Saturday, June 2, 2012

Indirect Communication

Although custodians' duties are slightly different between the U.S. and Japan, their expectation on teachers is clearly same.  In addition, they too, have a tremendous impact in children's lives in their schools directly and indirectly.

For example, the custodian Louis in the Wayside School (Sideways Stories from Wayside School by Louis Sachar) is one of the odd characters in the story as you know.  The way I see him, though, is that not only he is unique, but also he is an important figure whom all the other students and teachers depend on.  It reminds me of Auntie Ohkura, the custodian in my grade school.  I often visited her office during recess to chat with her.  She taught a second grade girl how to pour iced tea from the large kettle to the small glass and how to sweep on the floor.  She made a phone call to my mother when I forgot my abacus for math.  No matter how busy she was, she opened her arms very wide whenever I visited her.  As you can see, this special relationship between Auntie Ohkura and me was beyond one custodian and one student.  Maybe I was an odd student who unusually found a comfort in a custodian, however, I might have been a student who was simply looking for a bond with someone.  Activity times in the classrooms are often isolated from custodian's duty shift.  Their active working times differ.  Therefore, obviously it seems difficult that students/teachers and custodians get to know themselves each other in most of the schools.  Like me, students in Wayside School often end up getting advice from Louis.  The literature describes Louis as one silly, but reliable, adult among students in such a comical way. 

Unfortunately, the special human relationship is essential and important, but it is a very challenging task for most cases with custodians.  While Japanese students are cleaning their classrooms, hallways, bathrooms, courtyard, and everywhere on campus during their afternoon cleaning time, custodians usually clean where kids cannot clean like a staff room where some confidential papers are available. In one afternoon after school at the custodian's lounge, uniformed men and women at my parents age were having green tea during their break time.  They invited a newly hired young female 6th grade teacher.  "Sensei, you are very good for greeting us," a short curly haired started.  Even though they called me a respectful term, Sensei, they treated me like their daughter and tried to lecture me.  I chose to listen to them instead of argue.  Younger ones need to respect older ones.   "Yeah, we like teachers like you.  Keep up with your good work," a gray haired guy agreed and continued,  "Don't be like Suzuki Sensei."  Then, terrible stories about Ms. Suzuki started and continued after another.  It was not only a greeting, but this horrible episode about Ms. Suzuki certainly ignited from the lack of her respectful communication.  Since there was not direct contact between teachers and the custodian, the custodians judged teachers based on the human communication towards them as simple as a greeting bow.   Like everywhere else, the gossip often becomes a negative snowball.  I quickly learned that I should not be in the custodians' lounge.  Also I had to continue greeting with them in order to get away from their gossip topic. 

American students don't clean their school.  Custodians do.  I was struck with awe of their duties immediately.  While all staff and students in school clean the campus for 20 minutes every day in Japan, a couple of custodians vacuum the floor, polish the sink, take the garbage out, and more in EVERY classroom.  That is a huge difference in two countries.  Also, most American custodians are skilled handymen, too.  The fixing job is done quickly after the work order.  Yes, that is their job and that is how they are paid, and my appreciation became genuine by learning their duties and efficient jobs in my classroom and beyond. Yet, it seemed to be impossible to find any time to build the positive relationship with any of them because of our work shift.

One late afternoon, someone stormed in my classroom while I was grading papers.  One of night custodians marched toward my desk and started, "Claire!"  Did I do something wrong?  My heart raced.  She continued, "Thank you for taking care of your classroom.  Your classroom items are always picked up.  It makes a big difference."  Noticing my confused face, she continued, "Most teachers do as good as a job as you do, but some of the teachers don't care what custodians have to do in their classrooms. So I just wanted to say thank you for your thoughtfulness."  This unexpected appreciation made my day.  American custodians look at teachers based on how their classroom are treated during school.  I felt like a young teacher again, and so I decided to continue promoting my students to show respect to their classroom.  The indirect communication exists, and it can make a positive relationship as long as your intention is genuine and respectful.