What is a Governess?


August, 2019

Good question! Most people pull all sorts of funny expressions after the question of “What’s your job?” has been asked and I confidently say, “I’m a governess!” Usually people don’t really know what a governess is and they’ll often awkwardly nod in agreement. This is the point where I might help them out a little and follow up with a line like “Well, I suppose it’s a glorified nanny,” or “A governess is somewhere between a nanny and a tutor and quite frankly all that’s in between”, which leads me in to giving them a much clearer picture.

You’ve heard of Mary Poppins, right? Everyone’s favourite fictional governess? Well, that’s me, only I don’t wear A-line skirts but comfy yoga pants to work. I can’t magically make characters appear but I can do a really good job with all the children’s toys for fun imaginary play. Also, I must confess, my umbrella is nowhere near as big or as cool as Mary’s.

A little historical fact before I explain what we actually do: governesses have been around since the 17th century, working mostly for noble and aristocratic families around the world. These families sought out well-spoken and educated English ladies to care for and educate their children as this was seen as a status symbol. It was also a way to teach their children ‘the Queen’s English’ and open up opportunities during their later years, both in educational and employment settings. 

So, what do we actually do with our time and why is a governess or governor not the same as a nanny or manny, even though both have equally important roles within a family? 

Firstly, a governess generally works with older children, not babies. She assists with some aspects of childcare, in the same way as a nanny or parent would, from morning and bedtime routines to teaching bathroom management and encouraging independent behaviour such as feeding and dressing themselves.

A governess will also try to show through her own actions, speech and body language what is appropriate and what is not in particular situations – manners and etiquette are still an important part of the role. Unlike a nanny, who is usually more focused on meeting the physical needs of the child, the main focus of a governess will be to teach another language through sit-down lessons and age appropriate games and activities whereby the child can learn through play. She generally establishes a great bond with the child and gains their respect as a teacher and friend – they usually enjoy their lesson time and will often behave better for their governess than for anyone else! The governess may also teach the child to read, most likely read regularly with them, and provide homework assistance.

The governess is also expected to accompany to the child to and from their extra-curricular activities, which could be anything from ballet to karate lessons, so that the child isn’t alone with the driver and they make the most of their opportunities to learn by simply communicating with their governess. 

A governess will often have other strings to her bow, besides being well educated and well spoken. She may play a musical instrument, sing, be particularly good at one sport or many, teach yoga, dance, be especially creative in the arts or be a dab hand in the kitchen. In any case, having a special or particular skill will get you noticed by families if you are seeking a career as a governess. These extra-curricular activities are attractive to families as they know that their child will have the opportunity to learn new skills. 

Some families will employ one governess for numerous children or sometimes one per child; it all depends on their circumstances and wishes for their children.

Families usually desire a governess to join them for at least one year, but contracts can exceed three years if both governess and family are happy. Governesses can look to earn from £800 – £1500 per week overseas for somewhere between 40-60 hours per week. 

So what do you need to become a governess? Well, a bachelor’s degree from a well-established university is usually a good start, although the degree subjects vary far and wide with our candidates. From teachers to law and theatre graduates, Great British Nannies has placed governesses who majored in all kinds of disciplines. To complement your degree, a CELTA or TEFL certificate are also greatly sought after from our overseas families that need their candidate to have knowledge of teaching English (or other languages) to children of a different mother tongue. Experience of teaching or tutoring is highly desirable, and some families may ask for some basic childcare qualifications as well, depending on the age of the children.

Besides these requirements, and of course the magical talents that not everyone else has (puppetry? The ability to make slime from storecupboard ingredients? Whatever floats your superyacht…), what else can you do to secure your dream governess job? 

From our experience it has everything to do with YOU. That’s right, YOU. The family want to see your real personality shine through at interview. If you happen to be bubbly, feel free to be yourself, and please, whatever you do, make sure you always pay attention to the children if they are present! A governess needs a whole mix of qualities when it comes to finding the right role for them and the right chemistry with the right family.

