As the new school year is fast approaching, an army of dedicated workers has been hard at work in the Sooke School District, working behind the scenes to polish, scrub and wax every square inch to ensure schools are gleaming by the time the first student returns in September.
“These people are really the unsung heroes of the school division. When the last bell rings and the students file out for the summer, these people shift into high gear,” said Glen O’Keefe, the custodial manager for the Sooke School District.
“And when they’re done, those schools have been given a new life … cleaned top to bottom.”
In the children’s classic Mary Poppins, the itinerant Bert describes his role of the chimney sweep as being viewed by many as being on the bottom-most rung of life. He dispels that characterization, talking (or rather singing) about how the sweeps take pride in their work and appreciate the unseen elements of the job.
The school custodians life is sort of like that.
Consider that during the school year, each custodian is responsible for an average of 25,000 square feet of floors during every eight-hour shift. That’s roughly the equivalent of 10 homes.
And they do far more than sweep, wash, and wax floors. They are responsible for the general maintenance and cleaning of the entire space and, if you have ever cleaned up after even a single child, imagine multiplying that by several hundred and you begin to get the idea of what they’re up against.
“I really value the work I do. We do it for the kids. The way I see it, kids are beautiful and without them there just wouldn’t be any point to life,” said Vince Talman, the lead custodian at Sassenos elementary school.
“I take a lot of pride in my work.”
He values the contact he has with the children and staff as well as the general public that use the school. He said that those contacts can add a lot of meaning to the job at hand and inspire him to do his best work every day.
“The summer is when they have a chance to do a real deep clean of the 27 schools in the district, and I can tell you that these people are amazing,” said O’Keefe. “We have some real rock stars.”
He added the work of a custodian has become more complex than it was in the past.
“It’s not just sweeping and mopping. They have to know how to use the equipment, mix chemicals, and be aware of all the health and safety issues around their job.”
He said during the school year, the 63 full-time custodians and 15 auxiliary staff work primarily during the evening hours, but that doesn’t mean they don’t meet the community.
“Schools these days have become community centres of a sort, and are in use well into the evenings. And the students have a lot of after school activities as well,” O’Keefe said.
“So there’s a real personal side to the job where they are in contact with the community as well.”
He acknowledged that many school custodians become friends with the students and others and that it’s not uncommon that they get notes of appreciation or even small gifts from the students at the end of the school year.
“I love seeing that,” said O’Keefe. “It says a lot about the people who are doing this work for us. They care about the schools and the people in them, and it shows.”