Ideas and Opinions about
Teaching, Learning, and
the Educational System
Ideas and Opinions about
Teaching, Learning, and
the Educational System
When do you think about your school custodians?
You probably think about the custodian when something goes wrong. Maybe you spill your coffee on the carpet and you ask the custodian to clean it up. Your classroom window is stuck. The air conditioner is making a funny sound. The pencil sharpener fell off the wall, flinging pencil shavings hither and yon.
You likely recognize when the custodian has done a great job. On Monday morning the hallway floor is clean and shiny. The tables in the faculty lounge have been wiped-down. The cafeteria has been converted into an auditorium, just in time for the school play…and back again before lunch the next day.
Custodians perform an important, and all-to-often thankless task in our schools. But are we really taking advantage of the full potential our custodians bring to the educational setting? In this TeacherScope, we’ll explore one of the most underused and undervalued positions in many schools, the school custodian.
(For the purpose of this post, I’m using the word custodian as a synonym for janitor. I make no distinction in these positions – merely a linguistic preference.)
School custodians are in a unique position to observe the functioning of the school. They understand how the school works, what makes it work, and what gets in the way. They also regularly work in the domain of students: the hallways, the cafeteria, and the student restrooms.
Yet there are times that we just don’t think to consult a custodian. Here’s my advice:
If you want to know about security gaps in the school, ask a custodian.
Custodians are experts on school security. Security is a big issue in schools and custodians are on the front line of that important effort. The custodian can tell you which doors are routinely left unlocked, in violation of your school’s security plan. If there’s a blind spot in your security camera system, the custodian will be able to tell you where it is, and how it can be exploited. Because they often work before or after school, custodians know about people approaching campus when school is not in session. Custodians can tell you the areas of the school likely to be vandalized, and ways to prevent the act. At least one school custodian should serve on the committee responsible for school security. Also, custodians can be valuable in lock-down and evacuation efforts.
If you want to know where the students go to skip school, ask a custodian.
Cutting class is a long-established tradition among students. Every school has some place that students can hang-out undetected. (If you think your school doesn’t have a skipping spot, you probably just haven’t found it yet.) The custodian knows where students go to skip class. If they don’t actually see the skippers, they probably clean-up the residue – candy wrappers and chip bags. Ask your custodians where the students go to cut class. You may be surprised by their answers.
If you want to know who’s getting bullied, ask a custodian.
Schools go to great lengths to identify bullies and their victims. Of course, the problem is that bullies tend to stop bullying when a teacher or administrator appears on the scene. Custodians probably don’t get the same reaction. Your school’s bully reporting program should take advantage of the custodians’ knowledge.
If you want to know about discipline problems in the hallway, ask a custodian.
Along the same line, your school custodians are aware of rule-breakers and trouble-makers in the hallways during class changes. Teachers on hall duty may arrive late and leave early because of their classroom responsibilities. Encourage your custodians to report rule violators in the school.
If you want to know who doesn’t seem to have any friends, ask a custodian.
The school cafeteria and hallways are typically the social hubs of the school. But to some students, they represent just another reminder of loneliness or worse, ostracism. School counselors go to great lengths to identify lonely or friendless students. The custodians can be a great help in this effort.
If you want to know what food the students don’t eat, ask a custodian.
This one’s pretty simple. Custodians know what student’s don’t eat because they take out the trash. If your cafeteria manager is wondering how the students liked the turnip green soufflé, the custodian probably has a real good idea.
If you’re planning a school event, include the custodian.
Sporting events, dances, honor society inductions, assembly programs, carnivals – most schools have at least one or two events every week. Of course, larger secondary schools have something going on almost every day. Make sure to include your custodian in the planning phase of each event. Custodians will think of things that won’t occur to administrators, teachers, and parents. I’m reminded of an elementary outdoor carnival – no one had thought to make additional large garbage cans available, and our custodians had a lot of litter to pick-up. We owe it to the custodians to make clean-up easier.
If you’re looking for guest speakers for your school, consider the custodian.
Here are some of the great resource speakers I have hosted in my classroom: a Christian missionary to Africa, a top-level volleyball coach, a war refugee from Vietnam, a Gulf War veteran, an expert quilter, a sports car enthusiast. What did they all have in common? They were custodians at my school. Sometimes we think of our custodians as one-dimensional figures, but they likely have a wealth of experience. Ask!
If you’re gathering a group of the leaders in your school, include the custodian.
If you think about it, your school’s head custodian has a great deal of responsibility. They are responsible for the physical maintenance of the school. As such, they are school leaders, and should be included in leadership discussions.
When you have a faculty meeting, invite the custodian.
Many of the academic and behavioral discussions that we have at our faculty meetings directly impact our school custodians. Make sure that at least one member of the custodial staff attends every faculty meeting.
When you’re having a faculty luncheon, invite the custodians.
Let me tell you something that I have seen countless times in my teaching career, and it embarrasses me to no end. As the faculty luncheon draws to a close, somebody rounds-up the custodial crew and invites them to eat what’s left. Humbly and appreciatively, the crew creates a meal from the buffet, and sits together at a table. As the luncheon concludes, the custodians clean-up the dishes and wipe the tables. Next time, let’s invite the custodians to the luncheon. Make sure they’re in attendance when it begins. Treat them like the important team members that they are.
Custodians are a critical part of the school mission. They help educate the students by providing clean and functional classrooms, common areas, cafeterias, and restrooms. Make sure the custodians are treated respectfully by the students. Talk with your class about what would happen if all of the custodians took a day off! (I have worked at a school with a sub-par custodial staff. Trust me – that’s not a happy environment.)
How do the students, teachers, and administrators at your school think about the custodians? Are they seen as important contributors to the educational system, or just the sweep-up guys? Really, it’s up to you. Maybe it’s time to re-think the role of school custodian. Your school can benefit greatly from their increased involvement.
And yes, I ate the turnip green soufflé. Delicious!
Keith Kyker (M.Ed)
is a career educator with 35 years of teaching experience. He has worked with every age group from Pre-K to college. Keith's experience includes stints at suburban mega-high schools, neighborhood elementary and middle schools, and a tiny K-12 school in a Yupik village on the Bering Sea.
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Important note: the ideas and opinions expressed on this blog are the those of the author, Keith Kyker, and in no way reflect the opinions, policies, or practices of any of Keith's current or former employing school districts.
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