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Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Boost the Power of the Teaching Team by Enlisting Other School Staff

By Larry Ferlazzo — May 03, 2022 12 min read
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(This is the second post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

How can teachers best work with “classified” staff who are not necessarily in the classroom—secretaries, custodians, groundskeepers, etc.?

In Part One, Angela M. Ward, Jennifer Orr, Vivian Micolta Simmons, and Kevin Parr shared their commentaries. Angela, Jennifer, and Vivan were also guests on my 10-minute BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today, Doug Fisher, Nancy Frey, Dominique Smith, Moriah Stephens, Rhonda Neal Waltman, and Rhonda Rodriguez contribute responses.

‘Touch Points’

Doug Fisher (dfisher@sdsu.edu) and Nancy Frey (nfrey@sdsu.edu) are professors of educational leadership at San Diego State University and teacher leaders at Health Sciences High. They are the co-authors of Engagement by Design, published by Corwin. Dominique Smith (dsmith@hshmc.org) is a principal at Health Sciences High and the co-author of Teacher Credibility and Collective Efficacy Playbook, published by Corwin:

There are a number of adults paid to be on a school campus who do not directly provide instruction for students in the classroom. These people ensure that operations run smoothly, from ordering supplies to providing sustenance to monitoring attendance to keeping the facility beautiful. They are important members of the overall school community.

There is a reason that they work in a school rather than in any other organization. Like teachers and administrators, they want to ensure that young people have a safe place to learn. They enjoy being around children and youth and know that they are contributing to the overall well-being of students.

When asked about ways that these staff members can support students’ development, teachers have a few ideas. And these ideas relate to the overall number of touch points that students experience during the day.

  • Know and say their names. Classified staff have demanding job descriptions, often interacting with students. When the staff member knows the student’s name and how to pronounce it, students feel seen. Classified staff members should be invited to interact with students as part of their job, using students’ names whenever possible. This can reduce the feeling of isolation some students experience at school.
  • Serve as the eyes and ears. Every adult on the campus should understand the signs and symptoms of trauma and mental-health issues. Teachers and classified staff members receive yearly mandated reporter training to identify issues of abuse and neglect. Extend these learning experiences to include training about mental wellness and social-emotional learning. We all should notice students who need support and connect them with resources.
  • Attend extracurricular events. Adults in a school are superheroes. You may not always feel like it, but in the eyes of students, you are. When possible, attend extracurricular events. And make sure that classified staff are invited to these events as well. Students will play harder, sing louder, and dance better because you are there. When classified staff attend, make them feel welcome as colleagues and not seated in a separate location.
  • Guest speakers. Classified staff members have interesting jobs and experiences. They make great guest speakers who can share experiences with students. When they have a few minutes, they can join a classroom and simply read aloud to students or tell a story to develop students’ listening skills.
  • Mentoring. Divide the number of students by the total number of adults who work at the school site. The result is usually between 7 and 12. Then assign that number of students to each adult as a mentor. Encourage the staff member to monitor the students’ attendance, grades, behavior, whatever. This ensures that every student is known by at least one adult and has one person to go to in times of need or celebration.

We do not want to diminish the value of the important jobs that classified staff members do on a daily basis, but we know that increasing the number of positive touch points that students experience in a day impacts students in powerful ways. And it allows these staff members an opportunity to experience the power of changing lives. After all, who doesn’t love it when a student returns and asks, “Do you remember me?” That honor should not be limited to teachers. Every adult in the school has the potential to be the person who was there at just the right time. Let’s mobilize the entire school community to impact students’ development.



Moriah Stephens is a special educator teaching in Brooklyn Park, Minn. She holds an M.A. in developmental disabilities from the University of St. Thomas and believes that ALL students are capable, able, and worthy of love:

“A person’s name is to him or her the most important sound in any language.”

— Dale Carnegie

This quote was the first thing that came to mind when I read the question above. Knowing the names of all the classified staff in your school is the simplest first step to working with them effectively. Secretaries and custodial staff are some of the most underappreciated and underacknowledged in the world of education. Whenever there is an accident, we say, “Oh, we need a custodian.” When something is needed from the front office, we say just that, “Can you go to the front office?” Not using the names of the custodians or secretaries removes their humanity and reduces them to solely their operative tasks.

When someone needs a teacher, you never hear, “Can we get a licensed staff to the gym?” Teachers are always requested by name. Why are we, teachers, afforded that level of respect, when we all know that without the classified staff, our schools would practically (and maybe literally) fall apart? When there’s a spill, call for Mr. Ed over the walkie. If you’re sending a student to the office, tell them to go to see Ms. Susan. The language we use matters and sets a standard for our students and also our own peers.

My other advice is to ensure that you treat the classified staff as part of the team. To some, that may sound obvious, but in my experience, I have seen classified staff treated with hierarchical attitudes that, again, remove their humanity and promote an “othering” experience.

