Emily Gratton gives her top tips from her perspective as Head of a Girls’ Boarding House.
Emily Gratton moved to the UK from Canada in 2008 to teach English and Media Studies at Aldenham School. I am currently in my fourth year of being a House Mistress (HSM), having been a HSM of a boys’ Day House for two years before taking over a large girls’ House (day and boarding) in 2014.
If you enjoy the pastoral side of teaching and value the relationships you form with your tutees, it is possible that at some point in your career you will consider taking on a pastoral leadership role, such as that of a Housemaster/Mistress (HSM).
Being an HSM, especially in a boarding house, is a weird and wonderful life. You are entrusted with the welfare and development of young people from all over the world, some of whom will not see their parents more than two or three times a year. The nature of a boarding house means you form strong relationships with the students and you quickly become much more to them than just a teacher. Likewise, they become more than students to you and will enrich your life immeasurably. As an HSM it is your job to help raise someone else’s child. You prepare these children for the future and help them develop and maintain character traits that will enable them to be happy, successful and resilient adults. It is a huge responsibility, but the challenge and importance of such a role is part of the appeal. Teachers who become an HSM will often stay with the job for life.
However, being a surrogate parent for 50+ teenagers isn’t everyone’s idea of fun. You work 24 hours a day, live on the job, are constantly on call and fully responsible for the round-the-clock safety of everyone in your care, not to mention the maintenance and upkeep of the building. If you’re the sort of teacher who considers the last bell of the day the signal to down tools and head home, this is definitely not the job for you. Being an HSM in charge of a boarding house means the last bell of the afternoon signals the second half of your day. Post-5:30 means registration, evening meals, overseeing prep, activities, house tidy up and bed time routines. Someone is always at the door, on the phone or emailing you. There is no such thing as ‘off-duty’, even when it might be your day off.
To put it simply, being an HSM is not a job, it is a lifestyle.
If you are considering taking on such a role, or are preparing to begin your new life as an HSM, there are some things that are helpful to know before you start. What follows are my personal ‘top tips’ for anyone who might be considering a pastoral leadership role:
- Have Patience: At any given time, day or night, there will be a problem that only you can sort out. Some will be serious, others less so, but all will need your attention. These things will usually happen right when you are in the middle of something equally important. Therefore, you must have the ability to remain calm, provide stability and show courage in every situation. You must refrain from losing your temper and should, as much as possible, offer a kind and listening ear to all the children in your care. Remember that they are children who are experiencing any number of very intense emotions and they need you.
- Practice what you preach: In everything you do and say, you set an example for the children in your care. You cannot demand of them what you do not fulfil yourself. If you tell your students they must be punctual, well presented and responsible, then you must be as well, otherwise you lose credibility and your house will lack dignity. Children are the first ones to spot a hypocrite and the old adage ‘do as I say, not as I do’ will not sit well with them. Teenagers will find it particularly unjust if you don’t follow your own rules. Be a role model and set the example of what you want from them. This will help you earn their respect, which is crucial to developing positive relationships in this role.
- Organisation is KEY to success: This job requires the ability to balance many demands at once and you will find yourself in chaotic situations on a daily basis. You have to manage your time, your resources, your staff, the students and their parents, not to mention your personal life. This is part of the fun, but if you are the disorganised sort, you will soon find yourself overwhelmed and feeling unable to cope. If you are struggling, ask your staff for help and delegate tasks to others wherever possible. There is bound to be at least one member of staff on your team who is organised and efficient. Something as simple as keeping your office and desk tidy can help you to feel more in control and ‘to do’ lists can be incredibly useful in helping you prioritise on a daily basis. Procrastination and avoidance are not options for an HSM. Everything catches up to you eventually so whatever the method, find one that works for you and don’t let things pile up.
- Don’t worry. Be Happy: Maintaining a positive mindset and sharing that with the students is crucial to the happiness and success of your House. If you are happy and smiling then they will be too. Spread positivity amongst the students: cheer them on, focus on the bright side and praise them for something every day. There will of course be days when you feel tired, overwhelmed and overworked, but try not to let it affect the way you interact with the children in your care. Being a good pastoral leader requires strong interpersonal skills, and it is impossible to communicate positively if you are always moaning about something. If you are positive in your dealings with the students, the parents and the staff, you should be able to convince them in any matter. Positivity is contagious, so be the one who spreads the joy and you will see it reflected in your house community.
