‘Some families are too shady to work with’: meet the tutors of the ultra-rich

With salaries rising to 180,000, teaching the offspring of the mega-wealthy can be lucrative. But there are downsides to working with students who think money can solve any problem or try to attack you with antique revolvers

Early one summer morning some years ago, Nathaniel Hannan was confronted by one of his students brandishing an antique Colt six-shooter. The private tutor had been hired by the young boy’s super-wealthy New York parents to ensure that his academic performance befitted the family’s elite social circle. Fortunately the tutor, who had been preparing a Latin lesson at one of the family’s homes, owned a revolver similar to the one now pointed at him and noticed that it was not fully cocked, meaning the gun could not be fired immediately.

“He seemed to be under the delusion that he was a gang member taking revenge upon me for a drug deal gone bad,” Hannan says of the boy, who he says had mental health problems. “I managed to handle the situation with a minimum of physical violence. I grabbed the barrel towards the ceiling and disarmed him.”

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The tutor recognised the weapon, famously used by the US cavalry in the old west, as part of a collection on display in the family home. When Hannan explained what had happened to the boy’s father, the man “sort of shrugged and asked if I wanted combat pay”. “There were no penalties to the son,” Hannan recalls. “The father did, however, stop keeping the gun on display and I took the bullets out and kept them.” Some weeks later, Hannan had to disarm the boy again after he held a knife to the tutor’s throat. But the tutor stresses that this was the only one of his five long-term posts with super-rich families over the past 10 years where he had to deal with such extreme behaviour.

His experience is untypical for the British tuition industry which, according to the Tutors’ Association, is worth around £2bn a year. The majority of families who hire tutors in Britain are middle-class parents, with students often receiving additional lessons in the evening or at the weekend to help with schoolwork or grammar school entrance exams. But a handful of firms in London and the home counties also provide tutors for the super-rich, who account for about 10-25% of their clients and can pay between £50,000 and £70,000, or more, a year. One, Tutors International, says almost all its clients are high or ultra-high net-worth families.

Hannan, who works for the Oxford-based company, may have encountered only one gun-toting pupil, but the Tutors International founder Adam Caller says his staff have had to deal with incidents of self-harm, child abandonment and threats of violence. He once arranged to surreptitiously remove another tutor from her placement in the western US after a boy pulled a knife on her. “The father didn’t think it was a problem but she was scared for her life. We had to sneak her out of the house when the father was at the bakery, which he went to every morning. The police waited at the entrance to the property and escorted her to a plane.”

Caller believes that such incidents reflect the increasingly complex and exhausting demands tutors face while living with uber-wealthy families. In the past four months, these pressures have pushed the company’s top salaries to about $250,000 (£180,000) a year. “By far the greatest rise in the highly paid jobs is coming from Asia,” he says. “We’ll be earning more than $1m in revenue from four tutors in Hong Kong this year.”

In the past, the toughest roles might involve tutoring a child in up to 15 GCSEs, but now tutors are routinely required to be fluent and teach in two or three languages, from French to Russian and Mandarin Chinese, and to create a lesson programme suited to school curriculums in different countries. Some of the best-paid roles also involve addressing learning difficulties, mental health problems and other special needs: Hannan once worked with a young heir who had suffered a brain injury in a motorcycle accident. Others require additional work: the company has a job advertised in Florida, where the tutor will need to act as a personal assistant and project manager for the family, overseeing the rebuilding of their main residence, which was badly damaged by Hurricane Irma.

However, the mere fact that the family has such wealth and privilege can be the root of their children’s problems, says Caller. Some of these families “don’t work very well because they’re so rich”, he explains. For example, they never have to be on time for a flight, because they own a private jet. “The children grow up without any consequences for their lack of responsibility,” he says. Some of them also feel that “if they put effort into something, they won’t do any better than if they didn’t. They’ve got nothing to work for.”

One role currently advertised involves working with a 12-year-old Japanese boy, whose relationship with his parents is described as “toxic”. The advert states: “He frequently ferments [sic] trouble between himself and his schools. His access to the family wealth has led to his ability effectively to ‘buy’ friends, and … it is unclear whether he has any real friends at all. Over the years, the student has come to rely on his father’s money to solve all sorts of problems.”

The job, which has a minimum salary of $225,000 (£162,000), or $300,000 (£216,000) for a couple, may require moving with the boy to the US and being on call at all times: “The successful candidate will have to work as a tutor, mentor, guide and friend, and in some ways a surrogate parent.”

