How the Vice Principal gained the gratitude of a not too effective parent.

I didn’t see the guy who staggered towards me as I was waiting in the long line to see the teller in our local Wells Fargo. This was in the days prior to cash machines and I needed to cash a check. When he bumped into me, I was momentarily knocked off balance but not seriously. I didn’t fall and recovered my place in line as the obviously intoxicated or drugged up guy bounced away from me in the opposite direction. This was certainly some law of physics in action, yet what happened next had nothing to do with physics. Mr. O’Toole, one of the parents at the junior high where I served as vice principal appeared from out of nowhere, it seemed, and grabbed the poor drunk by the scruff of the neck.

Mr. O’Toole was a number 4 parent I won over on the 1 to 10 scale of parent support. This was a system I made up for teachers when they were dealing with difficult parents. The number 10 parents were well educated, well employed, well organized, loving to each other and their children. All they wanted to do was to help you as teacher to teach their kids well. On the other hand, the number 1 parents were tough. Most were ex cons or drug addicts or child molesters or just petty criminals. Their orientation was defensive, to say the least, towards the school and towards anything the school required. For example, if their kid got in trouble for cutting in the lunch line, they would typically call or come to the school and yell, threaten and stomp off. They rarely if ever got involved in educational issues but wanted to see justice for their children in comparison to the way other kids and teachers treated them. The goal for teachers was to get the lower number parents to support them in both schoolwork and student discipline. The lower the number, the more donuts, cookies, pies a la mode or beers we would have together to celebrate if the teacher got the parent to come around and support them and the school. You got nothing for the support of a number 10 parent, but practically a case of beer or similar quantities of pies a la mode, or cookies or donuts if you could bring a number 1 parent around.

Mr. O’Toole had a daughter, Mary who had well developed breasts in the 7th grade, smack in the middle of junior high school. She actually started developing early, back in the 4th grade and attracted the attention of both mean and ill-mannered boys. In elementary school, one of the boys had actually grabbed Mary by her breasts and the principal didn’t do much of a job dealing with the situation. The boy was counseled not to do that again but Mr. O’Toole, her dad, had never forgotten the incident.

Now in junior high, some of the boys in geography class had noticed Mary’s breasts and started out by calling her Mary of the Tetons. This was clever since the class had been divided into teams named after geographical features. Mary didn’t get that they were secretly referring to her large breasts so she didn’t complain. But without a reaction from Mary, the 7th grade boys, whose mission in life as a group repeatedly appeared to be doing hurtful, mean spirited things to others, re-Christened her ‘Big Tit Mary’ when they spoke about her to each other. Mary heard them call her that awful name during group work in class and broke down in tears. Since she was too upset and embarrassed to talk, her teacher sent her to a woman counselor. The counselor quickly found out what was up and invited me into her office to hear Mary’s story.

I called the boys into my office to get their side of the story. I began by letting them know I understood why they thought it was funny to tease Mary. One of them who went by the nickname, Spike, laughed and said, “Yeah it was really funny. And you should look at the size of those tits!”

This was a revealing statement. With a bit of coaxing, the other kid, Lance, also incriminated himself by sharing about the way all the boys loved their jokes about Mary’s tits. He also volunteered the way they had started with the geographic feature of the Tetons but when Mary didn’t react, they moved right to ‘Big Tit Mary’ among themselves and their friends.

It was fairly easy to tell them the information I had and to ask them what they thought about their teasing of Mary. They both shared that all the kids got nicknames from other kids. One boy was called ‘Poo Finger’ from the day when he was chasing a fly ball and fell into a pile of dog poo in the outfield. So they didn’t think this was so bad.

I shared that parents and especially Mary’s parents would be pretty upset to hear about the mean nicknames. I calmly told the boys that I thought they knew how mean and hurtful their behavior was and that there would be a cost.

“What do you mean?” asked Spike?

“You are going to call your mothers now with me on speakerphone and tell them what you did, “ I replied calmly in a quiet voice.