When you go to the front office (outside of an emergency), commit the first five minutes of your interaction with the secretary to something nonschool-related. Ask about a picture on their desk or follow up from a previous conversation. The more you know about them as a person, the less likely you are to view them as “someone to just do stuff for me.” With custodians, try to have one interaction a day that does not relate to their custodial duties. I have found that the “othering” experience tends to apply more to custodial staff, due to the more active nature of their position. I have heard teachers say, “Well, I can never find them,” or “They just don’t have time to talk.” If you’re going to another side of the school, take the route that brings you past the custodial office and pop your head in to say hi. Try to be in your classroom when they make their rounds down your wing and have a quick chat then.

What my answer boils to is really just one word: respect. Classified staff are integral to the success of any school—they are the glue that holds everything together and they need to be treated with the respect that that undertaking entails.


‘The Key’

Rhonda Neal Waltman has more than 30 years of experience, having served as a teacher, counselor, principal, and assistant superintendent. Today, she is the national director, learning supports, for Scholastic Education:

As a former teacher, counselor, principal, and assistant superintendent, I know one thing for sure—the support staff at each school holds the key to setting the right conditions for learning. After all, children and families often encounter a support-staff member before entering a classroom. So let’s prioritize our focus on supporting this support staff.

Support-staff members may include these positions: bus drivers, food-services staff, family-engagement assistants, custodians, clerks, and maintenance staff, to name a few. Their role in reopening schools varies based on their position and assigned duties, and now this includes the specialized duties necessary in a COVID-19 environment.

For instance, during an in-person school day, one of the first encounters children will have may be with the school bus driver. And depending on how that encounter goes, it will most certainly impact how children respond and react for the rest of the day. Bus drivers will now have the added responsibilities of social distancing bus riders, keeping bus interiors cleaned/sanitized, and relieving anxieties of families and students.

As children arrive at school, the majority of them make a beeline to the school cafeteria. Many children experience hunger and basic food insecurities—and this was the case even before the pandemic. According to 2016 research from the Scholastic “Teacher & Principal School Report,” 85 percent of principals reported having students coming to school hungry. Now, in the midst of the pandemic, that number has only grown due to reasons such as loss of family members’ jobs for some, which may result in situational poverty; for others, the pandemic has made chronic poverty even worse. In addition to meal preparation, cafeteria staff members have the added responsibility of social-distancing requirements and additional cleaning and sanitizing.

The day-to-day responsibilities of all support-staff members have been amplified beyond anything imagined.

I recommend a three-pronged model for teachers, especially those serving on school leadership teams, to help ensure there is alignment among the main components for student success both at the start of and throughout the school year. Here are considerations for teachers in each of the three areas, as it relates to collaborating with support personnel:

  • Instruction – Focus on creating continuity of learning by developing a welcoming culture of learning; additionally, determine the root cause of underperformance for students. For example:

    • Utilize assessments to measure learning loss.
    • For vulnerable populations, mitigate learning loss by utilizing instructional aides and any other sources for tutoring and one-to-one assistance.
  • Learning Supports – Focus on creating ideal conditions for learning and addressing outside barriers to learning students may be facing. For example:

    • Determine safe modes of transportation for students and connect with bus drivers about special situations with individual students.
    • Discuss health concerns of students with a health aide, school nurse, or other wraparound service providers.
    • For students with food insecurities, work with cafeteria staff to have snacks available in the classroom.
    • Partner with family-engagement specialists to provide guidance to families, particularly around health and safety protocols.
  • Management – Provide resources to ensure that continuity of learning and ideal conditions for learning are accomplished. For example:

    • Collaborate with plant engineers and custodians to install comprehensive operational health and safety protocols, in addition to working with school health aides and school nurses for any necessary COVID-19 screening/monitoring.
    • Create contingency plans for virus reemergence throughout the year.

Teachers and school leaders have always interacted with support staff—but now we need close alignment with these staff members more than ever. They are often behind-the-scenes mentors to our children; they transport children; they feed children and staff; and they keep the school building and grounds in shape. Because of this, they deserve proper training, products and equipment to ensure they are ready for the unique challenges ahead.


‘Essential Workers’

Rhonda Rodriguez teaches English at George Ranch High School, Lamar Consolidated Independent school district, Texas:

With 21 years of educational experience—as an aide, elementary teacher, and now a high school teacher—under my belt, I have worked with a variety of “classified” staff members. I personally like to refer to them as “essential” staff members. Without these individuals, a school would not function.

Can you imagine a teacher that answered the phone calls for the campus, enrolled and unenrolled students, made breakfasts and lunches, cleaned restrooms and halls all while teaching? It would be impossible, so these positions are essential to the success of a school building, and the hard-working people that hold them need to be treated as such. The school attendance clerk has state mandates he/she must adhere to just like a teacher. A secretary must meet budget requirements, while fulfilling the staff needs in terms of supplies and extras. She/he also has to answer to the unrealistic demands of parents that are unhappy.

So, greet them each morning with a warm hello and bright smile. Thank them for doing their jobs, no matter how minimal it may seem. Ask for assistance from them, rather than demand it. Add them to your “gift list” for holidays. Invite them to join the department luncheon. Present them with a random treat—a candy bar or soft drink. A simple wave through the window for the lawn crew. Anything to show that you acknowledge their place in the school community and just how essential they are.


Thanks to Doug, Nancy, Dominique, Moriah, Rhonda, and Rhonda for sharing their thoughts!

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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