What’s it Like Being an International Tutor? - Nov '17

by David Bard, tutor at Corporate Member Minerva Tutors

Live-in and international tutoring is on the rise, whether it’s a weekend away in the country, or a year living with a family in South Africa. Unsurprisingly, this offers a completely different challenge to tutors; one that cannot be compared with regular face-to-face tutoring and online tutoring. I spoke to some international tutors to get the lowdown. I've changed their names to ensure client privacy.

So what does international tutoring require?

The first thing is flexibility. With regular tutoring you may have to re-arrange the occasional session, or push it back depending on time circumstances; but if you’re living with the family whose children you’re tutoring, you have to organise your time around them.

One day you might do four hours tutoring, then none the next, then two hours the following day. It may require working through weekends, but having unexpected days off in the middle of the week. Maybe you’ll have to start at 8 a.m. and be done by 12 – maybe you won’t have any tutoring until mid-afternoon if that’s when your student gets back from school.

There’s also the question of how to split the time, so the pupil doesn’t get too easily bored or distracted, or feel like they’re just doing the same thing over and over again. This isn’t such a problem with a one hour session, but for multiple hours a day over several days (or weeks, or even months) it becomes much more important. A lot of kids work better in the morning, so it can be beneficial to split the tutoring hours accordingly.

And what about free time? This is obviously secondary to work time, but if you’re living with your tutee, there will be an awful lot of it. Without needing to factor in travel time, or your next tutoring job, four hours tutoring can easily be completed by the early afternoon, leaving lots of time free. Do you spend that time with the family, or do your own thing?

The first tutor I spoke to, Alex, was unequivocal about his preference for international over regular tutoring:

“Generally, all the international placements I’ve done have felt like quite relaxing holidays, but with the added sense of achievement of tutoring every day. In my spare time, for the most part, I was either doing wholesome family type stuff, or relaxing, sunbathing and getting through all the books I had on my reading list.
You also get to know the kids super fast, because you’re seeing them solidly every day. I found that this meant that the relationship was a lot better, and developed more quickly. The tutoring was better too, and we had more fun, as there wasn’t the business of those first few weeks of getting used to each other. I suppose the other side of that is that the kids also get to know you quickly – and by nature of you being there for a limited amount of time at high expense, it’s also intensive tutoring. So at times I had to be a bit more ‘teacherly,’ in that the kids would start to slack off more readily than kids with weekly sessions.
I always had a great time outside of tutoring while I was there, from running around with the kids and playing Lego with the younger siblings, to smashing open coconuts with machetes, as they lived near coconut groves – there’s not a lot better as a refreshing mid maths session drink than a fresh coconut!”

Striking a balance

Dan, another tutor told me he was lucky to feel very much ‘part of the family’:

“I’m generally invited (but not obliged) to be involved in family activities, meals and outings. This is a really lovely dynamic, but it occasionally leads to becoming overly familiar with the pupils, making it harder to instil discipline, when you spend so much non-tutoring time together. But I have an excellent relationship with both parents – so I can threaten the kids with parental discipline, which usually helps restore some concentration, and maintain the tutor-tutee dynamic!
I’d say this familiarity can definitely be a positive, though; in some ways I’ve been able to be more of a mentor, sharing my own passions, finding out about theirs, and branching out the tutoring to include help developing other skills and interests, like sport and music. You also get to see rapid academic development on a weekly or even daily basis, which as a tutor is extremely gratifying.”

However, some tutors may not be quite as readily involved in family activities, depending on the dynamic, as Lea, a tutor with a family in Italy told me. She said:

“If you’re a female tutor, tutoring a sixteen year old boy in the family holiday home by the sea, is it appropriate for you to go to the beach with them in your bikini? Maybe not! In my case, I would always go down to the beach at different times to them, so that we had privacy and that the line between tutor and friend was not crossed – we were friendly, but not ‘mates’.
Then there’s also the family issues: if the family has friends round for dinner, you always have to be amenable to what they parents ask of you. For one set of friends I was dining with the adults, but for another set of friends I was asked to dine with the children instead. Both were perfectly fine, and it is part of your role as a tutor to bend to these requirements.”

One thing every tutor mentioned is the potential for over-familiarity, which is more than possible if you’re with the family almost 24/7. Arguably, it’s a natural progression if you’re spending a long time with the same family. Even if you’re only teaching one student, it’s natural to get to know their siblings and parents, or friends if they are also around.
The key thing is not to lose sight of why you’re there in the first place, or become over-comfortable. The tutor-family dynamic has to be dictated by the family, and it’s the tutor’s job to gauge this. Finding a tutor who gets on well with the pupil in question is important for all regular tutoring, but when it comes to an international job, it’s absolutely critical – and this positive relationship should also extend to the rest of the family.

Although it seems less common, there are also international tutoring jobs with more private families, who are less interested in a more involved, personal relationship with the tutor, and are predominantly just concerned about the academic side of it. This is fine, but it helps to have this sort of dynamic established before committing to a job, so a tutor knows what they’re getting into, and can plan for it accordingly.

The verdict?

International tutoring can be a strange job: the flexibility and unusual hours; being part of a family dynamic that isn’t your own; assessing the extent to which you can realistically ‘make yourself at home,’ and striking the appropriate work/life/relaxation/holiday balance. Virtually all of this depends on the number of hours you’re tutoring, the people you’re staying with, where in the world you are and how long you’re there for – there’s no simple ‘one size fits all’ approach to an international tutoring job.

The overall impression from the tutors I spoke to – and in my own experience – is that international tutoring can be a lot of fun, and a great opportunity to work intensively with a pupil, while also enjoying yourself, going abroad and getting to know a family. And for a family, it’s an opportunity to help boost a child/children’s academic and social development in a short space of time (or for longer, depending), while having a fun, dynamic tutor in the mix!

Everybody wins.

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