Do you ever think about why you chose your profession? I mean why from a deep down place, not the easy answer, not the surface response.
I recently found old photos that sparked conversation with my husband. Pictures of the African boarding school I attended from the age of six.
There were a lot of cool things about boarding school, for example, constantly being surrounded by a group of BFFs from all over the globe.
And we were in a tropical paradise. What’s not to love?
Well, to look at it more closely, everything wasn’t perfect. The dorm in the photo housed approximately 45 kids from 4th-8th grades, along with two married houseparents who were on duty six and a half days each week, including working all day Saturday and Sunday–every weekend–except for during school breaks. Once a week, they had respite when a substitute covered their evening shift. That was their time off
Just let the realities sink in for a moment.
Job seekers, does that sound like a dream job? Wouldn’t you snap it right up?
And parents, if you were in the market for a boarding school, is that the adult-to-child ratio you would seek? If you have middle school age kids, you know it is a particularly challenging age, one that tries the the patience and resources of parents of a typical family. Can you imagine two adults successfully nurturing your middle school child–and forty-something others?
I had some wonderful career houseparents (shout out to the McCauleys, the Royers, the Cayfords) but besides them, I mostly had a series of short-term “pinch-hitters” who stayed from weeks to months. I think of them as pinch-hitters because they were often conscripted from other jobs, unrelated professions, to fill a desperate need at the school. Some of these people did not even seem to like children, much less have the aptitude and skills to run a dorm.* Because I was a child, I don’t know what kind of training new houseparents received behind the scenes but to the best of my recollection, none of it occurred on-the-job, with us; there was never a time when an experienced houseparent worked alongside the newbie during their first days at the dorm. And there were almost never visits from supervisors while houseparents were on shift.
I want to stress that I had a lot of fun in boarding school, as well as amazing, incredible, unique experiences I wouldn’t trade for anything. If I had to go back and do my life over, I wouldn’t want to miss out on any of it. But that doesn’t mean it was ideal. At best, there was not enough adult attention to go around and children suffered repetitive cycles of grief and loss as described by David C. Pollack and Ruth E. Van Reken. At worst, many encountered abuse at the hands of their caregivers and peers; and the school, like many institutions, was honestly (given the times) ill-equipped to prevent, recognize and deal with inevitable and sickening abuses that occasionally occurred at the hands of staff or older children.
Although I realize that the administration and faculty were doing the best they could given the circumstances and then-current thinking, as I moved into adulthood, I was struck with the feeling that in an ideal world, a boarding school could do a whole lot better. The school could carefully select houseparents based on their skills, education, passion to make a lasting difference in the lives of youth. It could offer an intentional, well thought out training program, enhanced supervision, a saner work schedule allowing more work/life balance. It could find ways to recognize and reward staff for their sacrifices, hard work and performance. The school could employ the latest research about child development focusing on the dynamics that occur when children are raised in congregate settings away from home. And hey–there would be a professional counselor to help prospective children and parents prepare for boarding school, monitor new children and help them adjust, work closely with houseparents to help them navigate developmental stages and the range of responses that children have when separated from family; to run groups, prevent and address bullying, teach children teamwork, and so much more.
So I think about all that now and obviously I can’t go back and change and correct my childhood. Coincidentally (or not so coincidentally) since leaving college, I have mostly worked in residential settings with people who have developmental disabilities. The parallels to my childhood are obvious; vulnerable persons at the mercy of their caregivers behind closed doors. I can’t go back and fix the shortcomings of my own upbringing, but I can passionately try to make a different with my disabled clients now through more intentional, progressive HR practices.
So that’s why I do what I do. Why do you?
*Big exception: Bill and Jimmye Whitfield. You were awesome!
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