Both boys turned a kind of grayish blue, which I took to be a combination of panic and shame. I separated them and the calls were made individually. Luckily, the mothers were home. One mother cried and one yelled. But the effect on each son was what I desired. I let the parents know that each boy would be suspended from school for 1 day and would also write a letter of apology to Mary and her parents.

My legal basis for this punishment was weak since sexual harassment laws had not been passed yet. But I claimed it was all according to California Education Code which specified that no vulgar language is allowed at school. The parents of the culprits agreed with the punishment and then I called Mary’s dad, Mr. O’Toole.

I had learned that the best way to deal with outraged parents was to match emotions with them. This meant that if the bus was late and they wanted to yell at me about it, I would simply yell also, but not at the parents. I would yell something like, “Dang! I hate it when those stinking buses are late! Man do I hate it!” This usually disarmed the parents and so they didn’t yell at the bus driver when she showed up late.

With Mr. O’Toole, I employed the same strategy. I let him know I was calling because I was very upset about something that was going on that embarrassed Mary. He started cussing immediately when I told him that some boys had called his daughter, ‘Big Tits Mary.”

“Who are those little assholes, he demanded. I’ll kick their assess and their parents; assess too!”

So I cussed as well. “Those little shit heads pissed me off royally. Your daughter is a princess, just a great kid, and I won’t stand for this kind of behavior at my school!”

This calmed him down. Then I explained what I had done with the boys. He loved that I had called their mothers and that they had to tell them what they had done. When I let him know they had been suspended, (I said, “I kicked their stupid asses out of school so their parents can stare at them at home.”) He loved that as well. He was not as impressed with the letter he was going to get from the boys but agreed it would be a good idea. Days later he dropped by school to thank me for protecting and helping his daughter. He said he might have done something he would have regretted if I hadn’t stepped in when I did.

The corrective behavior worked and the boys never called Mary any more names. They steered clear of her altogether mainly out of fear of their mothers. The 7th grade girls felt Mary had been vindicated by the punishment of the boys and rallied around her as newly found friends.

Back in the bank, I realized that it was Mr. O’Toole who had the drunk or druggie by the scruff of the neck. He was the father of the girl whom the nasty 7th grade boys named “Big Tits Mary” and whom I had helped get rid of the hurtful nickname.

Mr. O’Toole shouted, “Don’t you touch our vice principal!” and turned the poor guy around towards the door. The guy tried to struggle away but Mr. O’Toole was expressing powerful, righteous anger and the guy was pretty wasted. He pinned the man’s arms behind his back and shoved him into the Well Fargo swinging doors in a dramatic gesture to throw him out. But this didn’t work. The poor man bounced off the doors which were closed, still on his feet and backed into Mr. O’Toole. Mr. O’Toole grabbed his arms again and prepared to ram him once more into the doors. I moved over to him quickly and said,” It’s ok, Mr. O’Toole. I’m ok. He’s just a drunk.”

Don’t worry Mr. Rich,” said Mr. O’Toole. “I’ve got this situation under control. I’ll take care of this bastard.”

With that he slammed the poor guy into the door once more and again the man bounced back, but this time fell onto the floor. His forehead was bleeding a bit. At this point a security guard ran up and stopped the mild melee that everyone in line was watching. The guard opened the swinging bank doors and escorted the drunk outside where he wandered off up the street. Back in line, everyone seemed to return to bank line boredom as if nothing had happened. Mr. O’Toole came up to me and once again, thanked me profusely for helping Mary through her situation. If there was anything he could ever do for me, all I had to do was ask. I thanked Mr. O’Toole and he got back in line a ways behind me.

I concluded later that I did not really convert Mr. O’Toole from a number 4 level parent into a number 10 parent since beating up drunks in the bank line was not really what the most effective parents did. But I still kept my parent rating system. I should have added a ‘gratitude component’ and factored that in.


