The top private tutors can command large fees for guiding students through their exams. But it takes a lot of hard work behind the scenes to break into the top ranks.

Melissa Lehan’s work as a private tutor has taken her to some fantastic places. She worked in Bermuda for a couple of years, then Canada. There were stints in southern France, the Bahamas and Tuscany in Italy. At the moment she’s working in the countryside in Luxembourg, earning a six-figure annual salary.

An Oxford graduate and qualified teacher, Lehan, 36, works with children in a home-schooling role. She’s been doing this for 10 years. Her clients are generally wealthy parents who for various reasons aren’t happy with local schools and want a better education for their children.

She loves her job, which comes with paid accommodation and travel. But when you ask her why, it’s not the exotic locations or the time she taught on a private yacht that she highlights. Instead she talks about the relationships she develops with her students and having the freedom to drive a curriculum by weaving subjects together in a way that’s directly relevant to her learner.

“Clicking and helping that one child – knowing them so well that you know what they’re going to learn and what’s going to help them – is what keeps me going,” she says.

A private tuition boom

Globally, the private tuition industry is booming. One forecast says it will be worth $227bn by 2022, fuelled by growth in Asia and developments in online tutoring, like firms connecting students with tutors all over the world. The industry is largely unregulated and there are all kinds of providers: freelancers, cram schools, large chains, online services, bespoke agencies and more.

The private tuition industry is booming. One forecast says it will be worth $227bn by 2022

At the top end are a small number of highly-paid people for whom the phrase ‘super tutor’ has been bandied about. Around the world it means slightly different things. There’s the full-time private tutor, as exemplified by Lehan, in many cases used by affluent to super-wealthy parents working overseas who want to get their children in to top schools and universities in the US or UK.

In East Asia it often refers to an expert in a particular subject who teaches groups – one high-profile example is Hong Kong’s Lam Yat-yan, a Chinese language tutor who famously turned down an $11m job offer from a rival tutoring group in 2015. In the US, where in 2017 more than 3.7 million students took the university admission SAT or ACT tests, it’s a test-prep specialist on an eye-opening hourly rate.

But beyond the premium pay packets, what makes a top-end tutor? What kind of skills do they have, why do they do it and how much work have they put in to get where they are?

Preparation and sacrifice

In Lehan’s case, ‘super tutor’ isn’t a term she’s particularly interested in. She says it glamorises a role she feels is not well understood. “Day to day, I’m a teacher,” she says, and a hard-working one.

Most secondary school teachers specialise in one or two subjects, but Lehan has taught children across the full set of GCSEs, national examinations that British teenagers take at 16. She’s a languages graduate with a love of maths, but early on, mastering the sciences posed a challenge. In her first job, she worked non-stop to make sure she was across the curriculum.

“For me, chemistry was the one thing where I had to put in a lot of extra work,” she says. “And then you obviously spend time going through all of the past papers, all of the marking schemes, making sure you know the little tricks.”

Planning and preparation also take time. “You’re planning to make sure it’s working specifically for your pupil and that means, once you’ve got your plans, reviewing how something goes and then making adjustments, also just making it enjoyable for the individual pupil.”

For Anthony Fok, sacrificing time with family and friends is part of the job. He’s a tutor in Singapore, where 70% of parents enrol their children in extra classes. Fok, 35, holds group classes for students preparing for A-Level economics, for entry into local and overseas universities. He works evenings and at weekends, and has been flagged as one of a small but growing group of ‘super tutors’ in the city-state. His business turns over more than SGD$1m ($726,000) per year.

Fok has had parents book three years in advance or offer two years’ payment up front to get a place

Fok charges students SGD$420 ($305) for four 90-minute lessons, rates which he says are on a par with other tutors or “perhaps at a slight premium”. His classes are full – he’s had parents book three years in advance or offer two years’ payment up front to get a place.

Once a parent offered him SGD$20,000 to guarantee her child an A grade a month before the exam. He turned it down. “It is not possible to perform miracles at the last minute,” he says. “The first difficulty is that parents think that money solves all problems. But it’s not true!”

