How Treating Custodians, Associates and Parents as Colleagues Can Impact Community

There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t have a conversation with our custodians about a project I’d like to make happen.  Sometimes I wonder if they avoid me because they know that I’m probably thinking about something that would require efforts above and beyond their daily work. Nonetheless, they greet me with big smiles and grateful hearts.  These folks are typically the first to arrive and the last to leave; often (and I’m not saying this is always the best approach) but it might be just ‘us’ at school early or late in the day.  It’s those times when I feel like I’ve learned the most from my colleagues.  I’ve taken the time to learn more about them and they’ve listened to stories about my family and my dreams for the Hubbard Woods School.  Both our ‘daytime’ and ‘nighttime’ custodians have their very own ways of interacting and communicating with the staff.  One is outgoing and incredibly gracious; the other is introverted and extremely observant, but hesitant to begin a conversation.  I can identify with both of them.

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My dad once said to me that you should treat the custodians in the school like you would the principal.  Actually, I think his reference was more along the lines of like the CEO; but he was a businessman.  A businessman who ended up at the top, but started at the very bottom.  He started sweeping up and loading packages at United Parcel Service.  By the end of his career, he was a Chief Maintenance Engineer for the ENTIRE midwest.  He was a hard worker, but he never lost touch with the folks who shined the floor and polished the brass.


I took that same approach with me into my first teaching job in a school in North Carolina.  I remember Mr. Fritz, our custodian.  He loved to chat.  He thought I was crazy, trying to find all sorts of ways to reach my students.  One of which included hanging ‘thought bubbles’ I had created with positive sentiments to encourage students to change the soundtrack in their minds.  There were many early mornings when he and I were the first in the building and we would chat over a cup of coffee.  I remember him once saying something along the lines that he enjoyed talking like ‘equals.’

That’s been a theme in my life.  I was a janitor for a wacky company in high school.  We cleaned all sorts of businesses and honestly I got into more trouble with my good friend in the packaging rooms of businesses than we did much cleaning.  The point is, I had experience at the ‘bottom.’  I never made it up the ‘ladder’ too far in that job but did eventually work for a temporary agency in college where I did everything from working in a shoe factory to a plastic bag plant.  Glamorous!  It did more to encourage me to complete my college degree than any counseling my guidance counselor offered.

At each and every one of the schools I’ve worked at, I’ve befriended the two most important people in the building: the custodian and the secretary.  Both have saved me numerous times.

Recently, I’ve added parents to this mix.  When the IDEA Lab began to take shape, I knew I needed help.  I invited parents and kids in to help paint, clean, organize and create the space.  When I was badly injured in a fire, they continued the work we’d started under the guidance and steerage of the custodial staff.  Again, they saved me!  Now, parents are a permanent fixture in the library and IDEA Lab.  They are welcome and present to help with just about all aspects of the learning and growing process.  They might be painting green walls one day and documenting learning the next.  I like to keep them on their toes!  The point is, they are there because they feel valued and part of the process.

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All of this is to say that treating all of these folks as colleagues have totally transformed the way I see school.  I’m no longer anxious about making a mistake in front of a parent.  I know it’s part of the learning process and what better way to model it than by making mistakes, lots of them.  It’s what we do with them that actually matter.


I do my very best to treat the other ‘team members’ as equals as well.  My technology and library associates know that I could do NONE of the crazy and amazing things we do without their COMPLETE patience and attention to detail.  They make it all look effortless; well, at least a bit more effortless than otherwise.  True observers know anything that ‘looks’ effortless is actually incredibly well orchestrated and practiced.

THANK YOU to all of you who have and will continue to help make learning exciting, engaging and limitless!


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