Why are we teachers so bad at tutoring our own kids?

Tension is never far from the surface when teachers try to impart their expertise to their own children, says Gordon Cairns

Boy being tutored by parent – both with head in hands

A secondary teaching career dovetails pretty neatly with being a parent: earlier finishing times and long holidays lets us spend more time with our offspring than other professionals might and saves on out-of-school childcare, while our experience gives us at least a limited insight into teenage psychology.

What it can't offer, however, is even the slightest glimmer of nepotism. While the purpose of the job is to help other people's children get on in life, we can't offer very much of a leg up to our own: no place on the board of the family business, no useful workplace connections and no getting an "in" into the company a parent works for. All that is off-limits for the children of teachers.

But in theory there is one area where we should be able to offer preferential treatment: an (almost) guaranteed pass in the subject we teach. As our own children hit senior school and have prelims and then final exams to face, our career, which has probably caused a lot of playground embarrassment in being regarded as an evil entity, should suddenly become very useful indeed, through unlimited access to free tutoring whenever it is necessary. Just think, an on-call tutor over breakfast to clarify what an oxbow lake  is or discuss the significance of Jay Gatsby's statement: "Can't repeat the past? Why of course you can!"


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If the meter was running as a tutor, a parent would be able to retire by the end of S6, but as a free resource the parent-teacher gets eye-rolls rather than plaudits from the potential beneficiaries.

An exam tutor on tap... 

Why is it so difficult for both parties, parent and child, when it comes to exam preparation? This is the one area of their teenage lives where you don’t have to ask for a translation of every second word and can actually show your worth beyond being a dispenser of tenners, but our skill-set counts for nothing.

The pupils who diligently listen to outsiders offering insight, advice and study technique tips shut down when the source of this info comes from their closest relative. And the behaviour of the parents is not much better. Between nine and four, they might have the patience of a Zen Buddhist but when it comes to their own this turns to open exasperation when the poor child can't pick up a concept immediately.

Maybe that's the problem: it's us not them. The only solution is to do a tutor swap with departmental colleagues – you teach mine, I teach yours – and remove the parent-teenager tension from the equation. Or, failing that, try disguising yourself as an itinerant tutor and charge by the hour.

Gordon Cairns is a forest school and English teacher who works in Scotland

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