(This is the first post in a two-part series.)
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.?
Classified staff in schools, generally everyone who’s not a teacher or an administrator, are critical to a school and, therefore, to its students’ success. How can teachers and classified staff best work together?
Today, Angela M. Ward, Jennifer Orr, Vivian Micolta Simmons, and Kevin Parr share 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.
You might also be interested in previous posts here that have been about Professional Collaboration.
In addition to the great ideas expressed in this series, I’d also like to point out another important way teachers and support staff can work together-- through coordinated collective bargaining efforts, as was done in Minneapolis and by our unions in Sacramento. As I wrote in that previous post:
To modify a popular saying—teacher and custodian and paraprofessional and bus driver and school secretary working conditions are student learning conditions.
‘Custodians Were Our Favorite’
Angela M. Ward is a public school administrator with 23 years of experience. She is focused on creating identity-safe schools and workplaces and strives daily to nurture equity-centered schooling. Follow her at Ward @2WardEquity on Twitter & Instagram and visit http://2wardequity.com/blog/ to subscribe to the 2Ward Equity newsletter:
The first step is for teachers to recognize that every person who enters the school space is a teacher and to relate with them as such. No matter what grade level or content area you teach, there is a direct curricular connection to be made to the classified staff to highlight how they are important to the function of the school.
As a classroom teacher and campus leader, I engaged every adult in the education of my students. As a 1st grade teacher, I encouraged my students to write letters to, read to, and speak to the administrative assistants who kept the school office running efficiently. We were known to have a special place in the front office to showcase the work of the most improved writer in the class. Students visited office staff to read when they reached an important milestone in their learning. It was important to me that students saw each adult as an important person in their learning progress.
Custodians were our favorite. We talked to our custodians about doing our part to keep the classroom clean so they didn’t have to work extra hard to clean up behind us. We treated our classroom as our home away from home and picked up after ourselves to make sure the place was safe for us to move about and learn.
Early in the school year when we were learning how to be in community together for the coming year, we took stock of all the things in our room that were clean and needed to stay clean. We talked about the trash cans and why paper towels should be inside and not on the floor. We talked about safety with backpacks to prevent tripping hazards. We talked about dry toilet seats because we all shared the same restroom. Our custodian really appreciated us cleaning out the tadpole home, too, as we raised them to frogs. He was one of the students’ favorite people to read to.
‘Get to Know Them’
Jennifer Orr is a national-board-certified elementary teacher in the suburbs of Washington. She is a mother of two and an obsessive buyer of children’s books:
Teachers work with other teachers all the time. A lot of that work is built into our schedules for meetings with teammates or vertical teams or committees. Some of that work is informal when collaborating on projects together or turning to a colleague for help with a classroom challenge.
Working with classified staff almost always falls into the informal category. Most schools don’t have structures in place to support collaborations between teachers and classified staff. It may also be far less likely teachers come in contact with classified staff. While our colleagues likely have classroom spaces on the same hallway with us and work with the same daily schedule as we do, classified staff are likely physically in a separate space and may work at different times of the day from us.
All of those challenges aside, classified staff are some of the most important folks in our schools. The work they do may not be as obviously visible to us or to our students on a regular basis, but try to imagine doing your job without them. It quickly becomes clear that they are essential to making a school work.
The first step is to get to know them. I changed schools last year, and not knowing the custodial staff, the office staff, and the cafeteria staff was daunting to me. In the first week, I took treats to all of them. One day, I had flowers for each of the staff in the office, thanking them for all they’d done to help me get on board and get rolling with the new year. Another day, I had mugs with the fixings for a “mug cake” inside for the custodial staff, thanking them for all they did to have my classroom and our school ready for the kids. I felt less equipped to address the cafeteria staff as they hadn’t been in the building prior to the first week with kids, so they got a bag of various healthy and not-so-healthy treats to share along with a note about how excited I was to work with them.
That set me up to easily have conversations anytime I wandered through the office or as I took my 3rd graders through the lunch line or when the custodians came in my room after school. The door was now open for us to chat. Getting to know these staff members isn’t as easy as getting to know my teaching colleagues because I don’t spend the same kind of time with them, but it’s worth the effort. These staff members do so much to support teachers and students, and they should be seen and known as much as everyone else in the building.
Everybody Should Attend Staff Meetings
Vivian Micolta Simmons was born in Colombia and has been in the United States for seven years. She has been a teacher for 14 years and is currently working as a ESL/DLI lead teacher for the Iredell-Statesville schools in North Carolina:
To keep it in simple terms: Consistency is the key. In my opinion, the same rules that apply in school for students and that teachers and administrators work hard to put in place daily should be put into practice by our classified staff with consistency as well. The only way for our classified staff to be aware of these strategies is to include them in staff meetings and some teacher training, when applicable.
When we lead staff meetings where we are touching bases on routine classroom expectations, ALL school staff should be present: administrators, teachers, custodians, office staff, and assistant teachers. We should all be on the same page when guiding our students’ learning.
Help Them Understand Their Impact
Kevin Parr is a 1st grade teacher in Wenatchee, Wash., and is a 2014 ASCD Emerging Leader:
All teachers know that classified staff play an indispensable role in schools, but do those staff members fully understand their own impact? There are connections between the important work these “classified” staff members do and the mission of the school, but they are not always visible to them, other teachers, or students. Therefore, the key to working with classified staff is to make sure they know how important their role is to the mission of the school—student learning. To accomplish this, we need to move beyond acknowledging these staff members one week a year and begin making clear connections between their work and the mission of the school part of our daily routine.
Here is a short list of the staff members vital to any school and how we can help them realize their role in the school and how it impacts the daily mission of the school.
Office staff: One of the roles most appreciated by teachers is the office staff’s communication with parents. Their deep knowledge of families and the relationships they have built over the years are second to none. And I know for a fact the office staff have de-escalated many parents before the teacher has been contacted. Many times, a simple thank you does not demonstrate the level of appreciation our office staff deserves, nor does it allow them to visualize their role on a larger scale. Instead, explaining the effect of their job is more beneficial. For example, imagine a member of the office staff hearing, “After you talked with Leticia’s mom the other day, her disposition in class has improved dramatically, and her reading is really taking off.” Now, the staff member can “see” themselves beyond the walls of the office and into the learning of the children they serve..
Custodial staff: Custodians are often overlooked and their work taken for granted, yet all teachers are thankful to walk into a clean classroom that is ready for student learning. We need to move beyond simple appreciation for our custodial staff and begin to use their expertise beyond their traditional role to make our schools and our students better. For example, the longtime custodian at the elementary school I attended was put in charge of the school garden and worked with groups of children to plant, tend, and harvest the garden. Similarly, custodial staff can be invited to participate in class projects or organize a group for a schoolyard cleanup.
Food-service workers: Our food-service workers serve hundreds of meals a day in a hurried and sometimes chaotic environment. Considering these conditions, maintaining a positive attitude is not always easy, yet is critical in ensuring a positive school experience. This is especially true at breakfast when our food-service workers can be the first adults from the school that our students interact with. These interactions can affect a child’s disposition positively or negatively. One small act teachers can do is to take a walk through the cafeteria to check in with students, monitor the environment, and let the food-service staff know how much the kids enjoy their warm smiles and care and how that helps make students ready to learn.
No matter their job titles, our “classified” staff members play an important role in our schools. If we make clear connections between our classified staff’s work and the students we serve, their role will not only be amplified but also better appreciated by the entire school community.
Thanks to Angela, Jennifer, Vivian, and Kevin for sharing their thoughts!
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