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 Ethnography.com