It’s been great to watch the rise in recognition of the importance of empathy. But let’s not just teach empathy in our classrooms, let’s also extend it to the staff members in our schools – all staff members.
For the past five summers, I’ve worked with my school’s Buildings and Grounds Department. I’ve put in ceilings, hung drywall, painted stairwells, laid floors, and moved more heavy objects from point A to point B than I’d care to remember.
It’s often a hot and dirty job, but I enjoy working with my hands and it helps me to recharge for the other ten months of the year as a teacher.
For this job, I don’t dress like I do during those teaching months: I wear old paint-splattered tee shirts, cut-off shorts, and a scruffy summer beard that takes minimal maintenance. In other words, I might look like someone who does physical labor.
And the job gets me into buildings and meeting people in the district that I don’t normally get to see.
Now, what I’ve noticed is that often when I come into a new building, encounter a staff member I don’t know, and am dressed down in my summer work clothes, people don’t think I’m a teacher – they assume that I’m just another person from the Buildings and Grounds Department.
And due to this mistaken identity, sometimes people are, well, not so nice. They often don’t ask my name, they make little attempt to get to know me, and they rarely make eye contact. They’re thankful that I’m there, but usually in the “Thank God you’re here, I’ve been waiting for you guys to get this done forever!”-way.
Had they known that I’m actually a sixth-year teacher with an advanced degree, would they treat me differently? My guess is that it’s likely.
It’s also likely that I haven’t just been on the receiving end of this situation. I doubt that I, myself, am entirely innocent of this behavior. We lead busy lives, and making quick assumptions about people we come into contact with helps us get through our days a little faster. Bypassing common courtesy makes it go even quicker. That may not be what’s right or how we’d prefer it, but it’s often what we find ourselves doing.
However, it’s been pleasing to watch the rise in the recognition of the importance of empathy, both in our schools and culture at large. But let’s not just teach empathy in our classrooms or extend it to our students, let’s also use it to frame our interactions with the staff members in our schools – all staff members.
From both the perspective of a teacher and a member of the maintenance staff, here are some tips to accomplish this:
1. Learn names and take the time to get to know support staff.
You might think that this one goes without saying, but you’d be wrong. I know this because of how many times I’ve heard a fellow faculty member ask, “What’s the name of that guy who cleans our rooms?” A few minutes of regular small talk goes a long way toward making people feel respected.
2. Don’t call custodians janitors.
The word “janitor” is derived from the Latin word for door, and it originally denoted a doorman. Today, a janitor is someone who simply cleans. However, we all know that custodians do much more than that – they’re handymen, security officers, and mentors of students all rolled into one. So they’re not janitors, they’re custodians in the fullest sense – keepers, guardians, stewards, and protectors. Plus, they just don’t like to be called janitors.
3. Be nice to your rooms.
Teachers aren’t expected to keep their rooms shining clean day in and day out – after all, we work with kids, and kids can be, uh, a little less concerned with cleanliness than adults. However, after you make those glitter posters, or have that pizza party, or do that cool hands-on STEM project, clean up a little. It’s part of the maintenance staff’s job to keep schools clean and in working condition, but that doesn’t mean they need the task to be any more difficult.
4. Respect the summer floor waxing.
Oh boy, this is a big one. Waxing the thousands and thousands of square feet of school’s floors usually occurs over the summer months. It’s a multi-stage process that takes place over the course of days and can easily be ruined when a teacher, who’s just ducked under some caution tape to get to their classroom, tromps through it. So if you see those “Wet Wax” signs, you’d be advised to abide.
5. Be patient.
Just about every employee in schools today is being asked to do more with less. That includes the maintenance staff. So when they take a little longer than you’d like to replace that light bulb or move that filing cabinet, there’s a reason- and it’s not because they don’t care or aren’t competent. There’s an endless amount of things that they have to get done, and when they do triage, some needs get pushed back a day or two.
6. Thank them for their work.
Be grateful to your maintenance staff. They do the hard, often invisible, work that keeps our schools running. They may not teach, but they’re an integral part of the school system that creates a warm, nurturing environment for kids to safely grow and learn in. And that’s certainly something to be valued and respected.