In a competitive market, Fok has carved out his niche by honing his expertise. He started tutoring at university, then spent five years as a school teacher before opening his own tuition business in 2012. Today, he’s the author of several books on A-Level economics. He makes sure he keeps up-to-date with previous exam papers as well as the latest exam trends and allows his students to message him with queries at any time.

‘Don't over-promise and under-deliver’

In the huge tuition markets of Hong Kong and South Korea, the “rock star” tutors depend on large numbers of students, moving online or livestreaming lectures to grow their reach. But Fok says he doesn’t want to compromise the quality of his teaching by doing this.

He cautions against getting into the industry just for the money, saying those who do tend to fail. “Tutors should be genuinely passionate about teaching and put in your 100% effort in helping your students improve,” says Fok. “Don't over-promise and under-deliver. Hard work, hard work and hard work.”

Meanwhile, in California, Matthew Larriva earns $600 an hour when he commits to one-to-one coaching for the SAT or ACT tests, standardised exams used by US universities. The Ivy League graduate began tutoring in 2011 and has since opened his own test-preparation agency. Other companies were “generalised”, he felt, and there was space for a high-end option. Now he matches up families with tutors paid at about $250 per hour, writes books, gives presentations and accepts only one or two students himself at a time.

“What I deliver – and the reason I think they are willing to pay up – is the longevity of results,” he says. Many people only work in the field for a short time, he points out, but if you stay “you start to develop a rhythm that’s really strong”. Experienced tutors can help students pick the right test, timeframe and target score, and adapt their teaching to maximise progress at different ability levels.

Some people do the maths and assume he’s grossing over a million dollars a year, but they don’t see the time spent working behind the scenes

Some people, he says, do the maths and assume he’s grossing over a million dollars a year, but they don’t see the time spent working behind the scenes. “It requires constant prep, travel and marketing to make it into an engagement where you can charge $600 an hour,” he says. “And once you're in the door, it's gruelling work during nights, weekends and holidays trying to play educator to the student, counsellor to the parents and mediator between the family.”

He estimates he’s one of about 100 people earning at this level in his field, but mentions individuals being paid at higher rates. As for the ‘super tutor’ concept, Larriva says he doesn’t mind people getting publicity as long as their results are in line with their marketing.

His bigger concern, he says, is that there’s no standardised qualification to be a tutor in the US. Lots of people market themselves as test-prep tutors, he says, but sometimes it’s not clear what they are achieving for their students. He’d like it if companies could publish students’ results, giving parents more transparency.

Professional standards

Adam Caller voices somewhat similar sentiments. He’s the founder of London-based Tutors International, which provides full-time tutors (including Melissa Lehan) to wealthy families. He’s currently advertising six-figure salary roles in the US, Bermuda, Luxembourg and Hong Kong.

Rather than focusing on salaries or ‘super tutors’ (a term he thinks plays on parents’ fears), Caller says what matters is the outcome for the student. He hires only qualified teachers (unless the client requests otherwise) and his roles can come with specific requirements – extra languages, music or sports, experience with troubled children or learning difficulties.

He believes there should be a professional qualification that formally recognises tutors’ expertise.

If there was such a thing as a ‘Chartered Tutor’, that would be superb – Adam Caller

“If there was such a thing as a ‘Chartered Tutor’, whereby their professionalism, their knowledge, their professional development – the normal things that you measure professionals by – was being applied to the tutoring industry, that would be superb,” he says.

In Lehan’s case, such a move might lead to a better understanding of what she does for a living. “I think there are a lot of people who don’t realise that I’m not just doing a bit of French tutoring for an hour or so after school, that you can actually do your full set of 11-12 GCSEs with one tutor,” she says.

For her it’s the students – the girl dismissed by her school as a “C-grade student” who went on to excel in her GCSEs, for example – who make the job rewarding, rather than the trappings of the role.

Matthew Larriva agrees. “Yes, the job is glamorous sometimes – having billionaires make coffee runs for you and being invited to family dinner with a congressman – but more engaging than glamour is the privilege: to step into someone’s life in this unique position, get to know a family and have them trust a large portion of their child's future to you.”

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