Who makes a house

12th January 1996 at 00:00
Being a house parent adds a special dimension to teaching in a boarding school. Jonathan Croall hears how.

Teaching is a demanding enough job, but combining it with being a housemaster or housemistress in a boarding school requires not only commitment, but stamina. But for many who go into it, this particular kind of double life can be highly rewarding.

What then are the main challenges of being permanently in residence at a boarding school? Is it possible to combine it with social or family life? What kind of experience do you need under your belt before embarking on this kind of job?

Fiona Donaldson and Juliet Markland both teach French in Eastbourne - but there the similarity ends. Juliet, divorced and with three children in their twenties, has only just made the move into a full-time residential role. Although she has been teaching at Moira House School since 1980, she has been an assistant housemother in the sixth-form house for only a term.

Fiona, on the other hand, is single, has had six years' residential experience at a school in East Anglia, and in September will become the first housemother to be appointed at Eastbourne College, as the school becomes officially co-educational.

After working as a residential sixth-form tutor at Culford School in Suffolk, Fiona is a great enthusiast for the way of life. "In a boarding school it's the most rewarding part of teaching by miles," she says. "The pastoral bit is where you get the ultimate involvement, watching the girls grow up, seeing how they change."

She believes being a sympathetic listener is crucial, since girls often unload their problems on to someone who's living in. "So many of them are sent to boarding school because their parents don't like them, or because they don't like each other and want the child out of the way. So you often become a surrogate sister." She's found that girls will share a great range of problems. "They tell you stuff that they wouldn't dream of telling anybody else, even their parents. But that's because they know you'll just soak it up."

The problems range from trivial squabbles, through concerns about relationships, to the obvious beginnings of breakdown in the family. "Sometimes it's medical stuff like abortions. But if it looks like being something with legal or medical implications, I tell them at the beginning that I won't necessarily keep it to myself."

Bereavement may also have to be coped with. Because hers was a sixth-form house, the girls were at the age when grandparents tended to be dying. Two girls also died suddenly while she was there - one through illness, the other from an accident. "Those were terribly difficult times, and the girls needed to get through a lot of talking," she recalls.

As well as having the ability to listen, she believes it's important for anyone living at such close quarters with young people to be "brutally frank", but also to be able to get them to laugh afterwards.

She cautions newcomers to the job about a certain kind of child. "I found I was great with eccentric children, they attached themselves to me. But new staff often get monopolised by kids who have great problems, because they like to have someone brand new. You have to find time of your own."

The possibility of a social life away from the job depends in part on the location of the school. "It was not easy in Suffolk because the school was so isolated, and the staff not very social," she recalls. "I sometimes had to sleep in my house even when I was off duty, so I really had no time off. "

She had seen it all before at close quarters, since she grew up in a boarding school where her father was a housemaster. She started her career teaching French and Spanish for three years at a comprehensive in Cornwall. Recently, after six years in Suffolk, she decided to return to the classroom. "I just needed a break from being needed," she says. "But after two years I'm looking forward to going back."

She feels, nevertheless, that it's probably better for a housemother to be married. "It's almost essential to have that kind of emotional support; the hardest thing about the job is not to have someone to let steam off to. "

That view might be disputed at Moira House School, where four of the housemothers are single and two divorced. But having had a family has already proved a real asset to Juliet Markland in her new role. "I could be talking to my own children, the problems are the same," she says.

Juliet, too, finds her job an enriching one. "You get to know a very different side of the girls from the one you see in the classroom. And that's really nice," she says. "You see them in the evening when they're often at their most vulnerable, and you find out what their problems are."

This is when anxieties about careers can come to the surface. "A major problem for many of the girls is their future. Sometimes they see it as bleak; they feel they don't know what they want to do. Of course you haven't got the answers, so it's just a matter of talking and providing support."

She says the girls have a lot of studying, and you soon know who is overworking, and who is falling behind. "But at 17 and 18 they have to take responsibility for themselves. If they're not working, there's no point in nagging them, you've just got to hold back."

The main qualities needed for the housemother job, she suggests, are patience, the capacity to remain calm and, not least, flexibility. "You've got to be prepared to drop everything if a crisis arrives, or a girl needs all your attention. It sounds heroic, but it isn't, it's just part of the job."

At Moira House she is on a half timetable, teaching French for 17 40-minute periods a week. But if something urgent comes up within her house, it can sometimes mean the loss of preparation time. "So you have to be prepared to give a lesson off the cuff," she says.

Fortunately, she has enough experience to do so without anxiety. Before starting work at Moira House, she taught in a middle school in Leicestershire, and in a mixed prep school in West Sussex. She has taught GCSE and A-level, and been a sixth-form tutor, and last year got a taste of the housemother role when she worked part-time in the junior house.

She recognises the dangers of getting too immersed in the job. "The girls are very considerate, they will say 'Are you on?' But even if I'm not, I may still help. But you can get too involved, and I sometimes have to stop myself. You've got to remain a little bit separate."

The day can be a very long one. She may teach until 5.30pm, then take an after-school activity - wind surfing is her speciality. There may then be meetings with parents, or academic matters to discuss with the other teachers.

After that she may be on duty throughout the evening until the 45 girls in the house settle into bed at 11.15pm. "You often find you're not really relaxing until midnight, so you need to be a bit of a night owl," she says.

Working alongside a senior housemistress allows for a certain flexibility in evenings off. So far, despite the long hours, she's found it possible to have a reasonable amount of time off, and has only had to miss the occasional session of an evening class in navigation that she attends in Eastbourne.

She admits it can be a lonely job when you are the only one on duty from Saturday morning to Tuesday morning, as happens twice a term. "You can feel very isolated then, without another adult to relate to."

Rather surprisingly, there is no national co-ordinated training programme for residential staff in boarding schools, although individual schools run induction or personal in-service training courses, or offer teachers the chance to "shadow" a house parent.

The Headmasters' Conference does a certain amount, and earlier this month the Boarding Schools Association, which has its own network of area training co-ordinators, held a national conference in Cambridge for housemasters and housemistresses.

The BSA is now testing training proposals put forward by Sarah Evans and Jane Laing of the Friends' School, Saffron Walden. They include a unit on running a boarding house, as well as others on the implications of the Children Act, communication and counselling skills, conflict resolution, relationships, team building, foreign pupils, and time management.

The Roehampton Institute has shown interest in being involved in the validation of the initial course, which could be running by September next year. "Training has to be adaptable," says Adrian Underwood, chairman of the BSA. "Our proposals are moving along well, and we will make them work."

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