Sometimes, we think it’s helpful for you to take on your role in a way that looks at it from the family’s perspective, and for them to look at it from yours. There is nothing better than being a governess for a family that truly respects you and vice versa. Mutual respect and understanding about approaches to childcare, teaching and discipline are paramount in having a clear understanding of each other’s needs and being able to fully appreciate the requirements of the family. Ultimately, if you don’t have similar goals in mind then it’s going to be very difficult to deliver successful results and enjoy some job satisfaction along the way.

Of course, like any job there can be challenges. Sometimes entering into people’s homes (especially if you’re their first governess) can be as awkward for the family as it is for you. Most roles take around three months to fully settle into, especially if it’s in a new environment overseas whereby not only are you adjusting to new children but a new culture, language and atmosphere altogether. It’s worth being patient and kind to yourself: it can be daunting but that can be balanced out with the excitement from the new places you get to visit both whilst at work and on your time off and the new people you meet.

Speaking of new friends, as a new governess we’d advise you to join some online groups for expats in your area and some nanny and governess groups online. As you’ll generally be working alone or alongside a team of nannies of different nationalities, having virtual or real-life ‘colleagues’ who do the same job to chat to makes the whole process go much more smoothly. You can really learn a lot from your peers, whether it’s tips for resources or creative ideas that will make teaching through play much more fun and effective. You can bet that whatever issues you encounter, someone more experienced will have already overcome them and can offer helpful advice.

It can be a very challenging role to start with, especially going to work overseas with children that are a little older, speak little to no English and have been used to a different way of life. While you may be feeling daunted, remember that they may also be nervous about having a new person around with a new way of doing things. Children don’t always know how to express that without ‘acting out’. Governesses, be prepared to be challenged! However, try to thrive on the challenge, and whatever you do, don’t let these things feel personal, because more often than not they aren’t. Try to remember when you were younger and how this might have felt for you. Be sensitive and aware of a child’s need for time to get used to you. You have so much to offer and in no time the child will see that too. Sometimes they see it upon your first interaction with them, but they certainly aren’t going to let you know that right away.

Children require a lot of patience and of course it will take some time to gain their trust. Take it slowly, adapt their routine gradually to meet the needs of their language development and make sure you make the effort to maintain good communication with the parents about your observations and goals. They are hiring a professional – you –and sometimes need guidance themselves. Try to be gentle with them. Nobody likes to feel attacked on their parenting, or anything else. Always explain to them what you feel is great about the current situation and how you can help to make things even better. We believe a governess should always try to live in a ‘no negativity’ zone at work. Of course you are human and will have your off days but your job is to educate and uplift the children and keeping that at the front of your mind usually makes sure everyone is happy. Happy children, happy parents and happy governess is the goal. If one is off balance, the rest may be too.

Besides the amazing job satisfaction of caring for and educating adorable little humans, there’s a lot more that is exciting about these roles! You might be rubbing shoulders with celebrities (remember to contain your excitement). One of our governesses was recently at a party that Leonardo Di Caprio was attending…I mean, hello! You might be flying on a private jet Presidential style – we’re talking double bedrooms equipped with showers, lounge areas and a level of service you never knew existed. Super yachts are standard (all right, yachts are not for the travel sick, but that should soon pass). Then there’s travelling every couple of months to the most beautiful and exquisite destinations. We’re not sure it gets much better than nurturing, educating and seeing the world in style – all while getting paid to do it!

Sound interesting? Would you like to know more? Well, in a few weeks we’ll be releasing an online course on governessing, just in time for the new academic year. We’ve worked hard to pass on all the knowledge we’ve gained over our years in the job, and this course covers basically everything we wish we’d known when we started out (and we do mean everything, from CV and interview tips and tricks to cultural differences and why you should pack twice as many clothes as you think you’ll need when you go to work for a Russian family – we’ve found the pitfalls so you can hopefully avoid them!). Whether you’re a new candidate looking to kickstart your career, or already working in your first role and in need of some advice, we hope there’s plenty here to help you do the best job you can in this often mysterious industry. We’ll keep you posted when it launches.

Existing governesses (and indeed governors, because this all applies to you too), we’d love to hear from you about your awesome experiences, especially if you’d like to tell us about some of your best experiences so far. Alternatively, if you’re a newbie looking to get into this incredibly rewarding profession and need some advice, we are ready to have a chat and see if you seem like a candidate that would work well alongside one of our families.

Adventure awaits!