This is not a job for the faint of heart. The bare reality of day-to-day life in a boarding house is long hours, pressure from pupils, parents and staff, a never-ending stream of emails and no prospect of a break at the weekend. Taking on a role like this should be done with eyes wide open and a realistic grasp of what lies ahead. And while the best HMs are, by nature, selfless individuals who tend to put their pupils first, unless you are able to look after yourself, you are doing them a disservice in the long run. So here are just a few tips to help you cope with the demands of what can seem a relentless, thankless and nigh-on impossible task.
- Focus on the good bits
It may seem not the done thing to talk about the benefits, but it is unlikely that you will have taken on the job without an extra allowance and probably free, or very affordable accommodation, so there are tangible rewards for the promotion into a boarding role. However, these are not likely to be the reason you took on the job, in the same way you rarely hear people getting into teaching for the vast pay. The real good bits are seeing your young people (and they do become ‘yours’) develop into real-life adults, and having a hand in that is a privilege – the hugs and handshakes when they leave for university carry a very special affection which can only come from living with them through their most formative years. Being part of making memories for them is exciting – they won’t remember all the lessons from school, but they will remember the house trips, socials, late-night banter and competitions, so yes, they are worth the extra effort it takes.
2. You can’t live their lives for them
This is where it is crucial to separate sympathy from empathy (more than just a semantic difference). Empathy (sharing an emotional response) implies you are experiencing what the other person is going through. Can you imagine doing this for 50-60 teenagers? You’d be exhausted within an hour if you sat on the roller-coaster with them all. So whilst they will come to you with broken hearts, bitter anger, tears of joy and frustration, it will not actually help them, or you if you weep along with them or react in an overly emotional way. Rather it is better to be sympathetic – show them that whilst they are their own feelings and not yours, they are legitimate and you do care, often even if you don’t happen to agree. Being listened to is one of the most important things for any human being, and this is multiplied tenfold for teenagers, so be there, be present, but don’t feel the need to emote. And actually, a stable response, rather than an emotionally volatile HM is a lot more reassuring.
I lose count of the amount of sleep studies there have been in the past decade or so, and yet still there are those teachers (you all know one – if you don’t, you probably are one…) for whom a lack of sleep is worn as a badge of honour, like some 1980s yuppie sleeping on the trading floor. The job of an HM can be emotionally draining and so you will need your physical resources to be as strong as possible, too. But late nights are a reality. The majority of senior boarding HMs will do 4-5 late night duties, extending to 11pm, or beyond, not to mention the periodical midnight trip to hospital, homesick child, or fire alarm at 2am. This usually means getting less than the recommended 8 hours on a regular basis. In my first couple of years I made a point of being the last to bed and first up (being the one to wake the boys up in the morning is important for me, just so they start the day knowing that I am around for them). However, this is pretty unsustainable in the long term and now I try to get to bed before midnight regardless, trusting the older boys to make good decisions about their own sleep. This has the double benefit of showing trust in them, and I am certainly fresher the next day and better able to make calm, collected decisions and not dangerous emotional ones.
I would also beat the drum for napping – if it’s good enough for Churchill and Thatcher, it’s probably good enough for you, however indispensable you might think you are. Just a short 15-45 minutes when you do have a window can help get to the end of the day in one piece.
Obviously. And much like sleep and mindfulness, something we often tell ourselves we haven’t got time for. But I bet you feel more energised after a trip to the gym or a jog. And I also bet you are less likely to drink or smoke later in the day. A virtuous cycle if ever there was one.
OK, so staring at a raisin or walking ridiculously slowly might seem completely bonkers, but hear me out on this one. The experts would suggest 15 minutes of mindful meditation every day, but I’d be a horrible liar if I claimed I got even close to this. But the central tenets of mindfulness (and some practice) can really help keep things in perspective. Dealing with the present moment and recognising that we live our lives in a linear way should mean that we focus all our attention on the task at hand, even if it is just a mundane task, like brushing your teeth. Of course, we don’t. We have hundreds of thoughts, emotions, impulses pinging around our head at any one time and learning to see them for what they are and not be buffeted by them is a handy skill. Many great sportsmen use mindfulness and it is no surprise that a great deputy head I know who approaches every situation with uncanny calm was once a professional opening batsman. He just takes issues like he faced fast balls – one at a time.
6. An Attitude of Gratitude
Andy Cope gives a wonderful talk to schools about ‘The Art of Being Brilliant’ – in which he talks about the ‘beautiful ordinary’. Stepping outside the maelstrom of your working life, even for a second or two, to recognise the beauty or curiosity in everyday things is another aspect of mindfulness which can keep things grounded. The Mindfulness in Schools project call this ‘dot.Be’ (literally STOP; and be – in the present moment) Add to this the habit of ending every day thinking about three things you are thankful for and you may start to see life in a more positive way.
7. Destination Addiction
Apologies again to Andy Cope for piggybacking on his ideas, but this is a nice memorable phrase for the thinking trap of putting off happiness (‘If I get good GCSEs I’ll be happy’; ‘as long as I get to the weekend, I’ll be fine’ etc) rather than recognising happiness as a dynamic state of mind, manifested in the present. I have at times in my career as housemaster banned the use of such phrases as ‘I’m tired’; ‘I’m stressed’ and any reference to counting down to a holiday. ‘Just eight weeks to Christmas!’.
8. Pick up the phone
Again, nothing new here, but the scourge of the email still abounds. Recently we introduced a no- phones-in-school policy which has had a great impact during the school day, with staff and pupils engaging more on a human level and hopefully experiencing life in first-hand. So it may seem odd to say ‘pick up the phone’. What I mean is speak to people, don’t engage in long email traffic. A phone call may last longer in the event, but it will almost certainly get the issue at hand closer to a conclusion, you don’t risk the problem with misunderstandings of tone, and you’ll probably also have the chance to offer a nice comment of the ‘whilst I’ve got you’ kind.
9. Look Up
Just as it says. You’d be amazed by what you notice if you raise your eyes heavenward. And it has the added benefit of improving posture, with chest out and chin up. There is research that suggests that you can use your body to fool your mind into changing attitude – ‘fake it to make it’, essentially. The same goes for smiling, by the way.
10. Get out of the school gates
Finally – and before I start to sound like some new-age ascetic – give yourself a break. You’ve already given up your weekends and Friday nights, so when the chance comes to go out with your partner or friends, take it. Remember what it is like to be you, and if it ends up with a hangover – oh well. It was fun, right? Of course, if you end up feeling resentful that you can’t do this every week, then maybe it is time to reassess career options. Nothing is worse than a cynical or jaded houseparent just gasping for the holidays.
And if all these fail, just go into the house and chat to the kids. They never fail to surprise and (in most cases…) delight.