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Last Bell: Custodial Duties

A former social worker tries pushing a broom and discovers the educational role of the clean-up crew.

By John Ellison

I’m a retired clinical social worker with about 30 years of professional experience. Last April, after a year in retirement, I got restless and began looking for a job. I saw a sign advertising school custodial positions, applied, and got hired. The starting pay was $9.46 an hour.

Four days a week, I worked from 3 to 11:30 p.m., and on Wednesdays I worked
1 to 9:30 p.m. We were the night crew. Each evening, we cleaned the hallways, classrooms, bathrooms, locker rooms, offices, gymnasium, and weight room, and hauled out several hundred pounds of trash, hoisting it into dumpsters behind the school. The work was physically demanding and a challenge to complete in the time allotted. Within a month, I had lost 10 pounds.

I came to appreciate the good job my three female colleagues did. I often wondered how they could continue at such physically difficult jobs with evening hours and so little pay. I came to understand that they took a great deal of pride in leaving the building “glistening clean” each evening. Teachers and administrators complimented us on the condition of the building and classrooms. For the first time in my life, I discovered a deep appreciation and respect for the integral role custodians play in the physical maintenance of schools and their contribution to educating students.

During my six weeks there, I observed no deliberate destruction of school property and an overall respect for the building and the custodial staff. Since I had not done this kind of work for over 30 years, I wondered how I would be treated. It was a relief to experience students calling me “sir” and teachers thanking me for my efforts on their behalf.

One of the areas I cleaned was a locker room and bathroom for underclassmen. I walked in one day and it was a mess—some kids had unrolled paper towels and thrown them around. I mentioned it to an upperclassman, and he said, “A lot of those kids haven’t yet learned the respect for the school that they should have. I’ll see if I can do something about it.” The next day, that room was immaculate. The older students had taken it on themselves to teach the younger kids.

While my overall experience was very positive, I came away with some ideas about the difficulties of the job, the pay, and the needs of custodians in our public schools.
For custodians to do their jobs effectively, I believe they need representation and empowerment in the following areas: clear job descriptions, a clear chain of command so they are not pulled away from their duties by the demands of individuals who are not authorized to assign work to them, a living and reasonable wage, benefits equal to those of their teacher colleagues, frequent and generous recognition of the key role they play in achieving the mission of the school, and support from managers in dealing with errant students and staff who expect custodians to unquestioningly clean up after their excesses.

Although most people had regard for us and our work, there was one teacher who allowed her students to leave her room messy. The lesson her kids were learning was irresponsibility—that they could make a mess and someone else would clean it up.

When I was a social worker, I taught parenting skills to parents. One of the cornerstone concepts was that if a child makes a mess, the child cleans it up. Responsible adults clean up their messes as best they can, whether it’s a mess of a relationship or an auto accident. That’s why I see support and respect for custodians as much more than giving hard-working colleagues their due. Custodians are key players in educating students to become productive and responsible adult members of society.

Before his six-week stint as a Colorado school custodian, John Ellison worked as a clinical social worker in a state hospital, clinics, and private practice.


PHOTO: Rick Giase

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