The Perks and Perils of Being a Tutor for the Super-Rich

A wealthy family in Vienna is seeking a tutor for their three young children, with an annual salary of $247,000 and at least nine weeks’ vacation. They just have a few stipulations.Applicants should speak fluent French and must hail from a “socially appropriate background.” They must be healthy and fit, and they cannot smoke; they

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A wealthy family in Vienna is seeking a tutor for their three young children, with an annual salary of $247,000 and at least nine weeks’ vacation. They just have a few stipulations.

Applicants should speak fluent French and must hail from a “socially appropriate background.” They must be healthy and fit, and they cannot smoke; they should also swim, play tennis, and ski. Ideally, they will have musical abilities—the flute or the piano—and have interest in history and automotive engineering. The eldest child studies Latin, so they should know that, too, along with classics from Ancient Rome and Greece.

“We’re the handmade Bentley of the tutoring world,” boasts Adam Caller, founder of Tutors International, which is conducting the search. “Does anybody need a handmade Bentley? No, Honda is a perfectly good vehicle. But if you want a handmade Bentley, you’d have to go to Bentley, and you’d have to pay a lot of money for that.”

In the exosphere of extreme wealth—where nannies can earn six figures and estate managers many multiples more—high-end tutors are commanding an equally eye-popping share of the pie. Their clients are willing to pay whatever it takes to give their heirs a leg up. Above all, they value discretion. Some are celebrities, others are political pariahs.

“Expectations about growth can be extreme in this environment. In a time where people are seeking after a couple of elite schools, there are serious expectations about what these young children should be able to do,” one former instructor told The Daily Beast.

To meet those demands, tutors get creative. Steve Hill, a Cambridge graduate who speaks Japanese, Italian, and Spanish, is working with a teenager in Milan. Earlier this year, they were studying the physics of particle interactions, a tedious subject in most classrooms. They opted to liven things up by flying to Norway, above the Arctic Circle, to watch the northern lights.

Photograph of Steve Hill

Courtesy of Steve Hill

Another tutor recalled spending a week in the Amazon teaching biology and geography. A third instructor spoke of a student whose father had a passion for “maritime exploits” like dredging the sea for precious metals. The student took some of his dad’s underwater muck and used complex chemistry to isolate the gold.

“All of these beautiful little gold flakes formed like snow as it came out of solution,” the instructor said. “His dad just broke down and cried.”

Across the country, many public schools are facing dire budget cuts—but not in this parallel reality. “If you’re bounded by normal life and normal money, then that’s it,” added Hill. “You just read and dream and watch some videos or something. This just gives you the chance to actually experience to the highest level, like, anything.”

A $10 Million Company Is Born

Before founding Tutors International in 1999, Caller spent seven years as a classroom teacher, a career that left him wanting. “There’s a lot of repetition,” he said. “I was just bored rigid.”

He did stints as a private tutor, first in France and Switzerland, then for a “very famous Greek family.” But he found the matchmaking process between clients and tutors disorganized and poorly conceived, and he decided to launch his own firm.

The challenge was convincing ultra-rich clients to buy in. They were “used to being spun yarns and over-promised and taken advantage of,” Caller said—and he didn’t have the bona fides to immediately earn their trust: “My father was an architect, my mother was a medical doctor. So I had professional parents, but not not rich. I didn’t move in those social circles.”

Caller struggled to secure his first client. Prospective parents would ask for references, which he did not have, and he would attempt to deflect by citing confidentiality. The strategy did not work until, eventually, one client didn’t ask for references, and he finally closed a deal.

In 2003, Caller had an encounter with a rich family in San Diego that transformed his business and his perception of the tutoring industry at large. The family “pretty much begged me personally to come and look after their child. And I didn’t want to do the job.” He came up with a price that he considered “absurd,” $360,000 per year—more than eight times the average teacher’s salary.

“They didn’t think it was that bad,” Caller said. Until then, he had never charged a client six figures. He quickly refashioned his business model.

Today, Caller said, Tutors International is approaching $10 million in annual revenue. His bespoke model means that he only has about 45 clients, though he has over 60,000 wannabee instructors registered in his database.

The Search for the Perfect Tutor

A typical job posting receives dozens, if not hundreds, of applicants, Caller said. And he puts those candidates through the ringer.

“This was the craziest, like, jumping through hoops I’ve ever done for any job process, ever,” one former tutor said. “They were asking for, like, high-school transcripts.” But the bureaucracy was worth the potential payoff, since at the time he was earning about $30,000 per year working in public education.

Another former instructor recalled grappling with the application questions, such as, “If a child asked you if you believe in God, what would you say?” His apparently satisfactory answer involved entering “a kind of Socratic dialogue with the child,” asking them why they thought the instructor’s beliefs should influence their own.

The application process encourages candidates to highlight their “markers of prestige,” the former tutor added. “One of the letters of recommendation had to come from someone who was of such a stature that the fact that they would speak on our behalf at all [was] a testament to our ability, such as a duke or an earl.”

Caller said there isn’t such a requirement—the list of acceptable references ranges from a teacher to “someone with a knighthood,” he explained—though “clearly an application has more credibility if the character reference has some gravitas.”

He conceded that he does have a rigorous process for selecting instructors. “They need to be the kind of people who [are] always interested in something. So they’ve got a musical instrument to some level, they’ve got another language to some level, they’ve got passions,” he said. Their writing should be “near flawless,” and they typically have classroom experience. They also “tend to have themselves received a first-class education. And that doesn’t necessarily mean private, but it generally will be,” he said.

In some cases, clients add additional criteria. Years ago, Caller said, a former “Baywatch babe” actress requested a tutor with traditional qualifications. “Then she said, ‘And it’s essential that the tutor is a man and is good-looking.’”

