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An insight into maintaining a virtual house

Much-loved Hsm (Housemistress) of Greenleaves House Hannah Fearnley gives us an insight into maintaining a virtual house at Bryanston…

These are challenging times. In my first house assembly this term I sat alone in the Greenleaves Common Room and gave an emotional opening address via Teams to 66 much-missed girls and then realised, after five long minutes, that I had not pressed the correct button and, as a consequence, no one had heard a word I had uttered! I was very relieved later that day to discover that I was not the only hsm who had struggled with the new technology as we all compared stories of muted mics, blank screens and mystified pupils! Normally on a Thursday morning, we are all used to sitting amidst a crowded room full of half-awake, semi-dressed teenagers who may not always be the most attentive audience but they are all at least visible and there with us; now, all our meetings are virtual and it is a challenge for all of us.

Being a hsm at Bryanston is an incredibly busy job and we thrive on daily human contact. Pastoral care is based on the many spontaneous and casual chats we have with pupils every day and the sense of belonging in a boarding house is built up from the relationships between pupils, teachers, tutors, residents, matrons. This term, both staff and pupils are inevitably missing this routine and the question of how to provide meaningful pastoral care is at the forefront of our minds. The sense of community is at the heart of Bryanston and we are now realising this keenly as we sustain our care for pupils whilst they are at home.

As a Classicist I am always mindful of the phrase in loco parentis but in these strange times the hsm and parental term-time roles have been reversed. Normally during term time, it is the hsm who has face-to face contact with pupils, whilst parents maintain contact and provide support through regular phone calls or FaceTime. Now, however, those roles are reversed and, whilst we are still working in close partnership with the parents, cum parentibus rather than in loco, it is now the hsm who has to overcome all the limitations as well as maximising all the opportunities of remote pastoral support.  

Lola F's incredible rainbow cake for Bake Off

House team members and residents are missing the children too and have come up with many ideas of how to sustain a sense of house identity. Each boarding house has hosted an array of quizzes, Kahoots and individual challenges to entertain and further foster a sense of togetherness. For instance, in a recent Greenleaves House assembly, we announced a Bake-Off Challenge for the week ahead and we asked Mr T, a maths teacher and longstanding house team member whose birthday it was, to announce the winner. Senior pupils have also played their part, showing empathy and leadership. In our first house assembly Head Girl Poppy T gave her top tips on surviving lockdown and I have been mindful of her advice to find the fun in things since then.

Greenleaves' Thought for the Week

Usually we also have a senior pupil presenting a ‘Thought for the Week’ in house assembly and last week our resident, Miss Kelly, quoted Dr Seuss and discussed its appropriateness in the current situation. Many heads of houses and house prefects have also sent messages of comfort and hope and different year groups have compiled video clips to be shown in house meetings. Activities like these encourage pupils to focus on something together in a year group as well as lifting the spirits of the whole house. Memorable and meaningful moments like these are posted on Instagram, now open to parents and pupils, and are another way of us finding some togetherness whilst apart.

The ECAs at Home programme has also allowed staff and pupils to take up a new skill and try out things together; whilst I have learned about yoga nidra from Lingling in A3, other senior pupils have been encouraged to lead ECAs on everything from dance and photography, to mindfulness and dog-training!

A recent Greenleaves year group chat via Teams

Humanity and family, central to Bryanston’s Guiding Principles, are key in fostering a genuine warmth and common purpose in a boarding house and this principle resonates more loudly now than ever. Hsms are communicating with year groups and individuals in weekly meetings via Teams and these enable us to share experiences and support pupils at home. We are all very aware of the need to focus on the health and wellbeing of our pupils during this unsettling time – our school counsellors remain available as do the Medical Centre. Meanwhile, hsms are offering drop-in sessions if any of our pupils want to have a quiet, confidential chat with us.

Whilst this is a challenging time for all of us, it has been very touching to see numerous examples of kindness and compassion from the Bryanston family. This was most recently seen in the warm response to the Bryanston 10k challenge; in lieu of our Whole School Walk which normally happens on the first weekend of the summer term, staff on-site and living locally decided to do a socially distanced walk and raise money for the local Food Bank. This was opened up to all Bryanston families and, between us all, we raised £3,000, which will provide much-needed meals for local families during the crisis. This is a wonderful example of how the bonds that unite us as a Bryanston family remain as strong as ever despite the fact we are separated by circumstance.

None of us know how long this lockdown will last and how many more weeks we will be continuing with our virtual online term but, for as long as it lasts, the hsms and tutors will be doing all they can to support the pupils we all miss so much. As we become more familiar with the intricacies and possibilities of Teams technology, we hope that we will not only continue to push the right buttons but also develop new and improved ways of fostering a sense of community and togetherness even while we remain apart.