Relationships with Tutors and Itinerant Teachers: Making It Work!

—Sharon Haag1

Teaching your own children is a tremendous responsibility. It can bring many rewards, but it also takes an immense amount of time and energy—some of which you might like to devote to other tasks and ministries. Having an on-site tutor or an itinerant teacher might sound like the perfect solution. You could keep your children with you and still be free to be more involved with the local people. 

Unfortunately, in about half the cases where a family tried using a tutor, it has not turned out to be a positive experience for either the family or the teacher.

What makes it tough?

Being aware of what commonly causes problems in tutoring situations can help you plan strategies to minimize those difficulties. In my ten years as a tutor or itinerant teacher, as well as working with families and other teachers in this relationship, I have observed the following to be the most common sources of difficulty:


Typically, a tutor or itinerant teacher is a single person (usually a single woman). In the setting in which the tutoring takes place, there are no cultural peers other than the family with whom the tutor can socialize. Usually the tutor does not know the local language, and often it is culturally inappropriate for her to go out on her own. Meanwhile, the couple is extremely busy with their ministry to the local people. They have difficulty finding enough time to spend with their children and alone with each other, much less time to meet the social needs of another adult.

Added responsibilities on the family

When desiring a tutor, most parents think only of the responsibilities that the tutor can lift from their shoulders. They often do not consider the stresses they may be adding to their lives by bringing in another person. If the tutor does not know the local language or culture, it can be almost like adding another child to the family, one who is unable to do much independently and who doesn’t even have the experiential background and understanding of the setting with which their children have grown up.

Sharing your home with another adult takes much sensitivity and skill in communication. In addition, when making family decisions, another adult’s needs must be considered.

Unclear expectations and agreement on responsibilities

Lack of understanding and agreement regarding areas of responsibility can cause frustration and hurt feelings. Especially sensitive are the areas of childcare and discipline, as well as the roles of teacher and parents in making decisions regarding the educational program.

Misunderstandings and tensions can also arise if prior agreement is not reached regarding household responsibilities and how the teacher will use “non-school” time. 

Lack of clarity regarding finances

Money matters are always sensitive, and they can be a source of tension unless responsibilities in this area are clearly understood before the relationship begins. How room, board, and travel expenses are going to be handled needs to be clear and mutually acceptable.

Privacy for teacher and family

Even though family members and the tutor may be the best of friends, both need a certain amount of privacy and time apart from each other. People of different temperament types (and perhaps different ages) need varying degrees of privacy. To avoid hurt feelings, there needs to be good understanding and respect regarding those needs and limits.

Reluctance to handle problems openly

Often parents feel uneasy about bringing up a problem issue because they do not want to hurt the feelings of the tutor or make her feel unappreciated.

Tutors, for their part, may feel reluctant to bring up an issue because they feel their role is to serve and support. They do not want to be perceived as complaining or unwilling to adapt. Not facing problems early can cause a great deal of harm and may even result in their becoming irresolvable.

What can you do?

Fortunately, there are a number of things parents can do to minimize these potential problems and perhaps avoid them altogether.

Define the type of person desired and the type of help needed

Parents need to identify clearly the kind of teacher they want and the help they expect to receive. Not every teacher is suited to meet every type of need.

If you have a clearly established educational program you want a teacher to follow, you will want a different kind of person than if you prefer someone who is skilled at adapting curriculum and methods to the individual needs of children. If the person you get is not suited to the responsibilities you want her to assume, the situation is not likely to be positive.

It is also important to clarify the kind of living situation and availability of other social contacts so the teacher can consider those factors before making a commitment. 

Arrange to have a facilitator

It has been proven helpful to assign a person to facilitate tutor-family relationships. The facilitator needs to be a third party skilled in promoting good communication, one who will not take sides when issues arise.

In one overseas setting where tutors were a common educational option, the appointment of a facilitator to meet with teachers and families before and periodically throughout the relationship greatly increased the percentage and duration of successful experiences. 

Establish financial and program policies with your entity

If there are other families who will share the services of the teacher, it is important that the entire group agree upon policies in advance. This will avoid divisive comparisons between families and teaching situations.

Establish clear and open communication

This would be especially important around significant issues—not only do family, living, and teaching issues need to be addressed, but also cultural expectations that would apply to the teacher’s behavior and adjustment in the ministry setting.

Deliberately schedule short-term evaluations

If tutor and parents schedule evaluative times at preset periods, it can keep the relationship growing in a positive direction and prevent difficult issues from becoming irresolvable.

Plan for adequate privacy and breaks

From your own furlough experiences, you know how stressful it is to live for extended periods in someone else’s home and according to someone else’s standards. All adults need the time and a place where they can relax and do things their own way.

If there is in the tutoring setting no other culturally similar people with whom the teacher can build friendships, the need for breaks to travel to a setting where there are friends is especially crucial.

The stresses associated with tutoring and itinerating result in a high rate of “burnout.” Planning for adequate privacy and times apart refreshes both the tutor and the family. It increases the likelihood that the relationship will be positive and longer lasting.

First published in “Parents Teaching Overseas, an SIL publication. Permission is granted to copy, but not for commercial use.

  1. Sharon Haag grew up as a third culture kid (TCK) along the northern border of Mexico. She received her K-8 teaching degree through Biola University and an MS in school counseling and School Psychologist’s credential through Cal State Long Beach. She joined SIL in 1974 and taught TCKs in southern Mexico, piloted the Field Education System (FES – a support program for homeschooling families) in Guatemala, and was an itinerant teacher in Cameroon. She later worked from the United States supporting homeschooling families overseas and doing educational evaluations and consultation. She is now retired.