I Was a Private Teacher. Pandemic Pods Will Be Hard, Lonely Work.

Opinion | PK-12 School Models

I Was a Private Teacher. Pandemic Pods Will Be Hard, Lonely Work.

By Christina Berke     Aug 3, 2020

I Was a Private Teacher. Pandemic Pods Will Be Hard, Lonely Work.

In late May, I noticed a prominent placement agency had posted an opening for a private educator position in the Bay Area. The family was looking for a teacher to homeschool their three children with a progressive curriculum, customized according to their interests. They offered a “generous compensation package,” including healthcare contribution, paid sick and vacation days, and their fully-equipped 800-square foot guest house to live in.

This position turned out to be the start of a fast-growing trend: pandemic pods. The COVID-19 crisis brings with it an epidemic demand for private educator positions as many schools remain virtual for the upcoming academic year.

These pods, sometimes referred to as microschools, are changing the landscape of education. Parents are drawn to them because it gives them a sense of control during a very unpredictable time and allows them to go back to their own routines.

Teachers have their own reasons for being interested. Some, asked to return to campus before they feel comfortable, are nervous about their health or that of their family. The pandemic may bring new teacher responsibilities as well, including additional sanitizing and worries over face masks and handwashing. Most importantly, and often overlooked, teachers must now deal with the very real and urgent emotions of their students (whether 3- or 22-years-old) during a global health crisis, on top of their own fear, uncertainty and depression.

After years of teaching both in classrooms and in private homes, here and abroad, I knew I could do the work. In the midst of an uncertain future, a private educator position is very tempting. I applied for the position on the spot.

Overworked and Underpaid

Teachers have long been underappreciated. Prior to becoming a teacher, I had little idea what went on behind the scenes. It seemed like an easy job: Hang out and read with kids all day, go home at 3 o’clock and have a three month summer break. Once I realized how much work goes into a school year, I shuddered.

What tempted me to apply for this position, partly, was money. The offer listed a salary of $90,000. On job boards, some parents creating their own neighborhood pods are willing to pay a weekly tuition, up to $250/kid. If a teacher has six kids in a pod, that adds up quickly. Other parents are offering up to $80/hour (though this is highly coveted and rare).

I am currently teaching two freshman English classes at a large public university as a graduate student instructor in exchange for $15,000. The starting salary for a teacher at Los Angeles Unified is about $45,000. When I taught there full-time, the most I made was $65,000.

The other benefit is the much smaller class size. Instead of teaching a class of anywhere from 15 to 35 students, suddenly there’s only a handful of students to teach. While this might not cut back on lesson prep, it hugely scales down grading. And there’s much more of an opportunity to develop meaningful relationships.

There’s also a lot more creativity and freedom in designing your own curriculum. During one interview with the Bay Area family, I was asked to talk about my vision for a school. It got me excited to think about all the ways in which I’d cultivate my ideal school: project-based learning with yoga and Spanish, mindfulness and coding, theater and visual arts, and Community Outreach Fridays. Though I hadn’t quite figured out how all of this would fit into a school day, it was invigorating to dream.

Not only did it sound ideal, but the parents I interviewed with said they would spare no expense. I could make a list of every single supply I wanted and they would buy it. It was intoxicating to think about all of the books I could build a library with, the art supplies, the laminating machine, the printer, the educational subscriptions. I’d done this before, but always with my own money or by soliciting donations in order to give my students the same resources their wealthier peers had.

There are plenty of drawbacks too. For one, it looks a lot like the typical gig economy—someone has a skill that another person will pay an hourly wage for. Parents are not investing in a teacher’s career or future professional development. They can be let go at any time. These positions as independent contractors place teachers with the added burden of paying high self-employment taxes.

Part of the gig economy is the hustle, finding the next project. In a typical job post for the nanny-educator, many state the position will last until December, possibly longer. There is not a lot of security in that.

