Larry Everett started his custodian job in 2003, never dreaming that teachers and administrators would some day summon him on his walkie-talkie to rush over to a classroom because a student is shouting, throwing things, and demanding to talk with “Mister Larry.”
“Sometimes a teacher or guidance counselor will call me on my radio and ask if I don’t mind hurrying to room such and such,” says Everett. “It’s usually because there is a student with a problem who says he will only talk to me.”
Everett is called so that a student’s anger does not escalate. Teachers and counselors at Webster Elementary School in Sumter County, Fla., also know that he will discretely share with them the source of the student’s discomfort.
“I keep them in the loop so we can work together and know how to deal with the issue better next time,” he says. “Teachers can have 20 or more students to look after at a time…I can focus on one at a time.”
Like most of his custodian counterparts throughout the nation’s public schools, Everett’s daily interactions with students over multiple school years is an integral part of the job. These education support professionals (ESPs) are some of the most visible staff on campus. Given their first-name basis with students, many ESPs are eager to ensure students attend class regularly, behave while on school grounds, get good grades, and feel safe at school.
“There is a huge need to formalize these roles and include all school employees in student discipline, anti-bullying, and school safety professional development,” says Roxanne Dove, director of the NEA Education Support Professional Quality (ESPQ) Department, which is currently developing an ESP mentoring program geared toward local affiliates.
Already, ESPs serve the whole student by helping to keep pupils safe, healthy, engaged, supported, and challenged, says Dove. And last year’s passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) has opened the door to even more opportunities for ESPs to work with students.
“ESPQ has developed several policies to keep ESPs informed about ESSA regulations,” Dove adds. “We want to equip ESPs to advocate for their seat at the table and for students.” Recently, ESPQ established the Paraeducator Institute website which promotes professional development and leadership opportunities for paraeducators.
A Genuine Concern for Students
The leadership training that Marie Leonard received through the Utah School Employees Association (USEA) has helped her become not only a strong advocate regarding school policies but a more informed “student cheerleader,” she says.
“We need to help students forget their stresses from home and concentrate on becoming all they can be,” says Leonard, head custodian at Mont Harmon Middle School in Price, Utah. “I love hearing about their weekend adventures, and their highs and lows.”
Students are sometimes pleasantly surprised when Leonard remembers their precise achievement level in a particular digital game.
“They find it amusing that I encourage them to get to the next level in the game,” she says. “I want them to know I care.”
Melvin Bland of Goodnight Elementary School in Pueblo, Colo., says honesty is the main thing to keep in mind when mentoring students.
“Kids know when you are not being honest and that’s when you lose them,” says Bland, president of the Association of Custodial and Maintenance Employees (ACME). “When you’re genuine, they will know you care and are not just telling them anything to get rid of them.”
Bland says he sometimes stops what he is doing to sit with a student. The conversation can range from grades, tests, and homework to teachers, parents, siblings, and peers.
“It’s usually up to them what they want to get off their chests,” Bland says. “My role is to listen. Sometimes that is all they need.”
A ‘Let it Go’ Session
ACME Vice President Brian Day has mentored students for almost 10 years—the same amount of time that he has worked at the maintenance center in Colorado’s Pueblo City Schools, District 60.
“Many of the kids I meet at school are having problems at home and need an adult role model to listen to them without judging them,” Day says. “In some cases, their parents are not around for whatever reason, so they are looking for guidance.”
In Bland’s district, some students come from low-income, single parent or other non-traditional households. In these cases the parent or guardian might be working two jobs and not be readily available to fully support their child’s educational needs.
“Many of the kids come from broken families, or they live with their grandparents,” he says. “They may see me as someone with experience who cannot really tell them what to do but can discuss different ways to handle things.”
Bland and Day are both known to greet students in the morning before school and speak with them during classroom breaks.
“I sometimes sit with a group at lunch and have a ‘let it go session,’ as we call it,” Bland says. “I live in the same neighborhood where I work, so I see a lot of them in the grocery store and on the street. It all comes together.”
Day also meets students at lunch, sometimes treating them to a meal.
“I don’t see anything wrong with that as long as it is all out in the open,” he says. “A lot of staff pitch in where needed—whether it’s a teacher buying classroom supplies or support staff helping out with winter clothes or lunch tickets.”
An Untapped Resource
But some of the district’s school administrators don’t appear to support the idea of support staff interacting with students on a personal level.
“I am not supported as a mentor in my school district,” Bland says. “A student isn’t supposed to walk up and talk to me. They were told that I am not that kind of staff.”
Day also says administrators are not as supportive as he’d like: “They don’t like us helping the kids in this way. But if I can help keep them away from drugs or other dangers just by talking with them, then I’m going to do what is right and appropriate.”
At this summer’s NEA Representative Assembly, held in Washington, D.C., delegates heard from NEA ESP of the Year Doreen McGuire-Grigg. She spoke up for the inclusion of ESPs at schools and underscored the value they bring to students.
“We are more than partners, we are problem solvers. We are an untapped resource and we are here to support the whole student, the whole school, and the whole community. We are the secret weapons,” McGuire-Grigg said.
Leonard, the head custodian at Mont Harmon says, “Students come from all walks of life.” This circumstance demands an all-staff, student-centered system where “success is the only option.”
“All of us at school do everything we can to raise them up while we have them in our care,” says Leonard, a member of the Carbon Classified Employees Association. “It’s all hands on deck.”
The “it takes a village” concept is also in place at Webster Elementary where Larry Everett works. There, low-income, disabled, immigrant, and other historically marginalized students can be distracted from their studies due to personal circumstances.
“Sometimes the student is bullied or doesn’t take his medication or didn’t have dinner the night before because there was no dinner at their house that night,” Everett says. “I notice they are in a bad mood or looking troubled, so I ask them what the problem is…then [I] just listen so they know we at school care about them.”