About the job: House Mistress
Susannah Hill, house mistress of Hewarth House at St Mary’s school in Shaftesbury, Dorset, has two full year groups of girls aged 11 to 13, British and international, in her care each year. She lives with her own family on site at the school where she has worked for the past six years.
We asked her what a day in the life of a boarding house mistress is like, and here’s what she told us…
St Mary’s is a very special place; I wake each day in beautiful surroundings, in a secure and vibrant community. The girls are a delight and watching them grow from shy young students when they first arrive into independent, resilient individuals is a real privilege. My daily routine goes something like this…
7:40am I join the girls in the refectory for breakfast and make sure they all have a proper meal so they are ready for the full day ahead.
8:35am Once the girls have all gone to their lessons, we house mistresses are busy all over the school site. Some are teaching staff, but my role is to organise all the weekend activities that take place for all the boarders. While I do this work, I’m available to the girls throughout the day; they return to the boarding house at different times and can be sure that if they need me I’m available in between duties.
I also meet regularly with the tutor team, the heads of school, the nurses, and my fellow house mistresses so we keep up-to-date with how the girls are getting on, and can plan for the weekend to ensure we have a full and dynamic co-curricular programme in place for each year group.
4:30pm When the girls finish their lessons I oversee their study periods, and help them with prep. I also run clubs so everyone is always kept busy. We all break for Tea at 5pm, which is a welcome chance to draw breath before our first study session.
6:15pm I join my House for supper and catch up on their day.
7.30pm After a second study session, we all go back to the boarding house. Usually at this time I’ll be speaking to parents, replying to emails from them, logging things in the house log so that all staff can share what’s been taking place during the day, and running evening activities.
This is the time of day when I’ll help the girls with practical things, like getting credit for their phones, facilitating contact with home (I have Skype which they can use safely in my office), mending some of their uniform, or just trying out a new style of plait for their hair! We try to do all the things that any parent at home would be doing with their children, to ensure everyone feels part of a happy and secure community.
The girls can use the kitchen in house to make hot drinks and toast, there are lots of communal spaces for them to be in with friends, or they can have a bit of privacy in their cubicles. We try to create a homely atmosphere for some ‘down time’ in the evenings, and all the girls look forward to the treat night we have once a week. I aim to make sure Hewarth House feels like a relaxing, caring place to come to after the school day.
8:45 to 9:15pm All electronic devices are collected and the girls have half an hour to spend reading before lights out.
9:30pm I return to my own home on site, leaving the girls in the care of house assistants who provide overnight care. I remain on duty should the house Assistants need me. I’ve got a phone by my bed so I can be reached at any time.
Twenty first century boarding
There is much more freedom and autonomy for our boarders now than there was in the past. Modern boarding school good practice means we ask the girls’ opinions on as many things as possible, and doing so helps us run a positive, inclusive school.
From the book in the refectory where students can write, ‘We really liked that meal, please can we have it more often,’ (or indeed the opposite), to the feedback they can give on their accommodation, or the way we organise weekend activities, we make sure we’re flexible and responsive as a team.
We also take an holistic approach to the girls’ progress at school, so among other things we’ve enhanced our existing health centre to include mindfulness courses. All staff make our young peoples’ mental health an absolute priority, and give the girls a range of tools to cope with the demands of everyday life.