I am a little over halfway through my first year as a teacher at a boarding school, but sometimes it feels like it’s been a whole lot longer than that. There have been so many ups, downs, and in betweens in the past few months that I can hardly keep all of it straight. I’ve had a lot of questions from various friends and family members about what it’s like to work in this kind of environment, so I thought I’d share a few of my observations for those who are curious. In a nutshell: it isn’t easy.
Work-Life balance is a constant struggle
When you live with your students and colleagues and your office is just across the parking lot, it is really hard to feel like you are at “home.” You might be chilling out with a cup of tea, looking out the window, and then suddenly spot that student who still hasn’t handed in that essay, or that teacher you’ve been meaning to talk to all week. It is SO HARD to step out of work mode when you are constantly surrounded by your work and it is easy to guilt yourself into doing more work than you really should. I really have to force myself to take breaks and to make time for myself, even if it’s only thirty minutes. Otherwise, opening my front door really wouldn’t be much different than unlocking my office, and that definitely isn’t healthy.
You are more than just a teacher
Being a boarding school teacher is a lot different than being a regular teacher because your time with them doesn’t end when class is dismissed. There are evening duties, weekend duties, after school activities, meals, and meetings. In addition to that, while many students do spend time with their parents every weekend, an equal number of them may not see their parents for months because they live too far away. In the absence of their parents, we teachers must take on the role of looking out for the physical and emotional well-being of these students, both inside and outside of the classroom. It can be a really great thing, especially because I feel like I am able to get to know my students very well, which helps me to be a better teacher for them. On the other hand, it can be difficult and intense to be so emotionally invested in these students’ lives, especially when they are struggling. It also means putting in a lot more hours than you’d expect.
A support system is everything
Just as the students need support from teachers, teachers need support from each other and from the administration to deal with the immense workload that’s in front of us all the time. I honestly wouldn’t have survived thus far without the friends that we’ve made here. It’s important to have people around who can truly understand what you’re dealing with and who can help you out, give advice, or simply just lend an ear.
There is always something going on
You never know what we’ll be lurking around the corner at a boarding school, especially after classes. Being in such a remote area without the usual access to video games and TV (both of which are pretty strictly limited here), students really know how to get creative with their free time. Concerts in the corridors, origami in the empty classrooms, plays in the parking lot…I’ve pretty much seen it all and it’s probably one of the things I love most about this school.
Learning is everywhere
When you’re in an academic environment pretty much 24/7, all that collective knowledge tends to surround you like an aura. On an average day, I usually hear at least four or five different languages being spoken, see dozens of books littering the hallways, and overhear all kinds of interesting conversations. I am learning new things all the time and the opportunities to do so are endless. On top of that, being in such a unique and challenging environment forces me to learn a lot about myself and about life in general. While it sometimes makes me feel intimidated and inadequate, most of the time, I feel inspired and motivated to be my best self.
It feels weird to be alone
Before coming here, I was very used to solitude. I came from a small, quiet town and only lived with one other person, so I was accustomed to having plenty of uninterrupted “me time”. I am also, by nature, an introvert. The first few weeks here were a struggle because there was constant noise and interaction and I felt like I had no space. After a couple months, however, I started to embrace having so many people around. Now, it doesn’t seem like so much of an invasion when one of our friends randomly turns up at our lojman, or when a student stops me in the hallway for a chat. In fact, it feels alien to have so much silence when school isn’t in session and I find that I’m eager to be quite the chatterbox after a long break.
The students are like siblings
This seriously cuts down on classroom management issues. When a whole bunch of kids are basically forced to spend every day with each other, both in and outside of class, they naturally become very close and rarely have any enemies. You really can’t afford to hate anyone in this kind of environment. I find that almost all of my students are good friends with each other and don’t follow the usual segregation patterns I have observed at other schools. In other words, they won’t just hang out with the same two people all the time, but will naturally mix themselves up, which brings a lot more liveliness into the classroom.
The lack of commute will ruin any future jobs for you
I love that it only takes about a minute and half to get from my lojman to my desk. No need to plan for traffic, winter weather, or changing lines. I just need to wake up, get ready, grab my coffee, and go. I doubt if it will ever be that easy again.
Friendships are inevitable…and making time for them is a must
When you live in such close quarters with so many people, you’re bound to get to know them well – especially the ones you work with directly and see nearly every day. We’ve become fast friends with most of the teachers in our department and a few in other departments as well. When you’re all in the same boat, there is a strong sense of understanding, which makes it that much easier to share the experience. While it can be easy to get absorbed in the work (because there’s so much of it), it’s also important to remember to make time for a social life, particularly when you’re as isolated as we are (tiny village by the sea in the middle of nowhere…) It’s nice that our friends and colleagues also happen to be our neighbors and that we can always throw plans together to hang out.
Escape is essential
As I’ve mentioned before, being at a boarding school can feel a lot like living in an impenetrable bubble. It’s a culture all of its own and can be all-encompassing if you let it. While I love my job and my students, there are also other parts of my life that I love and need to make time for – especially traveling and quality time with my other half. These last couple of months, I’ve been making more of an effort to get out on all the weekends I don’t have duty and it’s made a tremendous difference in my focus and my happiness. It’s pretty much just like the adage says: absence makes the heart grow fonder.
It can be so hard to explain what it’s like to work at a boarding school if you’ve never experienced one. Honestly, I didn’t have a clue what to expect before I got here. In some ways, it’s been better and easier than I expected, and in others, it’s been more difficult.
For any readers out there: Have you ever worked at a boarding school, or did you attend one? I am curious to see how my experiences compare to others’.