Nathaniel
Tutors to the rich and famous: Nathaniel McCullagh (left) of Simply Learning, two of his team, and a pupil, Freya. Photograph: Christian Sinibaldi for the Guardian

Another of Hannan’s former clients, who does not want to be named, says that she and her financier husband hired a tutor to mentor their son, who has Tourette’s syndrome. “The only thing he found that calmed it down was marijuana,” she says, “so he probably started smoking a bit too much. He was feeling very down, so it was a struggle to get him up in the morning and get him to class. That was when we realised we needed to intervene.” Their first step was to send the teenager to a therapeutic wilderness camp, which tackles addiction, mental health and behavioural issues in a calming natural environment. “It took him away from other kids who had high anxiety and other issues. When he finished, he was ready to re-enter normal life but not be in the same environment with the same friends.”

The role required not just working with the boy, but also assisting his parents. The job description stated that the tutor should “help them to enforce their boundaries and [limit] the controlling behaviours of their son. He has come to learn that if he makes enough of a fuss he can get what he wants from his parents and while they do not want this to continue they need support to develop strategies to be able maintain their authority when under pressure from their son.”

Hannan, who studied at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana and Oxford University, not only helped the boy with university applications and preparation for admission tests but also bonded with him through their mutual love of mechanics, often helping the teenager fix his car. “I used the rapport to help him understand what his parents meant when they said or did things,” he says. “The upshot was that he was more likely to respond in a way that didn’t lead to shouting matches.”

The professionalism required in a private tutoring arrangement is very different to that required in a classroom, says Hannan, who previously taught in a private school in Washington DC. “For all kinds of child protection reasons, being a school teacher requires a certain emotional distance. In a family environment that changes; it’s important to be able to develop a sincere rapport with these folks.” His former student’s mother says that Hannan became a friend to her son, who is now at university. “My son appreciated [that there was] somebody to help guide him, moving forward,” she adds. “To have someone by his side, holding his hand, was a really positive thing for him.”

Other tutors say rifts in families often arise due to the high-flying and transient nature of the parents’ jobs or lifestyles. Mark Maclaine, who co-founded the agency Tutorfair in 2012 after more than a decade of tutoring, says tutors can also find themselves acting as an intermediary between highly demanding parents and their offspring. “If you’ve got a parent who is very successful in their career, they have been used to getting results by pushing their staff,” he says. “But kids don’t work the same way. The parents realise that the life skills that helped them become incredibly successful don’t apply to their child who is struggling. A lot of the families turn round to me and say: ‘I think I’m making it worse.’ If your dad is the king or your mum is the head of a huge corporation, that’s going to be dialled up to 11.”

However, Dirk Flower, a Harley Street psychologist who works with super-rich families and several tutoring agencies, says tutors can also find themselves in families whose value systems undermine their efforts. The standard gripe is that parents expect the tutor to achieve top grades even if the pupil’s schooling is disrupted by frequent holidays, he says. But the clash of values can be more extreme. “You do get a criminal family where the 13-year-old is walking around with a Kalashnikov because their father wants them to take over the empire.”

Cleo Masliah, a tutor who works with another agency, Simply Learning, says a significant aspect of her work with both children and their parents is helping them to operate in western society. Masliah, who studied art history at the Courtauld Institute in London and interior design at La Cambre in Belgium, has worked with ultra high net worth families in Dubai, Moscow, Switzerland and the Caribbean. When she tutored a young Russian girl who wanted to get into a leading British boarding school, she had to advise the mother on how to present herself. “In Russia, if you’re visiting a school and you want to show the principal that you’re serious, you take out all your diamonds and your Birkin bag and your Chanel suits and you wear some nice stilettos,” she says. “That’s frowned upon by an academic school in Britain. So part of the job is to say, ‘You know what? It would be a good idea for you to wear flats and keep the jewellery to a minimum. And you know what? You’re a smart, high-profile lawyer; let’s make sure they know that.’ And the girl got in.”

Masliah says the grey area of switching between being an authority figure and acting like an older sister to being a friend and adviser to a parent is what makes the job “fantastic”. However, she warns that tutors must remember the power their clients wield. “They are extremely wealthy, and your relationship with them is going to be what they decide it’s going to be. If you have an issue with a normal middle-class family, the worst that is going to happen is that you never speak to each other again. This is different; these are often people in a lot of power. And you’re often not in your home country – you’re in their country, where they are very important. I do a background check on my clients before I work with them. There’s a level of shady that I am not working with, because I’m putting myself in danger,” she says.

Emma Swanson, the founder of the UK-based international company Tutoring Futures, says home tutoring has become much more popular than boarding school for the super-rich because it is more convenient and allows the parents to spend more time with the children. “The father who needs to travel a lot now takes his children with him,” she says. “But, obviously, the ultra-high-net-worth do live a very transient lifestyle and they have homes around the world and yachts they want to spend their time on.”

