Time for sweeping change

3rd November 2000 at 00:00
Is your janitor the scoundrel in the storeroom or an unsung hero? Laura Peters argues for including them in school business and developing their social skills.

Janitors come in all different manners and forms. They include those who won't go near a wasp for fear of being stung, would stand and watch teachers carry ladders to and from their classrooms, are too shy to answer the school telephone, and those who willingly volunteer to hang displays on walls and, when required to do so, act as a bouncer when a disgruntled parent leaves the school building.

Janitors' skills are equally diverse as they can include joinery, bricklaying, painting and decorating, plastering and television engineering. Rather surprisingly, a supply janitor with a postgraduate degree in science found that his janitorial remit did not permit him to use his skills of scientific enquiry in the classroom.

Primary schools with friendly, helpful janitors who take the initiative and take pride in maintaining the fabric of the school building, as well as in developing good relations with staff, parents and pupils, are rare commodities. They contribute to a positive school ethos. They are likely to know the names of all or most of the children in the school and not just those who are often in trouble or have problems. They are also likely to be able to match a parent to the right child.

These janitors are treasures who should be nurtured by educational authorities and those within the school environment.

Surly janitors with lazy dispositions who provide a mediocre service are, sadly, far more common. It's likely that more warmth comes from the chair they sit on than from their smile. They also tend to have a closer relationship with a tabloid newspaper than they do with anyone in the school.

Their social skills are generally limited to grunting, yelling at children or reporting them to their teacher, and losing their temper when the slightest thing goes wrong. Despite an aptitude for nodding in agreement to teachers' requests, they view the majority as "missions impossible" and they can rarely be found instantly when something requires their urgent assistance.

This is because they see themselves primarily as caretakers whose main duties are practical, such as barring up broken windows, fixing lights and carrying furniture around the school. They do not consider themselves to be integral members of the school commnity.

Joint meetings between teaching and non-teaching staff could help to improve this situation, especially where management seeks and listens to the janitor's opinion on relevant matters and ensures that non-teaching staff have a clear understanding of the school's policy on promoting positive behaviour.

Life skills have traditionally been viewed as essential requirements for janitors, but are they enough? Schools that rely on the janitor, together with auxiliary staff, to oversee pupils in the playground at break times, benefit from a janitor who can talk with ease to young people or will watch out for children who are being left out. Schools which have a parent presence in the playground may well require their janitor to develop a good rapport with parents.

These skills cannot be taken for granted and need to be developed. If janitors can acquire new skills in operating the closed circuit television security systems, they can surely develop their communication skills too.

Because primary teachers are predominantly women, there can be an additional responsibility on a male school janitor as a role model. Young children inevitably learn behaviour from the janitor. They repeat his or her phrases in the playground and copy mannerisms. So it seems reasonable that janitors should receive specific training in working with children.

Janitors can unwittingly have a disruptive effect on the teaching and learning process. For example, glass from a broken window left lying in a classroom before a class begins can cause disruption as well as being dangerous. Some janitors will sweep the floor but fail to check whether fragments of glass are scattered across any furniture.

Similarly, competent janitors will check the lights and radiators to ensure that teachers and pupils always enter a comfortable, well-lit classroom. Failure to do so presents teachers with obstacles.

One unpleasant task of the janitor is cleaning up the mess after a child has been sick. I remember from my childhood the smell that would linger if the affected area was not thoroughly cleaned.

To this day I associate sawdust with the janny's bucket and can visualise his long, bony hands chucking shavings roughly over vomit. He was a nice man but I don't think he ever understood why, throughout my primary days, I insisted in offering him a crisp or sweet by hand and never let him choose one for himself.

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