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What’s it really like to be a Housemaster?

Ben Craig, Housemaster of Portman at Bryanston School, reveals a day in the life of running a House full of teenage boys. It certainly sounds like a full on job, but it’s one that Ben deliberately aspired to and here’s why.

One of the (many) funny things about being a Housemaster in a boarding school is that both parents and colleagues look at you with a combination of astonishment and pity.  “I don’t know how you do it,” they say, “I could never do what you do”.  Or they say, “I don’t know WHY you do it.”  These are reasonable questions of course.

It’s a pretty crazy thing to do, to share your home, with, in my case, over 60 boys aged 14-18.  But, only a few years ago, when I arrived in a boarding school as a Maths teacher, I decided almost straight away that I wanted to run a House.  I set out on a journey that I hoped would end up with me at this point.  I aspired to being a Housemaster.

The morning

The role is everything I wanted.  It’s endlessly interesting: no day and no boy, no issue, no parent, is ever the same.  In fact, describing a ‘day in the life’ feels virtually impossible!  Yes, there are checkpoints.  Waking up early, still thinking about how to solve an issue or challenge from the day before.  Reading the news on my Housemaster’s phone, so that I at least have a sense of what is going on outside the walls of the boarding house, and can talk to the boys about it, or answer their questions.  (What do you say to an anxious Russian boy, for example, or his Ukrainian friend?).

Then I wander through the dorms making sure there is life and movement, and that a proper breakfast is eaten rather than avoided.  The energy builds as the morning progresses and the house starts to breathe life.

There’s an intensity to the rush to get out to lessons on time – and that includes me, because I still have that other job, as a classroom teacher.  As a housemaster or mistress you have often done three hours of work before walking into period one…

The afternoon

After lunch, there is a pleasant but constant stream of boys coming and going in the house. This is the point of the day I love the most.  I like the hustle and bustle, the energy, the humour, the small moments of kindness and love, the quick, important conversations.  It’s a performance, an improvisation, a conductor in front of an orchestra.  A chance to try out some of my one-liners on the toughest of tough crowds.   The boys dart off to various activities to return sometimes wet and sometimes dirty and I become a siren of  “don’t wear your boots in the house” in chorus with my wonderful matron. What colleagues and parents may often forget is that running a house is a team effort.  The buck stops with you, but you couldn’t get through a single day without the outstanding and caring group of adults that work with you.

Matrons are unsung heroines.  They are the heart of the house and the glue that holds it together. They pick up the pieces while you are busy picking up other pieces.

They lead their own team of domestic assistants who will tell you as much about how a boy is doing, and whether we should be worried, as any of his teachers.  I have a Deputy Housemaster and a Second Resident member of staff.  We are the inner team and pass the house between us like relay runners.  I am also supported by academic staff who come in each evening and oversee prep time – we are all pastoralists, working together.  So, when people ask how I do it, the answer is that I don’t.  The team does it!

The evening

Following supper, it is almost straight to prep.  For me, this is usually a quiet time to catch up with emails or for private conversations with particular boys that need that support, or some clear lines drawn. Following prep the house becomes a hive of activity for about an hour – pool, table tennis, rushing to buy pizzas and generally socialising all round – it’s a busy end to a busy day. Then it’s bedtime and time to relax and have chats about all sorts of things, and time for me to complete an informal room check to ensure you can at least see carpet in all the rooms.

I wanted to be a housemaster because I thought it played to the skills I had and would give me the opportunity to have an impact on the lives of young people. The ever-changing world brings into sharp focus the importance of education, the small part I play in the lives of the boys in my house is one I feel blessed to have. The joy of watching as students grow, develop their own self, become confident in their own skin and ready to play their part in society is humbling and moving. It is, without contest, the most rewarding job I have ever done.

And now the house doorbell is ringing, the fire alarm is going off (burnt toast again), and fifteen more emails have arrived in my inbox…

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