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Custodians Do More Than Clean — They Listen, Too

They sweep, mop, wax, and polish floors.

They clean, dust, and polish furniture.

They vacuum and clean carpets.

They pick up and empty trash.

They perform minor maintenance and repairs.

They disinfect everything: desks, doorknobs, keyboards, counters, sinks, toilets.

They salt sidewalks and shovel snow.

They take gum and graffiti off bathroom stalls, walls, doors, and desks.

They clean windows, classrooms, lunchrooms, restrooms, gymnasiums, weight rooms, and offices.

They are eliminators–of vomit, stains, glitter, dirt, mud, spilled coffee and milk.

They are movers, lifters, and deliverers–of mail, books, desks, chairs, furniture and equipment.

They are listeners–of students, teachers, cooks, principals, and secretaries.

They are our caretakers.

From the Latin cust?di, meaning watchman, the school custodian is the guardian of the grounds, the keeper of the school. Unfortunately, their role is often overlooked, discounted, or taken for granted. But, go one day without them and their absence will be felt. Schools couldn’t function without them.

Watchman is an apt description of the school custodian. They are the eyes and ears of the school as they walk every inch of it dozens of times a day. For many students, the custodian is the first adult they see when they walk into the school and head to breakfast.

Julie Anderson, a custodian for 23 years, 18 of those years at John Marshall, said the most important times of her day are when she’s checking in with students. As the school-day custodian, she is a constant in their lives, greeting them as they eat breakfast and lunch or chatting with them as they move from class to class.

Anderson said as she goes about her day she will see students who “look glum and may need to talk.”

Sometimes they just need directions to a room or help opening a locker; other times they need an adult to just listen. “It’s hard being a teenager, and sometimes kids need somebody to listen,” said Anderson. For this reason, custodians receive much of the same training that is required for teachers such as mental health first aid. They often lend an understanding ear to students in need of talking, and they connect these students with their counselor, school nurse or principal.

This time of year, school custodians are extra busy with disinfecting surfaces to kill the flu virus. JM evening custodian Kim Robertson, who has made JM his home for the past 10 years, said that while they clean surfaces on a daily basis, they are extra diligent during flu season.

“This time of year we are wiping down every door and faucet handle, desk, and handrail with bleach and disinfectants daily,” Robertson said.

Anderson and Robertson recognize they have an important job keeping the school a safe, clean, welcoming environment. It shows in the pride they take in their jobs. “Coming in every day and making sure the students and teachers have a clean place to learn, talk, and laugh is my priority. They deserve the best, and I do my best to give them that,” said Anderson.

Everybody in the school needs to do their best to not make a custodian’s job tougher than it already is. Parents should remind their school-age children that just as they aren’t allowed to stick gum under their kitchen tables, draw graffiti on their bathroom walls, or throw trash on their living room floors, they certainly shouldn’t be doing these behaviors at school. Following this courteous and common-sense rule would help show custodians the respect and appreciation they deserve. A kind word now and again to your school custodian would also be met with much gratitude because day and night, these watchmen do their jobs quietly and tirelessly so teachers can teach, and students can learn in a clean, comfortable, safe environment.

Most days, the first person to wish me a good morning is Anderson, and the last person to wish me a good evening is Robertson. I appreciate them and the work they do, and I need to tell them more often. That will be my first and last tasks of the day on Monday.

Jonna Kuskey is an English teacher at John Marshall High School. She was named the 2017 James Moffett Award winner by the National Council of Teachers of English and the third place winner of the 2017 Penguin Random House Foundation Teacher Awards for Literacy.

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