Things ain’t what they used to be: technology and the boarding school

| June 17, 2015 | 0 Comments

By Tim Jarvis

At the end of 2014, David Zuma, one of our support staff members, retired after 46 years of work in our school, Michaelhouse, in KwaZulu-Natal.

He started when he was 15 years of age and recalled how he used to get up at 02:00 in the morning to ensure that the old coal stove fires were lit in the school kitchens in time for breakfast, which would unfailingly and solely consist of porridge.

I could not help reflect that David will have seen and experienced many changes during his time working in a boarding school for nearly half a century. I think for me, though, the pace of change has accelerated, particularly in the last 20 years or so. When I arrived in Africa in 1994, I had not sent an e-mail or made a call on a mobile phone.

The terror of technology

It is hard to imagine life today without phones or e-mails, although some of our older staff members make a good effort to do just that. There is the story (possibly apocryphal) of one recently retired teacher, who when persuaded to get on board the technological train and finally open his e-mail application, had over 10 000 unopened messages to sift through. It may well be no coincidence that his retirement came so shortly after this event.

For students, e-mail is the least preferred method of communication. Why go to the bother when you can (in rough chronological order) SMS, Facebook, BBM, WhatsApp, Instagram or Snapchat, all from the convenience of your own mobile phone? Owning and using a phone 24/7 is natural to teenagers, almost like an external hard drive for the brain. Try confiscating one at school and the reaction is as if the right to a phone is enshrined in the universal declaration of teenage rights. To deprive an adolescent of data is like restricting their oxygen supply.

Constant communication

Such changes have had a huge impact on boarding. Several of our teachers who have been working in our school for over 20 years remember that students used to have to obtain a permission slip to call home, which allowed them to join the weekly queue for the payphone. They did not have long once they were there, nor could they talk freely. Telling Mum how you miss her hugs and hate your dorm mates is difficult to do when there is an impatient line behind you.

Today, of course, communication is available constantly and instantly. Ten years ago, a colleague of mine had an altercation in his classroom with a pupil. As the lesson neared the end, he realised that it was the sort of issue that might end up on the headmaster’s desk, and so decided to inform the head as soon as possible after the lesson. On his way across the quadrangle he was hailed by the head’s secretary, to be informed that a parent had made a complaint about him. It transpired that the student, while still in class, had texted his father, who in turn had contacted the head – all before the bell rang for the end of the period.

Technology takes its toll

This freely available contact with home has led to increased accountability for boarding schools and higher expectations on the staff who work in them. Many colleagues speak of how much more staff are involved in the lives of their charges now, with a much greater awareness of the need for pastoral care than 20 years ago. This accountability has without doubt been good and much needed. Boarding schools are much kinder and more caring places than they used to be. However, it has come with a cost for the teachers who work in them. Like the frog that got boiled alive without noticing in slowly heating water, staff from a wide array of boarding schools talk at of how the incrementally increased pressure and expectations have built up to a point where the demands of the job take their toll both physically and mentally.

Many moles on miserable days

The one day of the week when there is usually the chance for some downtime is Sunday. At our school, students used to be encouraged (forced) to leave the school property from the hours of 10:00 until 16:00 to roam the nearby countryside and, by all accounts, every boy had a bicycle at school for this express purpose. One can only imagine what actually happened during this time. Today, though, it is an effort to get the students to leave their dorms, let alone cross the school boundary. Technology’s advances have led to the phenomenon of what, in our school at least, is called ‘moleing’. This involves burying under one’s duvet, preferably on an overcast day, to consume an entire TV miniseries on a laptop.

Gaming now the greatest

To help occupy free time, the school still does run clubs and societies, but these are on a much-reduced scale to what they were. The Venture Club used to have a waiting list of eager boys keen to explore the South African bushveld; today it struggles to get enough participants to make outings viable. The Natural History Society and Board Games Society no longer even exist. There was even a gun club – I still have the tie that its members used to wear. Video ‘gaming’ is now a verb and a preferred leisure activity. As a boys-only school, after a full morning of class followed by an afternoon of sport, there is overwhelming temptation to succumb to some time out ‘gaming’ in the evenings between (hopefully) prep sessions. Imagine multiplayer online games in a school setting where over 500 people roughly your age are all on the same network! The possibilities are almost infinite. Such is the enthusiasm that these games invoke that for one popular ‘shoot ‘em up’ game, the students designed and programmed the entire school building into the game as a backdrop option for battles. I can’t imagine that happening two decades ago.

Still fussy about food

Of course, it would be wrong to conclude without mentioning that old staple of boarding school conversation: food. I think David would be the first to say that what is available is unrecognisable, compared to the fairly stolid offerings of a few decades ago. Each day a menu is published, vegetarian and other options provided, and there are always extra cold meats, salads and fruits available. Of course, this does not stop the students complaining – sometime vehemently – about the food. Perhaps that is one thing about boarding school life that will never change.

Category: Winter 2015

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