In late 2016, James Clement, a former high-school teacher who works independently as a tutor in Washington DC, did a tutoring job with a family who took their children out of school for a term to travel round the world. For 12 weeks, they sailed around Indonesia on a 75-metre superyacht. He and another tutor taught the girls between 8am and 1pm on the observation deck, which was converted into a schoolroom, taking short breaks to play board games. Two or three days a week, the tutors would be invited to go jet- or water-skiing with the girls. On other days, they might go snorkelling or on a coral reef, which would be used to teach their students about marine biology, or visit villages, volcanoes and islands relevant to their history and geography lessons.

While both tutors ate most of their meals with the 20 crew, on occasions they would be invited to join the family for dinner. But these were not simply social invitations, with the tutors sometimes asked at a day’s notice to give PowerPoint presentations on a wall-height projector screen in the yacht’s salon. “Once they asked if we would give a 30-45 minute presentation on the history of Indonesia,” says Clements. Other topics included the country’s political climate and scientific facts related to the places they visited.

Such tasks reflect how tutors tread a fine line between being friends of the family and mere employees. Nathaniel McCullagh, managing director of Simply Learning, says tutors enjoy an elevated status compared with other staff due to their academic credentials and close relationship with the children. But this can risk alienating the household’s “loyal retainers” – the personal assistant, the nanny, the butler – whom the tutors need on their side because they know the family’s foibles and secrets. “They’ll be the ones to say, ‘This is a good time to talk to the parents’, [or] ‘Whatever you do, don’t go into that room.’”

Although tutors sometimes receive privileges, including expensive gifts such as Rolex watches, use of private jets and family holiday homes, McCullagh stresses that they must be “unimpressed by their surroundings”. “We really can’t put anyone in with chips on their shoulder or any kind of overwhelming adoration for the family or the money or the lifestyle,” he says. “You’re in this world of massive wealth and, for a limited period, you’re part of it. The next day, the family is going home in a limo and you’re back on a train home. You start thinking, ‘Why am I on easyJet when they’re taking their own jet?’ You’ve got to understand that the parents are your boss, but in many cases they don’t want anything to do with you. They are abdicating their responsibility not because they’re bad people but because they have chosen a professional to do the work. If you’re the sort of person who needs constant affirmation from a parent, you could have problems.”

Caller says tutors are sometimes asked by parents to help a child appreciate their privileges, such as getting the student to make bread for the family for a month, or cooking a meal from scratch, including making their own pasta. Other projects can be more elaborate. For example, one family helped build a library for a school in a disadvantaged area of southern India, and tasked their two children – under the supervision of two tutors – with liaising with contractors, the headmaster and interior designers, as well as organising the fundraising and buying books.

Melissa
Melissa Harvey: clients were intrigued by her ‘humble’ background. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian

Tutor Melissa Harvey says both sets of parents she worked with saw her comparatively humble background as a positive influence on their children. The modern languages graduate, who previously worked at the Swans international primary school in Marbella in Spain, says the two families “were curious that I went to a comprehensive. I worked in four jobs to get through university and I think they saw those things as a positive influence for their children.” One of her jobs, arranged by Tutors International, involved a private cruise through the Amazon jungle where she says her two students were shown how local people lived. “It was wonderful to be able to show these girls, who come from a very privileged background, other children who don’t. We showed them how they made their clothes or their food, using all the resources around them. Some of the children didn’t have shoes. We gave them some coloured paper and you would have thought we had given them a pot of gold. For the girls, that was a real eye-opener.”

Ultra high net worth families worldwide are predicted to pass down more than $16tn to future generations over the next three decades, according to the analysts Wealth-X. Do the tutors have any qualms that the extensive support they provide is reinforcing structural inequality? For example, Hannan, whose own family was on government assistance when he was growing up, has helped one of his former home-schooled students with intensive academic support for their undergraduate studies. “The student started to have difficulties in the first semester [because of] learning disabilities,” he says. “So her mother asked me to teach the material to her in a way that she would understand. It’s challenging to me because her major is not a subject in which I took any coursework at university. So that means, in a sense, I’m going to university again. Because I have to read everything my student is reading from scratch and, unlike her, I don’t have the benefit of sitting in the classroom and listening to the professor.”

Hannan at least believes his work has social value. “In some of these students there is absolutely the feeling of ‘Why am I bothering to try? Daddy’s money is always going to be there to take care of me.’ But others think, ‘I’m going to distance myself from that money, from my parents. I want to think of myself as myself.’ The crux of the issue is helping them find out that their lives can have profound meaning separate from this great blessing of family wealth.”

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