- Believe in the Team Spirit: Being the primary carer for such a large number of students is a massive job and you simply cannot do it alone. Many HSMs find it difficult to delegate and often feel that they must bear the full brunt of the workload, but balancing the needs of more than 50 teenagers (and their parents!) is an impossible task for one person. You must be able to utilise the skills of your house team and empower them to take on a role of importance in their own right. Find out what each person is good at or what they enjoy and give them a role that helps lighten your load. Make sure your staff knows they are valued and their contributions are appreciated and they too will believe in the team spirit. Remember: a player can win a game but a team can win a championship!
- Don’t play favourites: There is nothing more damaging to relationships with children than favouritism. Not only will it damage their relationship with you, but it will cause discontent amongst the students and can lead to exclusion and bullying of those who are seen as your favourites. There will inevitably be students who have qualities that set them apart, and in reality you may prefer some over others, but this should never be obvious and such feelings must be kept to yourself. Ensure that everyone in your care knows they are an important member of the community. Every student has something to offer and it is your job to make them feel equally cared for and valued.
- Know the difference between ‘Like’ and ‘Respect’: As an HSM you are in a position where it is easy to be liked. To the students in your care you are their champion, their number one supporter and the person they can turn to in times of need. However, you must also be willing to make difficult decisions and enforce sanctions that might make you unpopular at times. You are responsible for the moral development of the children and setting boundaries and implementing rules is necessary in helping the students grow into decent, well-mannered and responsible adults. However unpopular your decisions might be, the students will respect you for maintaining high standards and expecting them to rise to your expectations. Moreover, if they respect you, they will want to earn yours in return, which is an extremely beneficial relationship for everyone involved. Respect is harder to earn, but lasts far longer than being liked.
- Celebrate diversity: In a boarding house you will have many different cultures, nationalities and religions, as well as varying talents and abilities represented amongst the students and living communally. Such vast differences can cause problems and possibly lead to cliques, social division, exclusion or even bullying. You can prevent these things from happening by praising differences and encouraging the students to learn more about each other. Each person under your care should be recognised for something, whether it is their ability to speak three languages or their performance on the pitch. If you make clear to everyone that their contributions, whatever they may be, are highly valued, the students will also learn to appreciate the assortment of abilities and backgrounds amongst their peers. An inclusive community that celebrates and nurtures diversity will be happier and more successful as a result.
- Be a leader, not a dictator: As an HSM you are in a position of influence and importance. The house and everyone in it are your responsibility and you will ultimately have the final say in most decisions. Therefore, you must be careful to keep your ego in check. Running a house requires team work (refer to tip #5) and everyone involved in the care of the students should have their ideas and opinions considered. A good HSM will listen and give equal credit to everyone, staff and students alike, for their contributions to the success of the house. You must not be of the opinion that it is only your work or your opinion that matters. Maintaining supportive and mutually respectful relationships with your colleagues and students is not possible if you take a self-serving and/or Draconian approach. Don’t forget that although you will have some measure of autonomy within your house, you are still part of the greater school community and are a member of a team outside the house as well.
- Be kind to yourself: This position requires a lot from you, both emotionally and physically. Living where you work means someone always needs something from you. Therefore, when you do have time off it is important to get out of the house and offsite for a little while. Spend time with your partner or family, catch up with your friends, get some exercise, go to the pub, just do whatever it is that makes you happy and allows you to reconnect with the world outside of work. Downtime is an excellent remedy for stress and a little break can work wonders on your mindset and enable you to return to the house feeling refreshed and with a positive outlook.
There is one more important piece of advice – arguably, one of the most important of all – that must be mentioned, consider this a bonus tip:
Cultivate the ability to give good advice: As an HSM you are required to counsel your students on everything from their academics and future education/career choices, to their relationships, social problems and even their appearance. There will always be times when you aren’t sure what to say or do, and you may be faced with situations that cause you to doubt yourself, so it is important that you develop some knowledge of how to deal with certain topics or situations. There are many good courses available on a vast range of topics that you will encounter as an HSM; the BSA provides excellent pastoral courses that can help you develop the skills you need to be successful in your position. Also, remember that wisdom comes from experience and the longer you are in the role, the more self-assured and capable you will become.
Being an HSM, especially in boarding, is integral to school life. It’s a rollercoaster ride, but with the right approach it will be the most fulfilling and exciting position you ever have in your career. Good luck!