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Next step - How do I become ... A housemaster?

If you enjoy the pastoral side of teaching and are happy to work long hours, this could be an ideal career move

Being a surrogate parent for 50 teenagers isn't everyone's idea of fun. You're constantly on call, living on the job and responsible for the round-the-clock safety of everyone in your care. But teachers who become boarding housemasters or housemistresses often stay with the job for life - so what's the appeal?

"It's not a job, it's a lifestyle," says Peter Bieneman, who for the past 17 years has been housemaster or assistant housemaster at Harrow School in Middlesex.

"You have to put in a lot of time, supporting pupils who have problems or who are going through a crisis. But when you see them come out the other side, and go on to great things, it's wonderful."

If you're the kind of teacher who likes the day to be done and dusted by 5pm, this clearly isn't the job for you. Being in charge of a boarding house means the last bell of the afternoon is more like half-time than full-time. You still have to supervise the evening meal, organise activities, oversee homework and make sure everyone gets to bed. In a secondary school, it can easily be 11pm before you're finally off-duty.

"And dealing with families is time consuming," says Mr Bieneman. "There are always emails coming in and parents like to be in constant communication."

Fortunately, most housemasters and housemistresses have a team to support them, meaning they can have at least one night a week to themselves. "A strong team is so important," says Mr Bieneman. "My assistant housemaster and matron are both excellent, and we have senior house prefects who really care about the younger boys and let us know if there are any problems. That's the key to a successful house."

The main market for housemaster jobs is the independent sector, though there are more than 30 maintained boarding schools around the UK. The house system was developed in boarding schools as a way of creating a sense of belonging. It means pupils of different ages can mix and allows for a range of inter-house activities.

Some day schools, both independent and maintained, also operate a house system, though it's rarely as integral to school life as in a boarding environment.

Most housemasters and housemistresses get free accommodation, and in some cases household bills may be covered as well. Boarding schools also tend to have longer holidays than day schools - typically an extra three or four weeks a year. That's important, as it's your only real chance to recharge your batteries.

"It's an emotionally involving job," says Emma Brown, who has been housemistress at St Mary's School in Calne, Wiltshire, since September. "You're always trying to strike a balance between being sensitive to the boarders' needs, while at the same time setting clear boundaries."

Boarding schools have long since shed the image of cold showers and vast communal dormitories. For example, at St Mary's, Mrs Brown has responsibility for nearly 50 upper sixth girls, housed in state-of-the-art facilities, with individual bedrooms and bathrooms, an internet cafe and cooking facilities so girls can choose to cater for themselves or eat in school.

"What I like is the sense that we're preparing them for life. For me, becoming a housemistress seemed a logical career move, because I've always enjoyed the pastoral side of teaching. What I've tried to do is create a family atmosphere at school. For example, the girls have played a big part in helping my baby daughter learn to walk. And my husband has started up a supper club, where every week a small group of girls come and cook and eat with us. The better you get to know everyone in the house, the easier it is to ensure they are happy."

- Next week: Speech therapist


- Salary: Allowances vary, but about Pounds 5,000. On its own, it would be a poor return on the extra hours but free accommodation helps.

- Qualifications: Experience of working in a boarding school, or of working with children in a residential setting. Failing that, you need a CV that highlights your pastoral skills and your work as a form tutor.

- Key qualities: Caring attitude, willingness to accept free time will be limited.

- Next steps: Check out the website of the Boarding Schools' Association

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