That Sinking Feeling: Polar Bear Environmental Art

[caption id="attachment_4343" align="aligncenter" width="385"] Fig. 01[/caption]

By: Michael Engelhard

If art’s mission is to change public perceptions or to transcend established practices, it can no longer be apolitical, unaware of social or economic currents. The creators of an exhibit that examines the “cultural afterlife” of taxidermised polar bears (nanoq: flat out and bluesome, by Bryndís Snæbjörnsdóttir and Mark Wilson) sum up a rather recent shift in our attitudes toward their subject: “During the last decade the image of the polar bear has moved in the public imagination from being an icon of strength, independence and survival in one of the most climatically extreme of world environments, to that of fragility, vulnerability and more generally of a global environmental crisis.” Their latest project, Matrix, focuses on the bears’ maternity dens in Svalbard, “perfectly adapted model[s] for habitat in the arctic environment.” Since the Rodin pupil Francois Pompon’s L’Ours Blanc (1922), the language of polar bear art has changed, as have its approaches. Drawing on wildlife biology and physics research, Snæbjörnsdóttir and Wilson plan to chart any changes in the architecture of polar bear dens that could signal the bears’ adapting to new environmental circumstances, such as shortened winters and poor snow conditions. By translating their findings for a larger, non-academic public the artists hope to inspire contemplation and questioning of accepted knowledge or dogma.

[caption id="attachment_4346" align="aligncenter" width="300"] Fig. 02[/caption] [caption id="attachment_4347" align="aligncenter" width="320"] Fig. 05[/caption]

With a different tack and a stronger slant, Ackroyd & Harvey created Polar Diamond (2009) after a trip to Svalbard. For this piece of conceptual art, the duo cremated a polar bear bone, which they obtained, with permission, from Svalbard, and artificially grew a diamond from the ashes. Their work sped up a process that in nature takes millions of years. It questions the price we pay for carbon. Ackroyd & Harvey think their diamond carries “an anticipation of loss, and the knowledge that rarity inevitably increases value.” at of course applies to both diamonds and polar bears: the number of lowest-grade jewelers’ diamonds has been estimated to be in the tens of thousands; polar bears number between twenty thousand and twenty-five thousand.

[caption id="attachment_4350" align="alignleft" width="300"] Fig. 03[/caption]

Another conceptual piece deserves mentioning for its unusual fate. For his Ice Bear Project, the British wildlife artist Mark Coreth shaped an ice sculpture around a life-size, bronze polar bear skeleton. When the “flesh” melted, these bronze bones were revealed. As part of a WWF climate change campaign, the installation premiered in Copenhagen in 2009 before traveling to London, Sydney, and Montreal. In 2013, thieves with a big rig stole the skeleton—worth twenty-three thousand dollars—from Coreth’s lawn. The police feared they would sell it as scrap metal to be melted down. Once again, a political statement had been gutted by greed, for animal parts to be turned into cash.

Contradictions abound. Matters quickly get complicated. Inspired by the Nazca lines and children’s drawings, another Icelandic artist, Bjargey Ólafsdóttir, used organic red food dye to paint a gigantic polar bear outline on Langjökull Glacier, as part of a concerted e ort by artists and environmentalists to call attention to the 2010 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Cancun. It looked as if Earthlings had made a statement for extraterrestrials, showing them that they care about bears.

[caption id="attachment_4351" align="alignleft" width="300"] Fig. 04[/caption]

Less than half a year later, coast guard personnel killed a real polar bear stranded on Iceland’s northern coast—as bears have since Norse times—because it might disappear into the fog, wander into more densely populated areas, and there pose a risk to the public. A fraction of said public was very upset by the killing. It suggested marooned bears be outfitted with radio-collars and monitored—and restrained only if they became dangerous. Or they could be tranquilized and transferred to the Reykjavík zoo. Or officials could catch, cage, and repatriate strays to Greenland, where, of course, they might also get shot, as part of that country’s hunting quota for Natives. The polar bear killing in Iceland in 2010, like one in 2008, garnered attention domestically and internationally. Many people thought it “unfortunate” that Icelanders were killing bears when most of the world (and some prominent Icelanders) felt that the bears needed special protection. A rich Icelandic businessman offered the use of his private jet, and to pay for the polar bear’s relocation.

