BOARDING AND SCHOOL LEADERSHIP
1 April 2017
Eight Reasons why a Background in Boarding Education is the Ideal Preparation for School Leadership
When you have worked in a number of schools and you have seen quite a few senior school leaders at work in different school contexts, there inevitably comes a time when you ask yourself what it is that makes a good school leader, whether you want to lead a school yourself and whether the trajectory of your own career has prepared you well for such a challenge.
If I think of my own career so far, I know that the years spent in boarding schools, first as Assistant Housemistress, then as Housemistress leading boarding houses of my own and finally as Head of Sixth Form and Sixth Form Boarding, were by far my professionally most formative and educational years, surpassing in their significance even my time as Head of Department and other predominantly academically oriented or more senior roles.
When I started my first boarding job, a fellow Housemaster told me: “You will learn a lot about teenagers, but mostly you will learn a lot about yourself.” This proved to be absolutely true, even more so when I started leading my own houses. I had many conversations with colleagues who shared the same view that I hold: leading a boarding house is a big challenge, at times an overwhelming one, a great responsibility and yet a hugely rewarding experience.
Another colleague once said to me that it sometimes kept him awake at night, the sense of realisation that there were 60 boys in his house who spent far more time with him than with their parents, who looked up to him for guidance and to whom, in loco parentis, he owed the same care that day boys received from their own parents.
Thinking of my own years in boarding positions, I can only give a very general snapshot of the type of situations I had to deal with. They included looking after students whose parents were going through messy divorces, consoling students – and often their families – through periods of terminal illness or bereavement, dealing with aggressive student behaviour, or calling security against a parent who rang me at midnight and announced that she was about to drive into the school grounds to beat one of my girls “to a pulp” because that girl had allegedly bullied her daughter.
They also included complex child protection and safeguarding cases, working with the police and other external agencies, managing irate parents or accompanying girls to the police station to support them through traumatic interviews in criminal cases. Boarding can be great fun (one of my boarders once enthusiastically called it “one great long sleepover party!”), but it is not all Enid Blyton. And in recent years, increasingly, a whole host of other factors have crept in that trouble our young people and that increase the responsibilities of those looking after them: abnormal levels of stress, mental health issues, body dysmorphia, eating disorders and so many more.
If I try to think what qualities I admire in school leaders and how experience in boarding education might prepare for school leadership, I would come up with the following (entirely subjective and by no means exhaustive) list. School leaders need so many other qualities beyond the ones listed, such as a strategic vision or business acumen. Nonetheless, although schools are, of course, businesses, they have at their centre young and impressionable children in their formative years. Their complex needs have to come first, and therefore skills like kindness, empathy and understanding need to top the list of required skills for anybody who works in a school and especially those who determine its ethos and philosophy.
1) Maintain professional boundaries, yet never forget that you are human – and don’t be afraid to show it.
Everybody who had to deal with a crisis in a school context, entrusted with the welfare of young people, knows that in an emergency you go into professional mode almost automatically. I had to inform students (in small groups and in large groups) of the sudden death of a colleague of mine, one of their teachers, of the suicide of one of their friends, of the death of classmates following short- or long-term illnesses, and these are probably among the hardest things I had to do in my career. If you then go round your boarding house after delivering such news, knowing that most of your pupils are traumatised, yet far away from the comfort of their own families in other countries or continents, you can’t afford to break down yourself or be an emotional wreck, no matter how fond you may have been yourself of your pupil or your colleague. You have to put your students first. Nonetheless there is nothing wrong with acknowledging your own grief. It will increase your pupils’ trust in you if you show that you are human and talk about your own sadness, yet it would take their sense of security away if you broke down yourself. It is a fine line to navigate. If you have dealt with such situations and maintained your professionalism, you are quite well equipped to deal with bereavement at a higher school level, and also to know how to handle communications, how to make use of support mechanisms and how to keep the school running in a crisis or in periods of communal sadness.
Empathy is the most important skill in a leader who wants to win the trust of their community. For a boarding practitioner, it is a skill that they need as a prerequisite to perform their role, and one that they will undoubtedly hone and develop further in their boarding role. It includes a heightened awareness at times that might be challenging for your pupils, such as, for example, difficult anniversaries that may require specific rituals of closure or remembrance. Developing such an antenna will stand any aspiring school leader in good stead when it comes to looking not only after pupils, but also after colleagues. In a day school, you release your pupils to their homes at the end of the day, and they may get away with putting on a brave face or a persona. In a boarding school, pupils cannot hide. You see them when they are at their most fragile: at night when they are homesick and cry themselves to sleep, or on days that hold a special significance for them which makes them miss their families even more than usual. You need to be aware of this and tune into their feelings to provide them with the best possible care.