Caller said he ignored the mandate and simply found the optimal applicant. He sent the man in for an interview, then asked the client how the meeting had gone. “Oh,” she replied, “he was really good-looking. Thank you.”

Applicants who reach the final stage are invited to meet the clients in person, where they may be asked to complete a multi-day trial.

“This is when they were really kind of, like, grilling me on some stuff,” said a former tutor who interviewed on a superyacht. In a way, the interrogation made sense, since the group would be confined together for months at a time, but the questions veered into bizarre territory.

“I think [the father] had some weird suspicion that I was gay, which was, like, hilarious. I’m not sure if he just was never around a certain kind of guy… He’s like, ‘So like, what’s the deal?’” recalled the tutor, who is straight. “I could tell it would have been a problem.”

The candidate managed to secure a gig and wound up gelling with the family. He had a murky position on the boat’s hierarchy, somewhere between a staffer and a member of the inner circle. “I ate with the crew, who loved me but also kind of resented me because they saw the work that I did as not particularly challenging compared to the work that they did,” he said. “And they were absolutely accurate.”

Adjusting to a New Altitude

Even for instructors with polished résumés, the rarefied world of the ultra-rich can be disorienting.

“It was pretty bewildering, just the level of [it],” one former tutor said.

Photograph of Melissa Harvey snorkeling

Courtesy of Melissa Harvey

Melissa Harvey, a tutor based in Britain, remembered a day in which she zipped between four separate countries. “I woke up, had breakfast in London, then got on a private jet to Düsseldorf, in Germany, and I had lunch there. Then we had to quickly fly to Italy, in a private jet again, of course,” she said. “And then we took a small helicopter from Italy to Saint-Tropez in the south of France.”Another tutor said that, despite the immense wealth, his employers were essentially normal people who just happened to be living in extraordinary circumstances. They watched conventional television, ate regular food, and interacted in ways “completely typical of any middle-class American family,” he said. They just had a full staff to make it all happen.

Kelsey Komorowski, a former tutor who founded her own educational company, Komo, said that most parents “want their kids to understand their privilege.”

Yet not every client can keep their ego in check. A former superyacht tutor recalled that when their vessel approached other yachts, “the very first thing the dad and the boy do is they’re up on the deck, looking at the other boats, seeing which ones are bigger… They’re never satisfied.”

“It’s really interesting, the way that they think about money,” he continued. “They’re spending 10,000 bucks a month on me, but they’ll go out in some gas station grocery store and be complaining about the 75-cent price of the peanut bag.”

Nathaniel Hannan, a 17-year veteran of Tutors International, was working a difficult assignment in 2008 in Aspen, Colorado. “It was a profoundly broken family. If you have read Bonfire of the Vanities, it is very like the family portrayed in that novel, even down to the cheating spouse.”

The children, one of whom suffered from psychological issues, didn’t receive adequate attention from the parents, Hannan said, adding that he had not known about those problems when he accepted the job.

One day, Hannan was sitting in his residence on the family compound preparing flashcards for Latin sessions. The home was decorated in Country Western style, complete with revolvers mounted on the walls. The decor, he said, was certainly a “choice.” Less explainable: The guns were fully operational and loaded.

As Hannan sat there, the child had a psychotic episode and “was under the impression that I was a member of a rival gang and that we had had a drug deal that had gone bad,” he said. The student picked up a Colt 45, pointed it at his tutor, and pulled the trigger. Lucky for Hannan, he didn’t know that he needed to first pull back the hammer.

Photograph of Nathaniel Hannan

Courtesy of Nathaniel Hannan

Hannan wrested the gun from his pupil and “marched him up to his dad’s office,” he said. “And his father’s response was to kind of laugh at me and ask me if I wanted combat pay.” Hannan left the gig soon after. The parents have both since done time in federal prison for white-collar offenses, and their son “has been in and out of Rikers Island,” he said.

Are They Really Worth It?

Virtually all of the tutors said they enjoyed working with their students. Erin Lashmar, who is also currently in Milan, said that one-on-one instruction has helped transform “a very demotivated student who was basically outside of the education system” into a thriving young woman who just received an interview at Cambridge.

Photograph of Erin Lashmar

Courtesy of Erin Lashmar

Another instructor based in the United States said that tutoring high-net-worth clients “reshaped my view of what is possible in learning,” especially when a student is given the resources and latitude to succeed.

“In traditional schooling, there is an imposed expectation of how quickly someone should progress in their understanding. It is ‘supposed’ to take a year to learn pre-algebra or geometry or whatever. But the students I was working with saw measured improvements of several years,” he said, “as much as four in the most extreme case.”

The instructor acknowledged that private tutoring is “obviously” not a feasible way to improve America’s education system overall, which is why he left the industry, though he thinks it’s worth contemplating how schools “unconsciously slow kids [down].”

Hannan has developed expertise working with students who need specialized attention. His most challenged pupil, he said, was a teen in Spain who had lost a piece of his brain in a motorcycle accident. His current student has “fetal alcohol syndrome, dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, generalized anxiety disorder and is on the autism spectrum.”

Despite those challenges, he said, he was able to rapidly improve her academic performance, which has boosted her self-confidence. Prior to his instruction, she received grades below 20 percent on two separate math units. Afterward, she aced one and scored a 94 percent on the other.

“Am I paid well? Yes, I am paid well, I’m good at my job. And people who are good at their job should be paid well,” he said. “But in terms of what actually motivates me, that is [it].”

Harvey, whose family life has made it difficult to take on new assignments, said she’ll “never forget” her time globetrotting with Tutors International. “I would love to have another opportunity one day. And to win the lottery so that I could do that for my own kids.”

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