[caption id="attachment_4353" align="alignleft" width="285"] Fig. 06[/caption]

Like ideas, artful images can change lives and even save some. In 2001, one of Alaska’s pro-development politicians raised a blank white poster board on the U.S. senate floor, like a modern-day Ahab poised for a strike. “This is what An-whar [ANWR] looks like nine months of the year,” he said, trying to sway fellow senators to open a refuge to resource extraction. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge he so decried has the highest concentration of polar bear dens in Alaska. An opponent of drilling later held up a book with winter scenes by Subhankar Banerjee, of polar bears emerging from their dens in the alleged white waste. The refuge remained one, for the time being.

In the new millennium’s politics, polar bears thus play the part whales played in the 1980s. From a theatrics-as-protest perspective, their shape lends itself better to impersonation than that of a rainforest or whale. But Greenpeace activists are not the only people who wear fake polar bear fur to discomfort the public. With her one-woman show Ode to the Polar Bear, the Inupiaq rapper and performance artist Allison Warden provides an indigenous take on climate change and development. Drawing on stories and experiences of her elders, she mourns the animal’s passing and that of a way of life. During her monologue, she slips into various guises, including a polar bear’s, transcending human-animal nature as did the shamans of old.

The many ways in which avant-garde artists employ the White Bear to question our society’s course and objectives prove its longevity as a symbol. Its role in this context is just one more we humans have assigned to this charismatic carnivore throughout the millennia. Let us hope only that the real animal will outlast these most recent representations.

[caption id="attachment_4355" align="aligncenter" width="300"] Fig. 07[/caption]



Michael Engelhard is the author of the essay collection, American Wild: Explorations from the Grand Canyon to the Arctic Ocean, and of Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon. He lives in Fairbanks, Alaska and works as a wilderness guide in the Arctic.




Image captions:

Fig.01) Donald Gialanella’s Spirit
 of the North, concept for a sixty-foot sculpture welded from scrap automobiles for a downtown park in Fairbanks, Alaska. (Donald Gialanella)

Fig.02) L’Ours Blanc (1922), by Francois Pompon, at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. (Wikimedia Commons)

Fig.03) For Mark Coreth’s Ice Bear Project (2011), he displayed a bronze and ice polar bear sculpture in various cities—here in Sydney, Australia. (Jaime Borja)

Fig.04) The Icelandic artist Bjargey Ólafsdóttir painted Red Polar Bear (2010) on Langjökull Glacier to draw attention to activists’ demands that states agree to reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere from its current level of 400 parts per million to below 350 ppm. (Christopher Lund)

Fig.05) Livestock production is responsible for 51 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. Vincent J. F. Huang’s Polar Bear Hamburger (2014) reminds us of links between food and the environment. (Vincent J. F. Huang)

Fig.06) Aurora, the Greenpeace animated bear—a giant “puppet” used in political protest. (Epping Forest District Council)

Fig.07) Ad for a European environmental campaign. (Marc Paeps/ TBWA Group)

Author photo: Tuti Minondo

Walkabout 2: My Diverse Classroom in Thailand

This post part of my continuing “Walkabout in Thailand”, after leaving my regular position at Chico State in northern California in January 2016. The subtitle for this series might be: “free unsolicited advice for university administrators.”

My walkabout has landed me far from Chico State, at Payap University in northern Thailand. My third semester teaching has just started—I have a class in Thai-English translation, Peace and Aesthetics, and a graduate class in Peace Education. In this post I mainly write about the students in my Peace and Aesthetics class, which is part of Payap’s General Education program in its “International College” program.

Thailand’s Experiments in Diversity

International colleges are of increasing importance in many countries, including Thailand. Being “international” means basically you offer an English Curriculum in a country where English is not the national language. Thus at Payap Universty, there are 4500-5000 students in the Thai language curriculum, and just over 300 in an English language curriculum. It is as if Chico State as part of its new status as a “Hispanic Serving Institution” were to set up a Spanish language college for about 1000 students, and then recruit to fill the seats and faculty spots. Anyway, the English program is available to students who can meet the entrance requirement, which is typically a TOEFL score that indicates they are ready to pursue a Bachelor’s degree in English. This is hardly a cross-section of Thai undergraduates,.