3) Authenticity, Honesty and Humility
If you live with boarders 24/7, you cannot maintain a false persona yourself. You get to know your students well, but they also learn a lot about you, and they will look through any pretence. If you genuinely care about them, they will reciprocate. If you make a wrong decision, maybe in anger or frustration, and you hold your hands up and occasionally even take back a sanction, they will not lose respect for you, to the contrary. How often has it saddened me to see a school leader make a controversial decision and then paint themselves into a corner by backing it with a defensive narrative, until they reached a point when they felt they could not retract their decision without losing face. If you want to win hearts and minds, you need to have the courage to admit when you are wrong. It may make you vulnerable, but the courage to show vulnerability is an important leadership skill. By doing this, you will gain respect rather than lose it because it shows your genuine and authentic self. We are all human, and humans are fallible. By acknowledging this, we encourage our pupils to show the same honesty and admit their own mistakes. Humility is a strength, not a weakness. Leading a boarding house is a great preparation for this.
4) Prioritising, Improvising and Multi-Tasking
No job prepares you better for the element of unpredictability in the life of a School leader than running a boarding house. Every day something will happen that throws the best laid plans. This does not need to be a large-scale emergency, but can be a case of bullying that throws the whole house off balance and that will take hours or even days of careful and sensitive investigation to resolve. And these days, of course, this comes with plenty of paperwork and written documentation. Even if you only deal with a small group of girls or boys in trouble, the rest of them have needs that need to be seen to as well. You may have set aside two hours in the evening to prepare your lessons, and yet this plan is scuppered because the fire alarm goes off and you have to organise a fire evacuation and get your students down a set of hazardous stairs. I once had to do this when the steps were all frozen and covered in a thick layer of ice, which then necessitated some urgent phone calls and measures to address this health-and-safety issue. Sometimes, when you apply for senior leadership positions, you have to complete in-tray exercises to show that you can be flexible, that you are able to prioritise and multi-task. I would never feel the need to give such an exercise to an experienced boarding practitioner – they know. They also know, when it comes to prioritising, that the safety, welfare and pastoral needs of the students always come first.
5) Delegation instead of Micro-Management
Another great piece of advice I was given by an experienced Housemaster was: “Be ruthless with your time off.” I have not always heeded it, but I have tried. What it involves is delegating properly to your Deputy. When I was an Assistant Housemistress at the start of my career, I enjoyed the times my boss was off site and I was properly in charge. I would have hated being micromanaged or not trusted during my periods on duty, and therefore in my more senior roles I always tried hard to treat my own deputies in the same way in which I wanted to be treated: trustingly and delegating proper authority to them. Again, this exercise in giving up control temporarily shows confidence and is a very good learning experience for whole school leadership and entrusting your senior team with proper, delegated authority.
I have always had a strong work ethic, a determination to do my respective jobs well and the ability to get by on relatively little sleep. You need it as a boarding Housemistress or Housemaster. My colleagues and I have often laughed together when we rang each other across campus at midnight to chase a missing student and then ended up having a long professional conversation about pastoral concerns and procedures – on reflection it did not seem normal to work such ungodly hours, but we were all used to it. Walking round the house at 3 a.m. on a Saturday night to make sure that everybody was in their bed was part of the normal routine. It does prepare you well for the long hours you work as a school leader, as does the need to develop emotional resilience.
Most job descriptions these days state as one of the required personal attributes “a sense of humour.” And indeed! You need it to survive the challenges of any job, and you certainly need it when deciding to spend most of your waking hours (and your few sleeping hours!) under the same roof with 60 teenagers. I am not sure what possessed me to dress up as a beer bottle when I hosted my first House Dinner for my students and their parents in my first role as Housemistress. As I stood by the door into the dining hall to greet the parents (many of whom I had not met before), I suddenly realised the absurdity of introducing myself as the key member of staff responsible for their daughter’s pastoral welfare while looking like a bottle of Stella Artois, but it proved to be the start of a fabulous relationship with them, as they seemed to feel quite happy to leave their daughters in the care of someone who had the ability to laugh at herself. If you share the fun times with your pupils and their parents, they are more likely to open up to you in their sad moments.
What you also learn as a boarding practitioner is flexibility in the application of rules. (I have dedicated a newsletter article to this topic in 2015, which can be read here). Teenagers need consistency, and it is helpful to have clear guidelines, rules and sanctions. Nonetheless, sometimes these need to be adapted to suit a particular student or a particular set of circumstances. There are school leaders and staff in pastoral or disciplinary roles who see any inconsistency as a threat to their own or the school’s authority. As a boarding practitioner, you know that this fear is unfounded. Children cannot always be neatly categorised or treated the same. Aspiring to be as consistent as possible, yet preserving the flexibility to adapt rules and sanctions to suit individual children and circumstances is a sign of strong and confident leadership, not a sign of weakness. Justice is not a black-and-white affair. Acquiring that wisdom early in your career, through the hands-on experience as a boarding practitioner who deals with families in a way that has a real impact on their lives, as opposed to conducting a mere contractual business relationship, will stand any future school leader in immensely good stead.
Even if school leadership inevitably means that you are a little more removed from the hands-on pastoral care, the skills that you have acquired as a boarding housemaster or housemistress will continue to define you as a person and educator and will benefit the communities you lead. At the end of the day, it is the nurturing relationships that really matter in education, as well as the need to do justice to each individual child.
"It is our choices, Harry, that show who we truly are, not our abilities." (Albus Dumbledore)