Sunday, November 25, 2012

Ask People Who Know...the Janitor, the Clerical, Bus Driver, Kitchen Staff

There is a story that circulated around the NASA complex in the early years of the space program that a reporter was snooping around the assembly building at Cape Canaveral in the evening and saw a janitor sweeping the floor and emptying trash from the receptacles. The reporter approached the janitor and asked him what he was doing, to which he replied: "I'm helping to put a man on the moon!"

When I was an undergrad- many years ago- I remember a college professor telling us to be kind to the custodian in your school. That was probably the best advice I ever learned in college, for many times those very staff members were crucial in assisting me in the many instructional projects I presented to children; everything from helping me build props and assemble desks and chairs, to cleaning up the spills- human and otherwise- that spoiled a classroom environment.

When I became a school administrator, I took this advice to heart in understanding the school community, and learning how the system really worked. I will always cherish my first secretary, Linda Zwicklbauer, who was as adept at training administrators as a Marine Corps Drill Instructor, and as compassionate as Mother Theresa in working with the school staff, kids, and families.

The operational staff- made up of custodians, cleaning matrons, kitchen staff, bus drivers, clerical staff, teacher aides, etc. are really the "heart and soul" of your learning community, not just the teachers and administrators. If you want to know the real story behind your organization, ask the staff. Chances are these stalwart members of your school, that keep the system running smoothly for the instructional program to educate children, are the true "unsung heroes" of your district. I would even assume many of these people live in your district and are taxpaying members of your community. That makes them even more important, and even more influential than you may have thought before.

So consider some "truisms" about these unsung heroes:

1)     The operational staff needs professional development, just as much as the faculty and administration. Take the time to provide safety training or participate with your staff in these sessions to understand their roles and responsibilities

2)     The operational responsibilities of staff members are important, and, in some cases, not as easy as one would expect. Custodians are not just cleaning, but maintaining the facilities for overuse. Heating and cooling operations are computerized nowadays and require an understanding of programming and inspecting high-maintenance energy systems. Food service staff have greater scrutiny today with the health laws and regulations that they must conform to. Clerical staff must be able to manage multiple computing platforms, scanners, and copiers, as well as be versed in psychology and counseling when managing the problems of children, parents- and yes- teachers on a daily basis. Teacher aides working with special education children are crucial members of the instructional team and cannot be ignored for the job they do. Bus drivers are the first, friendly face most kids see each morning, and must be trained to manage different weather conditions, transporting the precious cargo of the district.

3)     The operational staff of the school are directly responsible for student achievement. Whether it's maintaining the environment for learning, feeding hungry children and teachers, transporting children safely through perilous weather conditions, possessing a sympathetic ear when a child comes to the office and know of no other place to get help.

4)     Lastly, take time as school leaders to listen to these people. Attend meetings to listen to their concerns, and provide them with a chance to share their feelings and opinions about the school, the kids, the teachers and the community. Make them feel valued by being open to what they are seeing.

There are many members of a school community that make a difference for children. Don't forget the operational staff that make a difference in ways that are largely ignored by many, for they are the lifeblood of the school district.

NEA, "Getting Educated: Custodial and Maintenance Professionals." Accessed November 25, 2012.