Lessons from the Boarding House

Working in a boarding house has been one of the greatest honours I’ve ever been given. It’s the heart and soul of a school and boarders add an element of authenticity and community that cannot be emanated elsewhere. Articulating the contribution that boarders make to our school community is hard to articulate; it’s more of a visceral feeling – one that cannot be matched and one that I feel very privileged to witness. 

While, as a teacher, I’ve spent the last 4 years working in boarding schools, it wasn’t until the beginning of 2021 that I began working in a role within the boarding house. It’s sure been a wild ride and as I reflect on my first 12 months on the dorm (and look forward to the many more to come) – here’s a few things I’ve learnt while working in the craziest place in the school. 

1. Homesickness hits people differently 

Some students are homesick from day 1, for some, they don’t feel homesick until the novelty wears off and others, never get homesick at all. Managing these various states of homesickness is tricky, but really – all you’ve got to do is be supportive. 

2. There’s a lot of crying – and that’s ok 

Crying because they didn’t do their homework, crying because someone’s being mean, crying because they did one ab workout and don’t have abs (yes, true story) and crying because they’re laughing so hard. There’s a lot of tears and you know what – that’s completely ok, you’ve just gotta roll with the punches (or in this case, tears). It’s like a version of Russian roulette dominos. One starts crying and the next minute, 5 more are crying too. 

3. The sacrifices made to send a child to boarding school are huge. 

The cost of sending a child to boarding school extends beyond the financial burden. It’s the time parents spend travelling to visit their child, it’s countless teary phone calls and it’s trying to navigate the uncharted waters of parenting from a distance. 

4. Always carry a pen and paper with you. You will get told things at a whim that you are expected to action. 

You will also forget them. Avoid the walk of shame back to the person to ask what it was that they wanted (Is it obvious that this advice comes from a place of experience?). 

5. Your duties extend beyond your job description 

Mustering an ibis out of the dorm? Cleaning vomit off the floor at 1am? Fixing holes in students uniforms? Taking 56 students to get immunised? Yep – done it all. 

6. Managing the emotions of 26 12-year-olds is the craziest juggling act you will ever partake in. 

Bonkers. Absolutely bonkers. One minute it’s all sunshine, rainbows and happy families and the next you’ve got a kid crying, someone’s pierced their own ear and you’re telling children to stop pulling each other’s pants down while brushing their teeth… 

7. When you ask a child if they’ve showered, you will need to clarify that you want to know if they’ve showered today…

8. You will also have to explicitly ask if they used soap.

Not. Even. Joking. 

I had one girl not wash her hair for 4 weeks and at one point, we had to have a ‘shower checklist’ – where they had to come and tell me they were going for a shower… 

9. Don’t worry, you’ll find out the dorm gossip – no one can keep their mouth shut.

Need to know something? Just sit in the common room long enough and you’ll have a barrage of students come and tell you what’s happening in the bedroom down the hall, or what happened in the day school. The students also forget that they don’t have full height walls and therefore – you can hear EVERYTHING. 

10. Despite how many times you ask, they will always leave the dorm door open. 

Just accept it. You will spend your life picking up rubbish and closing doors. 

11. Girls will be proud when they clear a room with a fart – that behaviour is not reserved for boys. 

One of the smallest girls in the dorm cleared the entire common room (which had 25 people sitting in it) with a single fart. She later told me it was her favourite thing about the day.  

12. Being trusted to play surrogate parent to teenagers is something to be incredibly proud of. 

My favourite thing about my job is the relationship I build with our students. It’s walking back into my office after getting lunch from the dining hall to find it full of students who ‘just want to chat’. It’s working closely with parents to ensure that their daughter is thriving and it’s getting to be a part of these student’s formative years. I like to think that I’ve had a positive impact on our boarders – but really, it pales in comparison to the profound impact they’ve had on me. 

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