching to one of those children's games where things keep popping up and you have to hit them with a hammer when they do. You resolve one situation only to find out something's popped up somewhere else. I found that 90 per cent of my energy went on controlling the classroom and discipline and only 10 per cent on teaching. In tutoring, I feel it's the other way around: 90 per cent goes on the craft of teaching and that's what's so exciting," she says.

Julie realised that she had to leave the disciplinary tone she used in class behind when her husband pointed out that it wasn't appropriate when tutoring. And she says she no longer falls asleep at the dinner table after a long day teaching music and languages to large groups, which regularly left her feeling exhausted.

"I've got more energy for my own life, which I did not have before. You had to be so tight with your control all day, every day. I was able to do it, but it took so much of the essence of who I was that I had no essence left for me."

But the job doesn't come without challenges. As well as the potentially daunting task of being in charge of what you deliver with no back-up from senior colleagues or school policies, there is a risk that the tutor's lifestyle may lead them to feel lonely and isolated. And the line between being a tutor and a friend is easily crossed, which can lead to complications.

According to Mr Caller, it's inevitable that the boundaries between professionalism and what the job and life entails will become blurred. "You get to know stuff - you see the family argue and how the parents deal with the children when they misbehave," he says.

Julie points out that this can provide an interesting insight into where certain learning attitudes may have come from that you would not know about if you were teaching in school.

However, such blurring can lead to clients expecting tutors to perform outside their remit. Mr Caller's company is careful to inform clients that tutors are not there to "do the nanny side", but he admits there are crossovers. "It is quite common that a tutor may be asked to get involved in preparing the evening meal, but this can be done in an educational context. And the compensation that tutors receive takes that into account. If you want an Oxbridge graduate to get involved in the cooking, you'll have to pay them well for it," he explains.

Miss Stephens admits that she probably does go beyond what she is contracted to do, but insists it's a personal choice that she makes. "My approach is to be as flexible as I can, because I think it's important that I'm not only supporting the students but supporting the parents in whatever way I can. You gauge what's appropriate and what's not. But I always make sure the students know I'm there as their tutor to educate them - I'm not their nanny."

During the year travelling with her pupils, Julie found that a change of clothes made for an effective signal that her tutoring was done for the day. "You need to have an end of a working day as a tutor. I'd change into different clothes at the end of the day to give that visual hint - `I'm not your tutor now.' Otherwise it's tough for the children too - looking at their teacher over their cornflakes in the morning."

Perks aside, many private tutoring positions pose difficult personal and professional challenges for the tutor. A position currently advertised to work with a family in Dubai is paying pound;120,000 tax free with accommodation, a car, international travel and a minimum of 12 weeks' holiday. But the role is a demanding one - it incorporates the responsibilities of an occupational therapist and involves tutoring a 23- year-old man with epilepsy. The $400,000 position in the Unites States mentioned earlier was also no walk in the park, and required the tutor to address complicated learning styles and behaviours that made the role particularly challenging.

For those attracted to the job purely for material reasons, Mr Caller has a warning: "The pay is good in general, but I don't think that's why people apply, and if I think it is, I would probably not consider them for the role. It pays well because excellent practitioners should be well rewarded for what is not an easy position - full-time private service can be isolating and lonely, and clients can be extremely demanding."

* Not their real names

Situation vacant

Location: USLondon

Salary: pound;54,000 pa

Duration: 1 year, with possible extension

Children: A boy and a girl

Hours: 35 hours per week

Accommodation: Furnished modern apartment provided, free Car: Provided throughout contract

Vacation: Minimum 9 weeks

Situation vacant

Location: Aspen, Colorado

Salary: pound;10,800 (for two months)

Children: A boy and a girl

Hours: 15 hours per week

Accommodation: Provided in the family home in Aspen, free

Car: Provided

Meals: Provided

Do you have what it takes?

  • Minimum three years' professional teaching or full-time tutoring experience.
  • Minimum bachelors degree and teaching qualification (PGCE or BEd).
  • Excellent track record of teachingcompetence across a minimum of two key stages and across several subject areas.
  • Either fluent or mother-tongue English and at least one other European language.
  • Passport holder, well-travelled and streetwise.
  • Good range of interests, sports or hobbies pursued to a serious level.
  • Easygoing self-starter, capable of working autonomously, gregarious, appropriate socio-economic values, unflappable, high personal and moral integrity. Source: Adam Caller at Tutors International.

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