The role of the houseparent
– Bex Tear, Headmistress of Badminton School
Boarding school life is a rich and varied tapestry full of shared experiences that create a strong network of friends for life and a wonderful set of memories. One of the most vital ingredients for these golden years is a boarder’s houseparent. Every boarding house will have its own micro ethos within the greater school community. This could be an age-appropriate climate created by horizontal boarding (similar age groups in one house, progressing to another house once they become older) or the family atmosphere of vertical boarding (mixed age house in which boarders stay and grow, often taking on increasing responsibility as role model for younger boarders).
Beyond the logistical set-up and the characteristics it brings to the common rooms and dorms (or study bedrooms), the houseparent will bring their character to the activities and atmosphere around the house. Most importantly, they will have their own unique way of making themselves available as a listening ear without appearing to intrude on the pupils’ privacy. They may be in the house kitchen baking and encouraging boarders to join in. There might be a running club or video club they enthuse about and encourage everyone to try. It might simply be that they always read the newspaper in the house common room after supper.
Boarding staff are gifted at recognising the strengths of an individual boarder and ensuring they feel special and valued, particularly at times when they face challenges or tough choices. Behind the scenes they are very much the champion of their boarders in the staff common room. They will be tenacious in pursuing opportunities on behalf of their boarders and also facilitating support when it’s needed. A good houseparent has a wealth of experience of what the norms and patterns are during a child’s journey through their house and this gives them a really useful perspective when dealing with challenges that arise. This makes them a gold mine of information for parents. Don’t be shy to contact your child’s houseparent if you have a query or concern. Issues are better dealt with as they arise.
The small things houseparents do
It is often the small things that houseparents do that pupils notice and feel comforted by. It’s amazing what alumni remember and share when they come back to reunions. This will vary from houseparent to houseparent, according to their strengths and talents. For example, one very special houseparent in the Junior House at Badminton is an absolute arts and crafts queen. Her special touches for girls in her care range from hand-sewing labels into clothing to shortening or lengthening uniform as the need arises (on the spot!). This is often done in the duty room with the dual benefit of providing a calm presence where girls can drop in for a chat while not having to worry too much about eye contact from the industrious seamstress! She also notices what goes on, not just in house but around school and around the world, compiling a fantastic weekly news slip for the girls full of relevant and interesting facts.
A good houseparent will always ensure there is plenty of real-world context and experiences for boarders. The Junior House houseparent mentioned earlier organises a host of in-house events from brain-bending quizzes to ‘scavenger hunts’ and ‘you choose’ suites of activities to allow the boarders freedom of choice. She has also re-worded the school’s vision, values and aims into a child-friendly format, does extra study support with girls who are struggling academically, finds novel ways to reassure girls who are anxious or homesick (for example with lavender pillow sprays to make a more homely bedtime), and hand-makes every girl that leaves the house their own personalised, embroidered ‘House Bear’ to take with them on the next steps of their journey.
For older pupils, who often feel ready for more personal space, the interactions need to be different – mutual respect and trust is key.
Motivating and uplifting
A houseparent may be fortunate to have a strong resonance with the subjects studied and so conversations can be sparked by debating a key text or recent academic trip. Equally, if there is no academic cross-over, it’s great to be inspired by a boarder’s natural enthusiasm for a book, play, science research or piece of art. A major privilege of being a houseparent is the motivating and uplifting aspect that working with young people brings – it is never dull! Being a houseparent is more than a job, it’s a way of life. Parents trust their child’s care to a school and the houseparent is at the heart of that care. Taking on a ‘live in’ role, where their days have to be adapted to the needs of the important individuals they care for is a challenge, but houseparents are special individuals who are passionate about their vocation and recognise the significance of their role for not just the pupils, but also the pupils’ families.
Bex Tear has been Headmistress of Badminton School for four years. She read Chemistry at Exeter University before taking a PGCE at the UCL Institute of Education where she also completed an MA in Educational Leadership. She enjoyed seven years at St George’s School, Ascot, where she held several academic and pastoral responsibilities. She then spent seven happy years at Wycombe Abbey, firstly as resident Head of Sixth Form and then as Deputy Head. Bex is passionate about helping girls develop a broad and balanced set of skills and interests and is supportive and understanding of boarding – not only has she run a sixth form boarding House, but she has also boarded herself, as have her sons.