A few weeks ago I received a call, the voice over the other end of the phone was familiar but more sure of itself, slightly deeper, more poised,
“Hi Tom, I passed my common entrance!“
My heart obviously swelled with pride and dare I say it I was even a little bit emotional. I remember our first meeting, a slightly effete 9 year old who found it hard to make eye contact, a wall of televisions, a fairly intimidating father with huge ambition for his son and a slightly nervous 26 year old Englishman wondering what he had got himself into. I didn’t know it at the time but I was being dumped head first into an unfamiliar foreign world in which my industrious, whiggish ideas would be prized as exotically severe and spartan. To turn a child whose life has been comfortable beyond most people’s imagination into an independent, self-disciplined youth takes a long time, a lot of effort and a lot of understanding.
In a complex situation involving parents, staff, schools and children a tutor or governesses cannot just turn up for a few hours of study each day followed by a sigh and a chauffeur home. They need to fully commit to improving all aspects of the child even if that means taking very difficult decisions and putting themselves consciously in very challenging situations, often swimming against an unbelievable current. Being honest with the parents, making the children accountable and putting in structures that direct everyone down the correct path are the key to success.
I usually spend the first couple of weeks when with a new client observing the family dynamics, meeting the teachers, befriending the staff and bonding with the children. You will usually find this “honeymoon” period to be relatively easy, the children see you as a fun novelty, and you will be made to feel very welcome. It is the easiest time for the parents to open up to you about their worries and talk can be fairly relaxed. At this time it is very important to keep a note of the negative behaviours observed and the factors that contribute or trigger the situations in which these occur, you will have to address these in time. If the child has limited opportunities to do things for themselves this early period is a good point to explain to the parents the need for children to build their self-esteem by doing things on their own and experiencing the full consequences of their actions. You will also need to explain and guide the staff in this area, it’s easier said than done though and the likelihood is that your patience will stretched.
Monthly reports are vital documents for communicating between yourself and the parents, these are a useful record of achievements, plans and a great conduit for expressing your more uncomfortable considerations. In your first report you need to outline a plan. Depending on your need, behaviour charts, a reward system and a children’s timetable are a good start. Pick a few easier things to aim for in the first month and give the children a say in what they want to achieve or what they would like to change. Talk about the difference between a prize and a present and load up on stickers. It’s important to have a system where the children are called to account by the parents at the end of each week. Try and get the children and parents together for half an hour and focus on the weeks “positives,” a simple, “I’m proud of you” from a father can make your life a lot easier. If the parents are not available send them an image of the chart and explain that they should phone to congratulate their offspring and to encourage them in the more challenging areas.
A great behaviour chart should be age appropriate and the rewards should be accessible right from the beginning, it could focus on a few key areas, homework, politeness, table manners with a bonus area for any special efforts such as being kind to the driver or helping fetch something. Many times I have worked with disruptive children and one key issue is that they are not being praised for their efforts at all. A weekly slogan or picture change also add further interest, additionally it should be positioned somewhere highly visible so it can be seen by all. I would advise taking a photo each time you apply points as it will most likely be torn down at least once, in which case you can simply print it out again and reapply the points.
Working with the foreign native staff is often cited as one of the most difficult aspects of an international tutor’s job. They can be stuck in their routines, perpetuate negative habits and be unwilling to push the children to become less dependent, especially if this makes them redundant in the household or lowers their status. The truth is that they are often slightly intimidated by your presence and fear for their job security or position. For many of these staff their job with a high profile family is the equivalent of winning the lottery. Often they have an extended family to support back at home, maybe they are paying for a decent education for their children. It is always best to treat everybody with respect and try and develop a good rapport, if there are issues talk directly to the staff members involved and try and include them into your vision for the children. If you can give them new important jobs to do they are more likely to give up old negative behaviours. It is advisable not to pick fights, they have a lot more to lose than you!
With persistence and time the tide should turn and your new routines and expectations will become firmly implemented. The family may not always say thank you directly but if you have done a good job everyone will know. They may have not realised at the beginning of the process how difficult the changes would be, you will likely have more grey hair, but the children will be happier, more confident and will be on course to make their parents very proud!