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Some of us drive buses. Some of us serve food. Some of us teach. Some of us coach. Some of us translate to help others be understood. Some of us clean and sanitize classrooms, bathrooms, and entire buildings. Some of us answer phones, organize offices, and help children, teachers, and administrators through the day.

From administrators to custodians to faculty, we are responsible to our legislature, to our communities, to our parents, and most of all, to our children. And we are, all of us, essential to the extraordinary institution known as public school.

During this eventful period of COVID-19, the key to coming through intact is that we remain a wall of support for one another. If we can move past any selfish urges we have that are solely about ourselves and our own families, and if we can do what we do at our best — place ourselves at the service of others in need — then what happens on the other side of COVID-19 is going to be a whole lot better for all of us, and especially for the children we promise to protect.

So far, state agencies have been as fair and generous as anyone could ask regarding administrators and teachers working from home to prevent any break in the education and care of our students. Further, hourly employees — the bus drivers, the cafeteria staff, the teaching assistants, the receptionists, the custodians, the translators — have received reassurance that pay, which has already been budgeted, will continue.

However, in order to ensure that everyone understands just how necessary these people are to educating our children, both in normal times as well as now, perhaps a more detailed picture is required.

The following, from the three of us — three teachers at three very different public schools — paints that picture.

Caesar Campana, Clay County Schools

Several custodians I’ve worked with over the years — including my current coworker and reliable rock, Lance Kelly, and a former one, Trevor Grant, who became a lifelong friend — have consistently been my conduit for the type of essential student engagement that doesn’t get documented. Because of their ubiquitous presence (as janitors, bus drivers, gate workers, and 6 a.m. door-openers, among other things), Trevor and Lance have enabled the fostering of relationships with students whose personal struggles or home lives, for reasons understandable, don’t make it to the counselor’s office, or to a teacher’s attention.

These “off-the-record” relationships have saved many a dropout, have quietly pulled a lot of student lunchroom debt into the black, and have made it so that no child’s Christmas is gift-less. When I need information — real, timely information about what’s happening in a struggling student’s world — these men have been my steadfast resource.

It’s never been in their contract to make a lot of money, but it’s indelibly in their DNA to be genuine and hard-working. And now, not coincidentally, these classified staff are our greatest asset in reaching the hardest-to-reach students. Aside from cleaning every surface in a still highly-trafficked school (is there a more pressing role than this?), these employees are, in the case of poor, rural communities like mine, our best hope for opening and sustaining channels of communication and trust.

Dawn Gilchrist, Jackson County Schools

I had the good luck of working as a custodian in a girls’ dorm while I was in college, and that work, combined with a daily duty I had for a couple of years cleaning tables and vacuuming floors after school lunches, allowed me to understand what it is to work hard at a job that is invisible to others except when they make a mess and need a helping hand. And so I also realized how indispensable — if under appreciated — those services are. And it’s not just custodians who are vital to what we did and what we do now, but every classified, hourly worker who is employed by school systems.

One of the first friends I made when I became a teacher was Margaret, a custodian and bus driver who talked to me about the afterschool lives of kids who rode her bus, and who joked about how boring it was to “wipe” all day, but who “wiped” and scrubbed better than anyone I know. And then there was Tommy, with his gentle smile, who helped me move my desks the numerous times I changed my classroom; and Darren, who shared information about students he knew as well as fresh produce from his garden. And finally there’s Jeffrey, with whom I have conversations about baseball and our shared, special needs students who work with him. All of these people gave constantly of themselves, and they also gave me insight into our students’ lives.

For a look at Jackson County Public Schools’ efforts to feed students during this time — efforts that rely on hourly employees — click here. This video was created by David Proffitt at Jackson County Schools.

Chad Beam, Cleveland County Schools

In the words of Sir Isaac Newton, “If I have seen further, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.”

Ray and Beth Philbeck, janitors at Burns High School circa 1990, are two giants whose shoulders allowed me to first see the ground upon which I stand today.  Because I was raised on the lower end of the socioeconomic hierarchy, acquiring the necessary amenities to feel normal often came with great challenges — challenges God met in the least likely of manners.

My family could not afford to buy school clothes for my siblings and me, so I worked as a custodian during my summers at Burns High School. My bosses during those summers — Ray, a hard-nosed older gentleman whose life was built upon hard work, and Beth, his wife, the gentler side of the duo — exhibited a devotion for Burns High School that was always recognizable in their passion for a purpose and their belief in doing right for the sake of right. 

Through working with them — stripping and waxing floors, moving classroom furniture, cleaning classroom walls, and a whole host of other chores — I also developed a conviction to do things right for the sake of doing them right.  When Ray battled with skin cancer, his conviction caused him to still do things right. On the days when Beth worked harder than 10 men, she still corrected my blunders out of her conviction for doing things right.

I took these lessons into my athletic career, and I took them into the classroom I cleaned long before I ever occupied it. Because of  Ray and Beth Philbeck, my hard work and dedication to my students and the things I am called to are rooted in a passion for purpose and a conviction to do things right because it is the right thing to do. 

Ray and Beth’s positions have been replaced, but their passion for purpose and their conviction for right remains. Currently, data managers like Wendi Norton are updating all student contact information to provide accurate access during this transition to on-line learning; receptionists like Lorraine Borders consistently serve as the liaison between concerned parents and dedicated educators; and teacher assistants/custodians/bus drivers like Wanda Shull and Leah Willis are working harder than ever to keep our building sanitized, to help with registration, and to drive bus routes to make sure students are fed. These are the unsung heroes who help to champion the cause of public education.     

COVID-19 has the power to transform every institution we hold dear, including public school, for good or ill. Once that transformation is complete, the schools that educate over 1.5 million North Carolina children will either emerge strong and intact or weak and wounded.

That outcome will be determined by the care we give now to every person involved in the invaluable work of public schools. The backbone of every organization is its lowest paid workers, and the health of any organization can be determined by how those workers are treated. Although we have little control over what the novel coronavirus does to the health of the people around us, we have every control over what it does to the health of our organization.

Caesar Campana

Caesar Campana IV is the 2019 NC Western Teacher of the Year.

Dawn Gilchrist

Dawn Gilchrist is the 2020 Western Regional Teacher of the Year from School of Alternatives in Jackson County Public Schools.

Chad Beam

Chad Beam is the 2020 Southwest Regional Teacher of the Year from Burns High School in Cleveland County Schools.