Sweeping, mopping, vacuuming and dusting. Cleaning classrooms, scrubbing desktops and tabletops, sanitizing hallways, unloading deliveries, stocking supplies and emptying trash. There’s also shoveling snow, painting, cleaning playgrounds and parking lots, and fixing broken items. Some add grounds keeping or bus driving to their daily to-do lists.
Sometimes their days begin very early and end long after students and staff have gone home for the day. Their tasks are plentiful in trying to keep facilities clean and safe. Their attention to detail often goes beyond aesthetics. They take great pride in their work, yet they often receive little praise.
These hard-working people are essential frontline workers. Their dedication and service to their schools stretch beyond cleanliness. They support their students and staff and have played a pivotal role throughout the coronavirus pandemic.
They’re school custodians, and Saturday is the perfect day to recognize and appreciate their many efforts on National Custodian Day.
Mary Topping has been a custodian at Central for 13 years, with 11 of those years at Central Elementary. She has a well-known reputation of being a very kind, caring and committed custodian.
“What I love most about the staff is that they’ve become like family to me,” she said, “and they’ve always been there when I’ve needed them without ever having to ask.”
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Throughout the years, Topping has thoroughly enjoyed watching the kids grow from kindergarten to second grade.
“They make me birthday cards and when I’m sick, they make me get-well cards,” she said. “They get so excited to see me anywhere other than school.”
The most rewarding part of Topping’s job is watching the children learn things for the first time and seeing the excitement when they tell her about those things. She also enjoys working with “a wonderful staff.”
Although Topping said it’s sometimes a challenge to make her school look its best all the time, she enjoys the challenge and takes great pride in her job.
Since COVID-19 began last spring, Topping said she takes more precautions and time to clean.
Jim Turnbull has been a full-time custodian at Potosi for the past 24 years and worked one year as a substitute custodian. He enjoys working with the staff and students at Potosi Elementary.
“I love the friendly personalities that our staff have,” he said. “They are always kind to me and treat me great. The kids are always happy to see me and talk to me.”
In fact, Turnbull said the children and their smiling faces and hearing “Hi, Mr. Jim” as he walks around each day is the most rewarding part of his job.
There are many different aspects of being a school custodian, and Turnbull said it’s often tough to find people who are willing to do a thorough job in completing tasks.
He said COVID-19 created more challenges in completing tasks.
“It has made my job five times harder,” he said. “There is constant disinfection going on as well as my regular duties. We have had to change classroom setups multiple times.”
But Turnbull said that’s OK because they have kept kids in school and not had a lot of sickness as a result of COVID.
“I have had a wonderful experience while working at Potosi School and love working with students and staff here,” he said.
Bobby Radford is now in his 25th year as a full-time custodian at West County High School. He also worked for two years as a part-time custodian for the district at all three buildings.
Like the other custodians at West County, Radford drives a regular bus route in addition to his custodial duties.
He graduated from West County in 1992 and started working for the district in 1995. At age 21, he became a licensed school bus driver.
“I started driving a school bus when the kids who were freshmen when I was a senior became seniors themselves,” he said.
Radford said he’s never regretted going to work not even one day.
“I’ve always enjoyed my job,” he said. “It seems like I’ve always had good bosses and really good people to work with, so that make a difference.”
In fact, he said the day-to-day interactions with students and staff are what make his job most enjoyable.
“I’m a positive person and like to use humor to make connections with others,” he said. “I like to have fun.”
Besides connecting with the students and staff, Radford enjoys doing something most despise – finishing the gymnasium floor.
“It’s probably my favorite thing to do,” he said.
This year, he traveled to a few Bootheel schools to clean and recoat their gym floors.
Radford said other than wearing masks, he has not let COVID-19 change him or affect his positive outlook.
“I still have trust and faith in God and I leave issues that I cannot control in his hands,” he said. “If we’re doing our job like we were supposed to do before COVID, then it doesn’t really add to our job. We have always cleaned and sanitized.”
He said the West County district has always had a great custodial crew and that makes a difference.
“Even working at the old building years ago, and now at the new building 21 years later, people can’t believe the building is as old as it is,” he said. “That shows how the staff and I take great pride in what we do. Everybody I’ve worked with has always had pride in what we do.”
As for when Radford plans to retire, he said he always gives his response in a joke.
“My retirement, the way I’m looking at it, my two grandkids Jess and Amillyah will be graduating in eight years … so I’m anywhere from 5-10 years. I get out in five for good behavior … but I’ll probably stick around. They might actually have to run me off.”
Cheryl Gilliam is one of two custodians at West County Middle School. She worked for 20 years at the elementary and the past two years at middle school.
She loves the close-knit family feel of West County and the love everyone shows for one another. She also loves hearing the kids’ stories they tell her while riding her bus. She also appreciates the students and staff who go out of their way to help her when they don’t have to do so.
“Getting to see my kids grow and learn new things year after year is such a rewarding part of my job,” she said.
The only challenge Gilliam said she’s faced after the coronavirus pandemic began is making sure students wear their masks while riding on her bus.
Gilliam said she’s grateful for the support of her school district.
“I’ve faced some challenges in my life while working here,” she said. “The biggest time was the loss of my son Dustin. I really don’t think I could have gone through that without the love and support I was given from everyone at West County.”
She said, “We are a family here … and our motto is ‘We are West County.’”
Each of these school custodians mentioned here are only a few of many who juggle multiple daily tasks to ensure students and staffs have a clean, safe school. Their attention to detail, combined with their compassion and daily desire to achieve perfection, are what makes them some of the hardest working, most appreciated and much-needed people in education.
Pam Clifton is a contributing writer for the Daily Journal