Teaching with the toffs

27th October 2000 at 01:00
Never talk at breakfast, old chap, and try to earn your peers' respect - especially when it's parents who are peers. Ray Dexter reports

So you're dreaming of working in a traditional boarding school? Resplendent in mortar board and gown, you see yourself declaiming eloquently to classes full of Jennings types.

There are shelves of books by ex-public schoolboys about life in the dorms after lights out, but little relevant information about what it's like to be a master. It is difficult, therefore, to know if the unique life is for you.

It is certainly not an easy life. The staff work exceedingly hard in boarding schools. Business is conducted via polite word-in-the ear or even billet-doux in the pigeon hole. The gentleman's club is still in evidence; the "cut of your jib" still matters.

Your first encounter with the public school world will be the interview. It will be unlike anything you have known before. My first interviews were friendly chats rather than grillings. I would come away trying to think of a single question that was pertinent to the position I was applying for. One head was more concerned about waging war on the split infinitive and when Bangladesh would become a major cricketing nation. Another wanted my advice on whether he should buy an Apple computer. This is the wonder of the public school. It seems out of touch but behind such nonsense lie minds that are as sharp as razors.

The biggest question is: are you prepared to marry the school? Do you want to teach on Saturdays and, if you choose to live on site, are you prepared to do a couple of nights duty in boarding houses, often finishing at nearly midnight?

Are you ready to take a very active role in extra-curricular activities, even if you have no ability in the activity? Lack of talent need not hinder you here; for two years I coached our school's under-15 basketball team with an ineptness quite unimaginable. The team only lost one game.

Finally, are you prepared to go to chapel on your free Suday and sing "Jerusalem" at the top of your voice?

If do you live in, watch out for dining room etiquette. On my first day nobody told me breakfast was a meal conducted in silence. In the masters' mess, gentlemen read their Daily Telegraph in isolation, working their way through cornflakes, eggs and bacon, rounds of toast, quality marmalade and tea and coffee; all served by waitresses. Woe betide any master who dared interrupt the tranquillity. "Morning!" I boomed. "Isn't the weather magnificent?" The question was ignored, save for a terse ruffle of the Telegraph. I tried again as I sat down.

"What a selection of marmalades!" The newspapers stiffened in anger. I still did not take the hint. "I suppose teaching in such an environment is very stimulating," I said, finally going too far.

A furious master slammed down his newspaper, stood up and threw the remains of his breakfast on my lap. He gave me a hard stare and walked out. Later, predictably, a polite word was said in my ear. Such behaviour is fortunately rare these days, but do find a sympathetic soul to tell you about things in a less stressful way.

Consider, too, your romantic life. If you have a partner, will he or she like the idea of living in a boarding school where everyone knows (and hears) your every move?

Yet I still teach in a boarding school, and I love them even more than I did. Why? First, you have tremendous respect from your peers, and especially the parents (who are often peers as well, if you see what I mean). Students are generally polite and well behaved (I still can't get over being thanked after every lesson). We have resources undreamt of in the state sector and are not tied absolutely to the national curriculum. And the big one: being able to teach the subject you love without the usual distractions.

If you want to stay in love with what you love then seriously consider it. I just hope you're un-married.

Ray Dexter is married to Caterham School. He has an affair with his wife

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