A day in the life – the boarding housemaster

Dr David James recently published an article in the TES comparing the workload of teachers in the maintained and independent sectors, in which he concluded that ‘it’s an illusion to claim that one is any easier than the other.’ https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-views/its-not-all-oiks-and-toffs-teaching-a-boarding-school-different.

Well, as someone who has spent fifteen years in a combination of private day and boarding schools, I can certainly say that there is a big difference between the demands of both. On the one hand, trying to deliver top quality lessons and attempting to influence young people from  potentially very divergent family backgrounds in the intensity of a ‘normal’ school day (say, between 8.30 – 4pm) is no picnic. On the other hand, the workload of those in the independent sector, with regular 12 hour days, six or seven days a week, and the pressure of meeting the expectations of £35,000 a year fees is no cakewalk, either.

I do not propose to attempt a detailed comparison here. Having also spent three years on the Local Governing Body of a State Academy in Wiltshire, I can certainly say that I had as much respect for the job the staff were doing there, in a tricky social and geographical area, as I did for my colleagues in the boarding sector, but sometimes comparisons are invidious and unhelpful: trying to compare the two sectors is a bit like trying to compare sixth form teaching with primary teaching – it may be more relevant to view them as entirely different jobs, such are the differing skill sets.

What I thought might be informative here is to share a pretty typical working day for a boarding housemaster. I know that for many, what goes on in boarding schools can seem mysterious and esoteric (even intimidating and confusing, perhaps), and hopefully this will enlighten. For those who might have ambitions of moving into the boarding sector, or might be thinking about furthering a pastoral career in boarding, it may act to give a feeling for what you are letting yourself into.

What follows is a breakdown of my day – a pretty typical Wednesday, in honesty – from February 5th, 2014:

6.30am – wake up to turn off alarm for Upper 6th boy on trip to university
8.00am  – Sit in on school prefects meeting, planning a session on body image
8.30am – quick coffee in department
8.40am – Teach Upper 6th class
9.45am – Teach Year 10 (Fourth form) class / manage to add to presentation for tonight and mark late
10.45am – Department meeting – coffee
11.15am – Chat to Head of Admissions then meet family in for tour of the school
12.00am – lunch
12.30pm – Department to catch up on emails / prepare next lesson
1.15pm – Teach A-level class
2.15pm – Speak to Upper 6th boy about a pastoral and academic issue
2.30pm – respond to important email
2.55pm – Arrive at another house for meeting with matron and house tour
3.40pm – Arrive at second house for meeting with Matron and house tour
4.15pm – cup of tea; chat to two other HMs about small  pastoral issue
4.30pm – Pastoral meeting with Deputy Head, Pastoral: covered sex ed, body image, pocket money,
pizza etc
5.20pm – coaching Lower 6th former; see my family briefly for supper
5.45pm – see Matron and nurse who was in delivering smoking session to year 9 group in house
5.50pm – House assembly (see three boys quickly about having a car in school, oversleeping, tidiness)
6.00pm – Meeting with parents of Year 9 (3rd form) boy re EdPsych issues / ensure Year 10 (4th form)
are prepared for cooking house supper for a special event
6.55pm – read bedtime story to my children
7.00pm – finish presentation – eat with group of students; hand over duty to duty tutor
7.30pm – deliver talk to house group (I had recently visited Auschwitz and was asked to talk about the
experience to the boys
8pm – further discussion on talk
8.30pm – chat to duty tutor about his tutor group
8.45pm – meet parent of Year 10 (4th form) boy
9.15pm – phone parents of upper 6th boy
9.40pm – coaching meeting with upper 6th boy
10pm – take over from duty tutor
10.15pm – write agenda for tomorrow’s house meeting
10.35pm – check boys are on way to bed, turn off lights
10.45pm – write up notes from the day and notes from matrons meetings today
11pm – private work
12pm – 6th form boys return from theatre trip
12.20pm – Bed

Obviously, you can draw your own conclusions from reading this. Reflecting on this myself, I notice a few key points:

  1. The balance between work and family life. Living and working in the same place can have its benefits (I would have seen my wife and daughter during the half hour lunch slot), but 5 minutes for storytime is simply not long enough.
  2. Career development requires sacrifice. The meetings with matrons in the afternoon were part of a developing whole school role I had taken on. One might question where my lesson preparation occurs given that my allotted timetable reduction was often taken up with extra projects. The reality: holidays and Sundays often entailed hours of extra work, and being prepared ahead of time is crucial for a housemaster/mistress. In fact, having some ‘go-to’ lessons saved me at times when I had to attend to urgent emergencies and turn up at class at the last minute.
  3. Sleep. As a school leader with responsibility for housestaff now, I think a crucial area of focus is trying to allow people to get enough sleep and time off. The late theatre trips were a staple of the job and meant you were often going into the next day undernourished and therefore less patient than would have been optimal. This is not to say they should be worn as a badge of honour, rather that schools ought to try and find ways to alleviate the attritional effects of being in loco parentis.
  4. No time to switch off. The single biggest difference between my job now and my job in the boarding house is that I get to go home now – sure, it’s not always early, and I still have weekend responsibilities and ‘on-call’ times, but as a housemaster I don’t think you ever totally switch off until the pupils leave for holidays, which means a heightened state of alertness and anxiety for extended periods.
  5. Variety. This was the part of the job I loved more than anything else. The range of teaching, work with staff, pupils and parents meant that no two days were alike, and if you consider that three days a week, I would have spent an hour or so on the sports field coaching sport, I was able to develop myself as a rounded individual, and was never, ever bored.
  6. Relationships. I lied. This is the best thing about running a boarding house. Having such a privileged and trusted insight into the lives of dozens of young people in their formative years, sharing their joys and frustrations, successes and disappointments, and maybe having a hand in helping them develop is a real responsibility, an honour, and ultimately, a gift.

    It may not be for everyone, but if you go in eyes open, there might be no better job.






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