View from here - Sweeping changes for hero Jim

18th June 2010 at 01:00
A shift in the working patterns of a popular janitor prompted pupils to kick up dust. Nathan Greenfield reports from Canada

With only a handful of weeks before the end of term, most high-school student councils are busy raising money for the prom. But not Bemnet Debebe and Vanessa Hayford, who have instead led the council at Sir John A. Macdonald High in Waterloo, Ontario, in a highly publicised effort to save the day shift of Jim, the singing janitor.

For almost four years, Jim Wilson has been filling the halls with renditions of Seventies and Eighties songs while befriending students and keeping their school clean. "I was raised to be friendly and love working at the school. The students are friendly and don't mind my singing in the hallways," said Mr Wilson, who began working at the school after the closure of the nearby BF Goodrich tyre plant, when he was invited to fill in for a sick janitor.

School principal Gary Ayre acknowledged that Mr Wilson is "a special custodian": "He goes out of his way to know the students by name, helps them out personally and is jovial in the halls," he said. "He's at all the after-school events with his wife."

The problem is that janitors' shifts are decided by the local school boards and usually based on seniority. So there was little the school could do when news broke that Mr Wilson was to be moved to the 3.30-11.30pm night shift.

Mr Wilson, humbled by the pupils' response, said: "The collective agreement says that jobs must be awarded based on seniority and there are several guys ahead of me."

Bemnet and Vanessa, who are going on to university to study political science and international relations respectively, decided to take action. Vanessa quickly set up a Facebook page - "Save Jim the Janitor" - which boasts more than 1,300 members. Principal Ayre agreed to the student council's request to sell "Save Jim" T-shirts at school. "I can't think of a better thing for the students to do to show they care and respect Jim," he said. "The energy they brought to this is amazing and has really helped the school."

Teachers at the school have applauded the students' efforts and some have joined the Facebook page. But the pupils' parents were given pause for thought by their offspring's first foray into protest politics. Vanessa's parents were "weirded out" and Bemnet's mother thought he'd become a Trotskyite. But they were reassured when their children explained how much Mr Wilson means to the student body.

Sadly for the students, union officials of the Custodial and Maintenance Association were less supportive. Vanessa describes the pair's meeting with them as "civil". But Bemnet, who told the union how important Jim is to the school, said: "The union is bound by the collective agreement and there is no breaking that."

This stark fact put a stop to the students' plans for a day of protest. Instead, the graduating class will make do with including Jim the Janitor in their end-of-year assembly. "We felt it would be a more effective way to celebrate his contribution to the school," said Vanessa.

The students now hope that, rather than sweeping up after the show, Jim will be swept up in the festivities.

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