Schools run, in part, on the elbow grease of custodians, the gentle nudge of a crossing guard, and the encouraging smile of a paraprofessional and teacher’s assistant silently indicating to a student that, “Yes, you’ve got this.”
But these support staffers frequently toil in the background, rarely getting the thanks or recognition they deserve.
“They are far too often forgotten and underappreciated for what they do,” said Kevin Armstrong, the principal of DuPont Hadley Middle School in Nashville, Tenn.
“Post-COVID, when people are finding it really hard to find good people, I think it really shined a light on support staff and folks like that in our buildings, because we realized how important they are,” Armstrong said.
We took for granted that we would always have a cafeteria manager, or always have a crossing guard, or always have a paraprofessional, always have custodians,” he continued. “Post-COVID, people had options and chose to do other things, and there was not a long line of people behind them to replace them. So we definitely appreciate them.”
In honor of Thanksgiving, we asked a few principals, including Armstrong, to give a shoutout to one worker (not including an administrator or teacher) who makes their school run.
Miguel Ribera and Ana Gil, custodians, DuPont Hadley Middle School, Nashville, Tenn.
Armstrong can’t stop raving about Miguel Ribera and Ana Gil, the husband-and-wife team who took over the school’s janitorial services in July, three weeks before the school year started.
“They came in, and they were dusting and cleaning vents that I don’t think had been touched in 10 years,” he said. “Just finetooth-comb. They started using Fabuloso. You’re walking in the halls, and it smells like home. It smells like Lysol. It smells like Pine-Sol and Fabuloso, and it’s like, yes, this is how it’s supposed to be.”
If Armstrong is effusive with praise for Ribera and Gil, it’s because he’d spent years trying to get custodians, who were provided by an outside company, to take their jobs seriously.
It was an uphill battle that left Armstrong, staff, and students dissatisfied. There were constant emails from teachers complaining about unemptied trash cans, spilled soda that hadn’t been cleaned up, or floors that hadn’t been waxed in weeks.
That all changed when Ribera and Gil arrived and gave a frank assessment, laced with assurance: Your school is dirty, but we’ll clean it up.
“They just are very meticulous, and really take pride in their work,” Armstrong said. ”They just kept telling us that if we’re going to work here, then it’s going to be nice, we’re not going to work in a place that’s filthy.”
“I am dead serious,” Armstrong continued. “This is my 27th year in education, and I have never had custodians at this level. From the time they walk in to the time they leave, they are cleaning, dusting.”
The staff and faculty have been so impressed with the couple’s work that they named them as the staff members of the month in October.
The school bought Ribera an electric blower because he wanted to remove leaves and debris from the front steps so that students could walk in every morning without wading through debris. He buffs the floors every night.
Not too long ago, when it seemed like another district was trying to poach Ribera, Armstrong promptly called the couple’s boss.
“I was like, “Look, whatever you’ve got to pay him, you need to pay these folks,’ ” to keep them, Armstrong said.
The difference is apparent to anyone entering the building. Teachers have told Armstrong to “keep them forever,” and even students are trying their best not to make a mess.
“It’s almost like you want to show it off,” he said. “It’s like a new toy. It’s like a new car. It definitely gives us a sense of pride.”
He wants Ribera and Gil to know “that they are loved, they are seen, and we truly appreciate the hard work that they do for our school.”
“It’s very apparent that they take pride in their job, and that they have really transformed our building through their tireless work of making sure that our building is clean every single day,” Armstrong said.
Helga Gaecklein, cafeteria manager, 71st Classical Middle School, Fayetteville, N.C.
Helga Gaecklein is like the wise older aunt who keeps things humming along smoothly, shares a kind word with students after she’s served them their meals, and motivates staff to show up every day, said principal Queesha Tillman.
Tillman calls Gaecklein, who oversees four cafeteria workers, a master of logistics, ensuring that everything from inventory for all school meals, portion intake, and equipment are meticulously tracked.
“She doesn’t like paperwork—but she is good at it,” Tillman said. “Ms. Helga is a veteran in her field. She’s been doing it for years; she loves what she does. She gives 100 percent.”
Although she’s in charge of the department, Tillman also serves students, relishing her interactions with them. She started an incentive program this year to award gift cards and other donations to the most well-behaved class in the lunchroom.
With the school having a new administrative team this year—both Tillman and the assistant principal are new to 71st Classical—it’s good for students to have a constant, trusted figure, Tillman said.
Tillman has found Gaecklein’s warmth and humor comforting as she’s settled into her new position.
“She is a comedienne,” Tillman said. “She makes me laugh. Ms. Helga is all around a really good person, and I am glad to be working with her.”
Every individual in the school community plays a role in the school’s success, Tillman said.
“It takes everybody to make sure that the school runs efficiently and effectively—so it takes us all,” Tillman said. “We can’t ever be in a position where we think that one position is higher than the other. We all have strengths. That is where her strengths lie, in the child nutrition area, and she shows her strengths each and every day.”
“It’s important not to overlook them because they are just as important as a teacher, a bus driver, a custodian— everybody is significant in the school setting,” Tillman added.
April Huff, secretary, Kelso Virtual Academy, Kelso, Wash.
“The cement that holds this building together.” That’s how Principal Cindy Sholtys-Cromwell describes the school’s secretary April Huff, with whom she’s worked for about a dozen years.
Huff was an instructional aide at Butler Acres Elementary School, but when Sholtys-Cromwell got the job to lead the virtual school, Sholtys-Cromwell confessed that, “I stole her to come work with me.”
Huff, who has been Sholtys-Cromwell’s secretary for about three years, is an indispensable right hand to the principal.
“To use a cliché, she’s my ride-or-die person in this job,” Sholtys-Cromwell said. “There is no one else I’d want to have side by side with me. And a workhorse—oh my God— she is not afraid to get her hands dirty and jump in. She is amazing —she absolutely is.”
Huff’s long tenure in education means that “she knows everybody,” Sholtys-Cromwell said. “And, if not, she’s going to make you feel like she’s known you for years by the time you leave the office.”
Among Huff’s superpowers: She lights up a room, can diffuse any tense situation, and has no fear saying to her boss, ‘Cindy, this does not make sense.’ But she’s also really great at ensuring students are taken care of.
Sholtys-Cromwell highlighted Huff’s role helping and comforting a senior, who had just lost her permanent home and had pretty much given up on the idea of graduating because of the hurdles she’d have to surmount.
In her trademark comforting and optimistic way, Huff said to the student, ‘Give us some time. We’re going to figure it out. We’re going to come up with a plan,’” Sholtys-Cromwell recalled.
By the time the student left the office, she had been matched with counselors and had a path to make her way to the graduation stage, Sholtys-Cromwell said.
She’s done the same for students struggling to get their technology to work (a not uncommon occurrence at a virtual school), figuring out Byzantine immunization requirements, or dealing with deaths in their families.
“She is one of those individuals who makes you feel like you’re the most important person in the world right now—she has the patience of Job,” Sholtys-Cromwell said. “There’s no way our school or our staff would be successful without her.”
Support staff “are the cement that hold our school buildings together,” Sholtys-Cromwell said. “And I am blessed to be surrounded by a whole bunch of them.”