Labor Day Reflections

Tuesday is for Teachers

I stood on a hotel balcony early one morning near the coast of the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa enjoying a view of a tropical forest in mid-January.  I could make out narrow, winding paths through the vegetation leading to villages.  In the distance I could see one path leading to a large low building in a clearing surrounded by red dirt.  Looking closer I could see movement around the building.  Using the lens of my camera I identified children in uniforms using small brooms to sweep the schoolyard.  I immediately thought back to my middle school where students would not be caught dead sweeping, raking, or cleaning at school unless it was a punishment.

American students often scoff at the idea of cleaning at school.  Especially older students.  I’ve heard them say, “That’s the custodian’s job.” This comment was sure to get my attention and a lecture, not the best way to handle a deeply entrenched cultural attitude. During my years of teaching I found students who showed disdain or even disrespect for those who took care of our building or served the food.

Schools in America are frequently compared to schools in Japan or other industrialized nations, especially to show that we do not rank as high in test scores.  Experts or news pundits also point to how large those classrooms are, but seldom compare the length of the school day, or the school year. They also don’t mention that students are expected to clean their classrooms. Our cultural differences are significant, and attitudes toward the value of hard work, entitlement, and achievement are often just as diverse.

One of the reasons I have always loved the Montessori principles of teaching is that it teaches children early the value of all kinds of work; they learn to serve each other, take care of materials, and value each other. You don’t find this in most classrooms, or if you do, these are Kindergarten and first grades. Unless a school system, a school administration, or a classroom teacher is mindful of teaching these values, you cannot assume that students are hearing these values reinforced. Children do not come to classrooms today with the same values as those from 1970s, 80s, or 90s; our culture has changed.

I believe teachers are one of the best avenues for modeling and coaching students to value all work and all workers, no matter the job.  On Labor Day I am more mindful of those who work in the low-paying jobs that usually require working with their hands.  These are the people who may be unseen, ignored, or overlooked.  Who are the people in your school building who fall in this category? I immediately think of custodians, cafeteria workers, lunchroom monitors, even substitute teachers.

Who are there people in your school who cross your path every day that your students may not see?  Those with jobs that may require cleaning up other folks’ mess, jobs that require getting dirty, or just working in the lowest paid position.

My teaching partner and friend, Emalie, seemed to know the custodians who took care of her classroom before I even learned their names.  I’ll never forget the Kurdish man from northern Iraq.  Emalie learned that he had immigrated to America when Saddam Hussein persecuted the Kurds so brutally. He was so appreciative of America and his freedom.  One afternoon when the students were gone, and I sat at my desk to finish up lesson plans, I apologized to him for the dirty floors.  His answer was so surprising.  “If the floor did not get dirty, I would not have a job.”  Once the war in Iraq began, he was no longer with us.  He became an interpreter for the Army and was so proud to come back and visit us. What a life to share with students!  Hardship, danger, relief, freedom, and courage.

Students will SEE how you treat others; those actions speak louder than words.  Your casual remarks and facial expression are sending a message to your students.  Even if you feel someone is not doing their job, please don’t share that with students.  In this era of reality TV our culture laughs at people who say what they think to whoever may be listening.

But you can find ways to help students express appreciation for the work of others.  Classroom jobs are a time-honored practice in elementary schools as well as most middle school grades.  Keeping the classroom clean and orderly speaks to what you respect and expect. Students can write thank you notes on a regular basis to support staff throughout your building, and don’t forget the bus drivers.  Letter writers could be a regular classroom job for students, expressing appreciation throughout the year.

So often we are quick to let someone know when a job is not well-done. What if we gave positive words to the people around us and then followed up with a written note when possible?  It’s a habit that you can help your students acquire.

I call it “giving joy away”.  It always blesses my life in return.

Counting joy!

One thought on “Labor Day Reflections

  1. Emalie Love Egan

    What a joy to read this blog! Thank you, Martell! You always had a way of inspiring your students to care for the the classroom and each other. You certainly inspired me to do better. Grace, Peace, Love, and Joy,


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