What is Payap really doing? Payap International College is creating a complete curriculum in what is for Thailand a foreign language, English. They do this because a new multi-culture society is emerging in Souheast Asia.  My Thai (and other) students will create a world for themselves in Southeast Asia and beyond. The Thai government is actually encouraging universities across the country to establish such English language programs like we have at Payap University, and granting them accredited status if they meet requirements for quality curriculum, faculty, etc.

So who does this International College  appeal to?

My Classroom
     A survey of the students in my “Peace and Aesthetics” class provides an indication. Peace and Aesthetics is a “General Education” class required for all students on both the Thai and English side of Payap. As a result, I have a good cross-section of students from the four “international” undergraduate majors Payap offers: English Communication, Business, Hotel Management, and Information Technology.

Of the 46 students answering the survey on the first day of class, nineteen were Thai, and the rest were from twelve other countries, with the most numerous being Korea, USA, and Myanmar, with four each. 39 were from Asia, and seven from elsewhere, including one from Brazil. As significant, there was a wide range of reported language skills, with the three Malaysians reporting the most diversity (English, Chinese dialects, Malay, etc.). In 46 respondents, I can classify only five or so as being the “classic” native speaker of English from English-speaking countries, like the US, Canada, UK, etc., though I suspect that some of the Malaysians may have English functionally as one of their “first languages.”

A big question is how do we shape this diverse lot of people into a coherent “Payap Identity” over the next four years? Over the last semesters I have gotten to know a few of them—I am impressed that they bring a range of difficulties to the classroom. To borrow some Chico State-style terms around the issue of diversity, many of them are second language learners, two-thirds are “international students,” a few of the Burmese might have questionable immigration status in Thailand, and a number of the Thai students are from either Thailand’s Christian minority and/or one of the many linguistic minority groups found in northern Thailand.

Here is some more of the ethnic diversity I have come aware of: Thai students from the Karen, Lahu, and other Thai minority groups. The majority of students are Buddhist, but there are a good number of Christians, Muslims, a Nepali Hindu, and some free thinkers. Students I have had in the last two semesters who have parents from Thailand, and each of the following countries: Germany, France, Singapore, Taiwan, US, and maybe a couple of others. One of my Korean students this semester grew up in Kazakhstan and lived in the US, and three or four of the Thai students report having grown up in the US, and attended high school there. Last semester I also had five students from Turkey, all pursuing degrees in English from Payap University’s “Thai sidem” who landed in my “international side” GE class. TLast week I had a conversation with two students that are friends: One from Japan, and the other from the highlands of Nepal whose first language is Tibetan.  Today I talked to a friendship who was one of those multi-lingual Malaysians, and a minority group in Myanmar.

A number of the Thai students have experience with high schools in an English-speaking country, but others have never left Thailand. How well the non-travellers have learned to speak English through Thai-medium schools is impressive. A number of the foreign students have parents who have lived in Thailand for some years as expatriates, but others showed up in Thailand yesterday a few months ago to go to school at Payap, including one from Russia For those students, who are 17-20 years old, the transition is of course tough. The Turkish students in particular tell me about how lonely the transition was. They Turkish students also have the odd situation of being from a country which has entered a period of sometimes violent turmoil since they left. The Turkish students worry about their home country as they watch the political situation there from so far away, sometimes wondering if they can go back or their passports will be pulled by the Turkish government. Students from the other countries undoubtedly experience similar difficulties.

