How do we get more kids and custodians in public schools to respect each other? Unfortunately, too many students think custodians are hired to pick up after them. I have worked over the past fifteen years of my four-decade career with enough adolescents in a variety of schools nationwide, and I know the attitude is pervasive. 'It's the janitor's job to pick up after me,' is how many students talk and think. Sometimes adult workers voice similar negative impressions: 'These kids act like animals.' What should we do about this negative and improper thinking?
Measurement of Microbes
Because of heightened concerns about invisible pathogens, such as MRSA and swine flu, improved technologies are available to measure bacteria or organic matter that feeds bacteria, and progressive custodial departments are using these devices-known as ATP meters (used to measure levels of Adenosine Triphosphate-the energy molecule present in all living cells)-in their day-to-day cleaning rounds. Custodians in many schools have professionalized their approaches, training, equipment, and integrated the use of measured cleaning methods, and fostered enhanced respect for their roles.
In addition to integrating ATP devices, another possible approach to help close the attitudinal gap is to adopt more widespread use of fluorescent 'revealing' devices. For example, a 'black light' used with a fluorescing hand-or-surface treatment will show abundant germ-promoting soil left behind after improper washing. In a very diverse high school near Atlanta, an outstanding football coach and I taught his ninth-grade charges the importance of handwashing with just such a device. A nurse in a rural New Mexico high school ran the same demonstration with her first year high school students. During their entire four-year career, students in both schools remembered the 'black light' demonstration and how it showed leftover dirt.
Surveys and Wellness Teams
Student attitudes about custodians are rarely surveyed in middle and high schools, but they should be. I have used spot questionnaires in some health classes, and a seven-question survey for an entire 600-person high school as the basis for better understanding of the frequently poor condition of restrooms. Included in the curriculum of a health class, these survey results prompted great discussion and some change. A survey could easily include questions about custodians and their role in ensuring healthy schools.
A targeted survey about custodians in urban and other schools can help identify the gap between the professionalism sought by custodians and district staff, along with desired attitude and behavior changes of the primary users of school restrooms-students.
A five-to-seven person school-hygiene and wellness team or committee should be set up with custodians, students, a teacher, an administrator, and even a parent or two. Since every school district in the nation has a 'Wellness Policy,' such teams or committees will easily fall within the purview of the 'other school-based activity' requirement of this policy.
Benchmarking the Benefits
Selected restroom surfaces, such as sinks, mirrors, and stall doors, should be identified in restrooms throughout the building, including the locker rooms. A portable device, such as an ATP meter, can record the hygienic condition of these surfaces initially for the new wellness teams. Then, through an Integrated Cleaning and Measurement? (ICM?) approach, using high-productivity equipment, such as spray-and-vac machines, the surfaces should then be thoroughly cleaned.
Students, staff, and custodians should re-measure the 'cleaned' surfaces then compare pre-cleaning versus post-cleaning scores. As important as the reduction of infectious organisms and biocontaminants is, these measurements should not only take place, but should also occur often.
Students will then see that custodians with professional training and equipment are not just 'people who pick up trash,' but respected professionals helping to make restrooms and schools hygienic. This will help alter the perception of cleaning, enhance respect for the facility and service staff-and by extension, assist in changing the attitude of students who think they can do what they want: e.g., throwing trash on the floor, urinating on stall doors, and dumping trash in the commodes.
Students on such wellness teams will begin to feel that custodians are their allies in getting and keeping restrooms healthier, since integrated, measured results can speak volumes. Custodians will increasingly see students as partners in a team effort to have a healthy building. Teachers can use the results in health, biology and science classes to convey valuable lessons and reinforce good behaviors.
Since what we measure gets done, and since for many, seeing is believing, clean restrooms will also provide a model and prompt a cleanliness trend that will reduce restroom abuse.
Real Life Application - Seeking Measured Results
I recently discussed such an approach with Ms. G., with whom I have worked for several years. She wears two hats as the head of a nutrition staff of 30 and a custodial staff of 26 in three primary schools, a fourth-fifth grade academy, a middle, and a high school.
Not only is she knowledgeable about feeding and cleaning, she understands that wellness means better eating, exercise, and eliminating. In her view, healthier kids and professional custodians go together like washing both hands.
We discussed the proposed five-to-seven person wellness teams and an Integrated Cleaning and Measurement (ICM) approach. Ms. G. expressed her interest in such an approach since, 'Reaching kids is our biggest challenge.' Then she added: 'I'd love to see an article on ATP device measurement with student involvement, and the resulting impact on student attitudes.'
She is not alone. Many faculty members, custodians, and kids want information on practices leading to better attitudes that result in cleaner restrooms and greater appreciation for the school facilities and those who care for them.
The irony is that measuring cleanliness may be a key to fostering immeasurable feelings of respect between kids in public schools and the staff responsible for keeping schools clean and healthy.
Tom Keating, PhD, has served as a teacher, governmental liaison, college instructor, school board member, and self-employed educator during his approximately 40-year education career. He founded and coordinates Project CLEAN (Citizens, Learners, and Educators Against Neglect), a multi-year effort to improve school restrooms worldwide.