They are the first ones to arrive at school. The last ones to leave. On a snow day, they can't turn off their alarm, snuggle further under their covers and sleep in. They are always on call and on their feet throughout the entire school day. Every moment throughout the day they hear → "Can you do this? Can you take care of that? Can you fix this? Can you move that?" And on and on it goes. Who am I talking about?
The school custodian.
Earlier in my teaching career, I'm sad to say that I didn't give much thought to the awesome custodians in my district. I'd maybe give a quick “hello” as I performed lunch duty in the cafeteria. Or when I had a music room, I’d greet them as they entered my room to sweep the floor or vacuum my music rug. However, once I began teaching music from a cart, my eyes were opened WIDE to how much they *really* do for the school.
A nomadic, cart teaching lifestyle can really open your eyes to the true nitty-gritty of what goes on in and around school.
Being on a cart tends to amplify feelings of isolation. As a ‘specials’ teacher, you tend to already lack the naturally occurring community that the other subject-area teachers experience because they share common planning time, curriculum meetings, lunch times, and the like. As I rolled through the hallways, passing by our school custodians again and again, it began to dawn on me that they lack such community, too! So I began to make it my mission to simply not ‘pass by’ anymore, but I started to reach out. I'd stop and ask how they were doing...and actually wait and listen to their response. And then sometimes ask follow-up questions. One year, I found out with one particular custodian that we shared something in common at that time: we were both taking care of a sick relative. After realizing this, we would both be sure to share an encouraging word whenever we chatted. I also saw that the kindness I put forth was coming right back to me in ways that I didn't expect. Although they were always helpful and kind to me, they now went the extra step with anything that I needed. Not just for concerts, but also for my cart-teaching needs at school, pointing out a parking space when I arrived mid-day from another school, bringing me something I left behind in a classroom, so many acts of kindness! One rainy day, my car battery died in the school parking lot. Most everyone had already left at that point of the day, but I ventured into the office anyway hoping to find someone. One of the custodians was there and as I explained what happened, he stopped what he was doing and went out into the rain, no umbrella, and pulled his truck up to my car to jump start my battery.
I sought to extend appreciation of our school custodians beyond just myself by incorporating my students in the acts of appreciation, too. Especially working with little ones, it’s easy for them to generalize and assume that things just magically become clean and in order overnight as they enter their elementary school building each morning. Side note: shout-out to all you moms and dads possibly feeling similar misunderstandings from your own children regarding *your* work around the house! So below, I list several ways in which your students can acknowledge the hard work of school custodians, along with examples of how I and other staff members show some love to our school custodians throughout the year, too!
I like to teach my students to verbally acknowledge those around them. During my afternoon bus duty, I remind them to greet their bus driver or at other parts of the day, greeting teachers they pass in the hallways (instead of silently staring and walking on past...what's up with that, kiddos?!). Since we're talking about familiar school community members, not random strangers on the street, I feel it's important to teach them politeness and these appropriate social skills. Regarding school custodians, since I teach on a cart and hold music in their classrooms, I'll see the custodians pop in and out classrooms, grabbing or bringing back the classroom lunch tubs, checking the thermostat, or other daily tasks. I use that as a teachable moment of acknowledgement. Sometimes it’s briefly pausing the lesson and giving a simple, “Say ‘hi’ to Mr. ____ everyone!” Other times, after the custodian leaves the room, I’ll briefly mention how they can be thankful for such a clean learning environment and encourage them to share a “Thank you for…” statement when they see him next. Some examples could be:
- “Thank you for bringing down our lunch bins everyday.”
- “Thank you for helping our school to be clean.”
- “Thank you for the chairs you put out for our families at the concert.”
A simple "Thank you for..." statement can go a long way and I make sure to set the example by sharing my own thank you statements, whether my students are around or not.
Another great way to show appreciation is with a thank you card. Pick a time during the school year to offer one to your school custodians! For example, this can be done by having students sign their name on a large piece of construction paper (folded or open flat) after a grade-level concert. Maybe consider surprising your school custodian with a birthday card or an ‘end of the year’ thank you card by the students before summer vacation starts. I realized the power of a handmade card when one day, as I walked down the hall and passed the open door of the custodial closet, I spotted the large appreciation card my 3rd and 4th graders had made for him. He kept it and hung it up in his small office space. Don’t negate the power of a sincere, old-school, handwritten card!
This is different from the “verbally” point given above because we’re MUSIC teachers! We utilize the power of song to touch hearts so why not SING the praises of those whom we appreciate! A song I've loved using in the past comes from the Music K-8 resource and is aptly entitled: “We Appreciate You.” It’s a simple, upbeat song of appreciation that can easily be applied to anyone you’d like to give thanks to. It’s extremely catchy so my students *love* learning and performing it. One year, my principal decided to gather all the students into the all-purpose room and surprised our custodian by calling him down to the room via the loudspeaker, as if it was a usual clean-up duty to attend to. The moment he walked in, all the kids yelled, “Surprise! We appreciate you, Mr. ___!” and proceeded to sing through the song. As you can imagine, he was very moved and touched by that gesture from the kids!
Valuably - having considerable monetary or material value; of great importance, use, or service.
During the school year teachers have many moments where they feel the love. There’s random little notes of thanks from students during the year, gift giving during December, Valentine’s Day cards, and even Teacher Appreciation Week in May where many school districts and PTA/PTO groups across the country acknowledge teachers with fun little surprises in their mailboxes or a catered breakfast/lunch, not to mention the AWESOME store discounts many retailers and restaurants offer (hello free Chik-fil-A and Chipotle BOGO!!). There’s an Administrative's Assistant Day, School Nurse’s Day, Boss' Day, all kinds of days during the school year.
But how about custodians? Where's the love?! What I like about my schools' Sunshine Club is that in December, they include our school custodians in the gift-giving festivities and offer them gift cards! For several years now, I go above what the Sunshine Club does mid-year and I give each of my schools' custodians a gift card for something I know they can use and enjoy, and give it to them on the final day of school. This is just something I personally have felt moved to do to show my thanks for all of their help not only with my cart teaching, but also for ALLLLL of my concert performances. I conduct 11-12 concerts a year and they set up and break down over 200 chairs for each concert, along with schlepping the bulky metal risers to multiple schools, hoisting them on and off of the stage. What a job! Especially on top of everything else they must do. So I feel that they deserve some extra appreciation from me. I know *I* feel the love with each Dunkin’ Donuts, Starbucks, and Amazon gift card I surprisingly get from students in December or at the end of the school year, so I like to pay it forward by purchasing gift cards I know would be of value to our custodians in their “free” time over the summer. Buying gift cards not your thing? Strapped for cash or teach in a larger district? Consider making something of value to share instead. Do you cook? Bake? Paint? Sew? Whatever your gift, make it, wrap it up and share it! Anything that sincerely comes from the heart is a beautiful, valuable thing. After the whirlwind of a chaotic school year, what better way to express your thanks to them than offering something that they can enjoy before going your separate ways for the summer months.
How about you? Does your school district do anything to acknowledge the custodians? Have you done anything special or encouraged your students to show their appreciation in some way? Do you get the chance to talk to your school custodians about stuff other than concert setup? Can you recommend another “thank you” song that you’ve used with your students before? I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas in the comments below!
Encouraging you to rock as you roll,