Diversity Thai Style, and Diversity American Style: Comparing Payap and Chico

My diversity statistics from Payap’s International College are of course anecdotal and higgledy-piggledy, being mostly what I can generate myself from one particular class. This is because, to be honest, the Payap administration doesn’t much worry about diversity, rather they just muddle through with a program which is inherently diverse. Chico State of course is different. Chico State has offices dedicated to documenting diversity statistics, and in particular an office focused on ensuring that the campus can meet the bureaucratic goals necessary to sustain funding as a “Hispanic Serving Institution” which has 25% or more Hispanic/Latino students. They do this so they will receive extra money from the federal government to fund programs that serve these students.[1]

This creates a paradox in my mind.  On a certain level I envy Chico State’s intentional diversity, they muddle through paperwork to ensure federal funding is forthcoming, but create an intentional policy, and hire people to deal with the issues of diversity which indeed can be anticipated. Thus Chico State establishes programs and policies that assist Hispanic students as they adapt to the standard issue middle-class university culture Chico State creates and recreates. Programs to help students with roots in Mexico cope with the “foreignness” of going to Chico State are being established with the federal money,, which means special academic and student-life advising programs to help students adapt to Chico State’s pre-existing middle class English-speaking “American” culture.

What Chico is doing is all to the good, but in the context of what I am seeing in Thailand, I wonder, ifthat is the only way to go? The lack of intentional diversity at Payap means that students must, for better and worse, create their own “diverse” world in the context of the larger Thailand, and Southeast Asia. Preventable issues of depression are not avoided, as young people seek adapt to a foreign environment in what is a second language for most (I have heard rumors of suicide attempts). My Payap students are sometimes awkward and confused twenty year-olds today trying to find the “social rules” culture which are not written or bureaucratized like they are at Chico. But I also believe that in ten or twenty years from now, they will be recreating a vibrant multi-cultural world themselves. Unlike Chico State, they are not charged with the conservative task of assimilating to the pre-existing middle class world, but will create a new world of their own design.

My students at Payap University feel like outsiders, just like the Hispanic deal with the inevitable issues of “foreignness.” What I think is different is that there is no assumption that my students at Payap must adapt to the pre-existing Thai world. Rather, unbeknownst to them and the administration, they are creating a new multi-cultural/diverse world just by being who they are. And at Payap, through perhaps its inattention to detail, the are permitted to create organically a new culture that will be something new in the context of a new Thailand and Southeast Asia.

[1] The goal is not usually that difficult for most California universities to achieve, as about 39% of he state self-reports being Hispanic.


Walkabout Part 1! A Chico State Sociology Professor Mimics Crocodile Dundee to Get Away from it All


A year ago, I came to Thailand to help set up a PhD program in Peacebuilding. To do this, I took a leave of absence from my regular position at Chico State in California. At the time, I described the extended leave as being a “walkabout.” This is what Crocodile Dundee did when he needed to get away because relationships weren’t working out as they should. Things weren’t right for some reason, so off he went. He would be back in “awhile,” and take up where he left off.

At the time I left Chico State last year it was going through some tough times. A vote of “no confidence” in the university’s president and two senior administrators passed the Academic Senate after months of confusion and acrimony on campus. Down in the ranks where I taught, this meant continuing demands for increased “workload,” which basically meant bigger classes, and lower quality undergraduate education. The acrimony at the top poisoned too relationships between colleagues, faculty and staff, and especially faculty and administrators. Perhaps I contributed my share to the acrimony—I don’t know for sure. I can only guess how the quality of education that students received declined. The quality of research also declined, as the administration withheld the assigned time previously devoted to research, and insisted that faculty like me deliver ever more “student butts in seats,” known in bureaucratic lingo as “Full Time Equivalent Students.” There was indeed reason for the no confidence vote by the faculty. But it is also true that the strife did not contribute to my morale. Time for a walkabout.

Now a year into my walkabout in Thailand, Chico State has begun to change. The President and the other two administrators are now elsewhere, and a new president is in place. The faculty has a placed a great deal of hope in the new president, and there was an optimism when we visited Chico over Christmas 2016. This visit also gave me a chance to start thinking about the sociology of university leadership, and I am hopeful that the continuing changes at Chico State will give me a chance to sociologize about it here at Distance was the point of both Crocodile Dundee’s walkabout in the Australian Outback (and in New York City), and I hope that I have the distance my “participant observation” of the last couple of years at Chico State provides context to the emotions of the moment.

