By MUST Region 4 Marketing & Sales Representative – Jim Mepham
In the early 1980’s as I was about to debark on a forty-year journey in Montana Public education I was given a piece of advice from a University of Montana professor that defined my entire career. I’m sure this was standard advice to all education majors, but I took it to heart. Build relationships with the cooks, custodians and clerical staff at school. This advice followed me through my career and evolved as my jobs changed from teacher to coach to school administrator.
As a beginning career teacher, I assumed this advice was to help me survive moving to a new community and to get the things I needed to get through the year. It worked as I soon learned that getting to know the custodians got me great hunting stories and access, always complimenting the cooks got me seconds, leftovers, and a big gut, and thanking the clerical staff meant I would get the good substitutes and wouldn’t have to use the ditto machine, even though I always ended up with the purple stuff on my face and clothes.
Over time and career changes I continued with building relationships with classified staff in all my school positions and saw my values change. As a coach who had the State record for miles on a school bus, I must add bus drivers to the list of valued relationships. It’s hard not to build relationships at three in the morning on a school bus when you’re hoping there are at least two people awake and one of them is “Barnacle Bill” the bus driver.
Superintendents usually begin new jobs on July 1 and it’s easy to get to know the custodians and clerical staff as they are the only ones around. I made the mistake with my first Superintendent job of not learning more of the unwritten culture of the community before the beginning of the school year. I didn’t realize until my back-to-school speech was done that I had violated the number one school rule by wearing my street shoes on the sacred gym floor. I helped clean the gym after ball games for a year to survive that one.
Over time I’ve realized that classified staff have a huge impact on students, too. A bus driver is the first and last person to see a child every day and can make or break the student’s day with a smile and a hi. I think the biggest hugs I see at the end of the year are the elementary kids hugging their bus drivers. Custodians who smile and love their jobs are great role models for students. Pride in cooking great meals increases the number of meals served and am I the only one who has had huckleberry vinaigrette glazed corndogs? Good food and a big smile are the best ways to start any school day. It goes without mention that I would never want to work at a school that the clerical staff did not own and run. They really do know everything about everyone!
Finally, cooks, custodians, clericals, and bus drivers are the pulse of any Montana community. Their views and ideas do represent the community. Ask a custodian if a levy will pass. Ask the bus driver which kids are struggling at home. Ask a secretary why a kid is really absent and ask a cook to raise a student’s test scores. Teachers and administrators aren’t the only ones who can impact students. It takes a village!