The pay isn’t always so great, either. While tech executives and hedge fund managers can offer a higher rate, most parents are offering an average of $25/hour for a six hour day; some offer as little as $16/hour. After-school lesson planning isn’t always compensated. Some families make no mention of healthcare contributions. And forget about dental or vision benefits.

It might be lucrative to a recent graduate facing a harsh job market—now they will at least have the chance to make a few hundred dollars a day. But they might soon find the cost-benefit analysis is not in their favor.

Whether parents realize it or not, they are not showing much concern for the wellbeing of teachers. If a private educator gets severely sick, they will have to foot the bill themselves, while losing out on any hourly pay. And perhaps the parents won’t wait for the teacher to recover; they can just buy a new teacher—possibly cheaper.

An Insular Life

A few years ago, I ended up working as a private teacher in South Korea. I had assumed I would be teaching at a local private school but when I arrived the school’s owner offered me a position teaching the owner’s two children in their home. They wanted me to create a U.S.-based curriculum, including history and science, with the goal of sending the children to boarding school and eventually to the Ivy League. I felt that it was a unique opportunity and I accepted.

After their regular private school day, the family driver took the children back to the house where they would continue lessons with me, often until 9 or 10 p.m. My hours fluctuated greatly, as I was on call for any academic emergency, inflating their sense of entitlement and power. Often, I’d be there on dark mornings for a lesson before they were chauffeured in the Bentley to school.

All this meant I had no colleagues. I didn’t have anyone to talk to; no one shared my split schedule and it became a lonely life. Because I was always on, I felt like I could never relax or be myself. It was a lifestyle that, in retrospect, prepared me to self isolate.

Things aren’t much different these days. Some families creating pandemic pods are taking extra precautions and remaining hermetically isolated, asking the educator to shelter in place with them if it comes to it. Teachers who take the offer will likely find this to be an insular experience, perhaps feeling lonely without coworkers or family nearby.

They will miss out on professional development, in a completely new environment without support from a principal, other teachers or curriculum specialists. The teacher will likely also miss out on various interactions and feedback from parents and students. Part of a dynamic classroom is the various personalities, students teaching their peers, and teachers interacting with multiple people in a day. As a private teacher, none of that is possible.

An Unequal Future

As teachers consider retiring, quitting or taking private teaching positions, we must also consider who is losing out. Most public schools already have excessively large class sizes. With the increasing demand for private teachers flocking to the homes of wealthy families, this could lead to a teacher shortage, and districts across the country are already reporting difficulty in finding substitutes. Whether virtual or in person, one teacher for 20-45 students is an immense responsibility, especially considering most are new to online teaching.

This leaves marginalized students behind, yet again unable to have the same opportunities as their well-off peers. In California’s Santa Paula School District, where a friend of mine works, the local economy is dependent on agriculture, with many students the children of local farm workers. Many had limited or no access to the internet or computers during the spring quarantine. Their entire educational experience was abruptly disrupted. How can they recover this lost time?

Perhaps the district has loaned them a laptop for basic word processing. But it’s not enough. I know from experience that the wealthy child’s parents bought them a MacBook Pro, subscription services, video-editing equipment, high speed internet—all of which is accessible to them in their own bedroom, with a private tutor to guide them. Where does that leave the other 20-30 students in need of a public education, children whose parents cannot afford private tutoring, let alone a private teacher five days a week making house calls?

Trends like pandemic pods only increase stratification in education—the inequality so many students deal with—especially when disadvantaged children are absent from the conversation. But when teachers are asked to choose between their health and safety and their under-resourced schools, or between marginal pay and much smaller class sizes, teachers can hardly be blamed for considering it a viable option.

In the end, though I’d invested close to six hours of video interviews for the private educator job, they wanted someone with more elementary teaching experience. I was disappointed, but I’m grateful to have an income at a time when many don’t. And despite the misgivings about this now in-demand job, I will continue to be open to opportunities as they come, because teaching children and wanting to earn a decent living should not be mutually exclusive.

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