In this context, I am going to start writing about the sociology of university leadership. It will be my way of offering unsolicited advice rooted in my sociological understanding of hierarchy and the nature of the modern public university. I think my first will be about why the four groups of inhabitants—castes—at the modern university are so different: At-will administrators, tenured faculty, unionized staff, and dependent students. They are different creatures, responding to different ideologies, and goals (Something that the last administration forgot!).

But I can also write about it from the context of my university in Thailand which shares with Chico State some of the problems of the modern university, but also has a capacity to create its own problems. Payap University is every bit as vibrant and chaotic as Chico State—albeit in different ways. And seeing those things anew—isn’t that the point of a walkabout?

Henry the Teacher and the Custodians

“That man cussed at me!” said John, in outrage. “I’ve been head custodian here for over 20 years and no one has ever cussed at me, especially a teacher!”

“And did you even know he has a dog here in his classroom?” shouted the day custodian, Pete.

‘That’s got to be against the board of health!”

“OK, men,” I said, as I walked up the path to my office. They had met me at 7:15am at my car. “Let me get a cup of Joe and we’ll do something about this.”

They followed me in quasi darkness up to my office, tool belts softly clanking as we walked. I got my cup of coffee and we all went into my office. The marvelous school secretary Betty just smiled at us as we passed her desk. I knew she knew what was going on and that she could advise me later. I invited the custodians to sit and left the door partially open so Betty could hear. I took my laptop out of my briefcase and set it up on my desk. As it started up, I said, “So what is going on?”

The head custodian, John explained that the teacher I admired above all others had cussed at him about cleaning up dog shit that the teacher’s own dog, a golden lab-retriever mix puppy, had dumped on the grass outside his classroom.

“Can you tell me exactly what he said?” I asked.

“He said, ’Do your job, God-damn it, and clean that up!’” John said with hurt in his eyes.

“You mean, clean up the dog poop?” I said applying a more elementary school style of language to the issue of dog shit.

“Yes,” said Pete as he pulled the contractual custodian job description out of his pocket. “This is my job description, and on the next page is John’s job description and it don’t say anywhere we have to clean up dog shit from a teacher’s dog.”

“So, Henry told you to clean up some dog poop and cussed at you too?” I asked.

“He sure did, about 6:00 a.m. this morning when we were about to change shifts,” said John. “I don’t want to file a grievance with the union, but I will if I don’t get satisfaction.”

“Did you clean it up?” I asked.

“Yes, I take care of this school,” said John.

“Thanks very much, John,” I said. “I think you should go home since your shift is finished and I’ll work on this today. The bus is about to show up and you know there will be some problem right away guys. But one thing I want you to know is it is never ok for anyone to cuss at you. I’ll get back to you by tomorrow morning.”

At that the custodians seemed to calm down and I ushered them out and continued outside to be visible as the first bus arrived. This also gave me a bit of time to review this situation in my head and to consider some of the aspects of possible solutions.

A couple of weeks prior, I had approved the request of teacher Henry to bring his new puppy to his second grade classroom. Henry and his family used to hunt, (although now he only sat in the blind to take photos), so he knew how to train and manage a dog. He wanted the dog to act as a kind of service dog for the many apartment-dwelling students who never could have a pet or play with one. He asked his class to name the dog and since he was reading Charlotte’s Web to them, they came up with ‘Wilbur’ the name of the pig in that story. They all got a great laugh from this. When I visited the room as I did usually on a daily basis for a minute or two, I often found a child or two lying with or on Wilbur among some beanbag chairs in the room’s reading corner.. They would read to Wilbur or just read silently with her nearby. Wilbur was mellow and didn’t mind kids laying all over her. She was a great addition to the class. I had notified parents and no one was concerned chiefly because they trusted Henry so much.

But the issue with the custodians was deeper than cussing. I had learned that these custodians were highly influenced by the status hierarchy of maintenance and cleaning. In other words, they would rather be involved in maintenance, i.e. run some kind of power tool and fix something than ever clean anything. The big field lawnmower was an object of veneration for them and they loved to ride it as often as they could, usually when the teachers in the classrooms nearest the field trying to teach math or reading. Another favorite was the leaf blower. No matter what the season, there seemed to be a reason to use the gas powered and very loud leaf blower to blow leaves, trash or dust around the campus, especially near classrooms. A broom was just too closely aligned with cleaning. The result of this status hierarchy was less than clean classrooms. The custodians would rush to replace a light on the ceiling but doing more than emptying the trashcans and running the industrial and tool-like vacuum cleaner over the carpet was asking for the moon.

The normal response from an HR perspective would be to break the job down into small parts and write the parts on a document called a ‘task analysis.’ The task analysis would be provided to the custodian and he or she would follow it as closely as a production line worker in a factory. Usually, the custodian would resist this kind of embarrassing control from a boss, but just enough to be remediated and re-trained at a cost to the school. The solution to this quandary came from a secret administrative decision to use gender roles in the local culture. This meant that women were hired as custodians and assigned classroom cleaning. The reasoning was that the women were generally more nurturing and aware of the children and were able to see what needed to be cleaned in the classrooms. This shameless exploitation of gender worked like a million bucks in the schools were it was employed. But I still had two men who loved to wear tool belts, loved to run equipment that made noise, and didn’t like to clean. And they were being told to clean up dog shit in a not so polite way.

I understood that Henry, having worked sweeping floors at the bottom of the status hierarchy ladder in lumber mills, even below apprentice, might follow a version of the model given the way he had been treated there. In fact, Henry was usually very kind to the custodians since he didn’t box their ears or just shove them around, experiences he had in the mills as a kid.

Meanwhile, as I thought about all this, the busses arrived and children came into school happy and smiling. What a great world I lived in! Parents who drove their kids to school walked them to class or dropped them at the front and waved.

When I got back the office, I asked Betty, “What do you think?”

“You did fine with the custodians, “ she reassured me. “And I’m glad you didn’t start babbling about that teacher and Nietzsche and the ‘Wheel rolling out of itself’ stuff. It makes you sound weird when you talk about that to most people.” She was referring to the way I saw Henry within our culture and to the nature of the motivation he enjoyed as a creative and marvelous teacher. She listened and discussed this with me regularly, but also knew when to not discuss it as well and coached me about this.

“OK, ok,” I said. “But what do you think I should do?”

“Make it a two stepper,” she said quickly. “First Henry has to say he is sorry for cussing and he has to do that today. Make him do it. Second, try to get Henry to ask for something to be fixed, the light or the sink or something that needs a drill. And afterwards, his wife can bake cookies for the guys.”

“Ok thanks,” I said and took off for Henry’s room.

When I got there we still had about 5 minutes before school started. Students were in the room so I asked Henry to speak with me where they couldn’t hear us. I let him know the custodians had come to me upset because he cussed. He told me he thought they were lazy and it wasn’t their place to question what he asked them to do. I let him know they were about to file a grievance and I wanted him to keep Wilbur in class, which might not be allowed if he wanted to press his position. I needed him to say sorry now and then get it over with. I said I would watch his class while he went to the custodian shed.

He thought for a moment and then took off for the shed.

“Hey boys,” he said when he got there. Luckily, John, the night custodian hadn’t gone home yet. “I think I was out of line when I cussed at you earlier today.”

“Hey Henry, that’s ok,” Said John. “Can’t you potty train that doggie?”

“Awe shucks,” said Henry. He’ll go after ducks in a heartbeat but I can’t train him to hold it all day.”

They all laughed”

“Got to get to class,” said Henry.

“Thanks for coming by,” said John.

When Henry came back to class I told him about step 2, asking for help repairing something. He didn’t like it, but said he would think about it.

I went back to the office and told Betty she was a genius, which is something I said almost every day.

A few days later, Henry showed up with a plate of cookies for the custodians. I never asked if they worked on a repair in his classroom. After all, it’s also a good idea to let sleeping dogs lie.



Originally posted Janiuary 2016 at