One plane takes off with all of the administrators of a K-12 school or university. Another plane leaves with all of the secretaries and technicians. In which case does the school come to a stop? And in which case does the school run even better? Okay, you are smiling. You know the answers.
It is easy to slip into bureaucratic arrogance and assign a value to staff according to their pay. This can lead us into ignoring their presence and dismissing their contributions. Some even consider staff to be nearly irrelevant to their institution. Custodians, secretaries and even teachers are easily replaced. Unfortunately, we have this operational relationship backwards; it is the skilled worker who is often critical and the boss who is replaceable.
No one would dispute that a surgeon holds a critical responsibility at a hospital. But it takes skilled nurses to prepare and hand the surgeon the proper equipment. Backup equipment, from monitors to oxygen supplies, have to be maintained and kept accurate by a technician. Custodians must thoroughly disinfect the operating room to prevent infections. And the hospital administrator is there to coordinate these services and make sure all staff have the supplies to do their jobs. So yes, institutions need good administrators.
When an electrical device goes out in a hospital, a whole chain of command may gather around to assess the problem. But it is the electrical technician, not the hospital administrator or surgeon, who is the expert-of-the-moment and the only one in that group to be listened to.
Janitors are also important. I was a janitor twice in my life. As a high school senior, I spent three hours after school each day cleaning the rooms in an elementary school next door. As a student, I showed teachers the vomit absorbent in the janitor closet and how to use it. Students can’t learn and teachers can’t teach when the odor of vomit fills a room.
Decades later, after completing my doctorate and beginning my search for a job in academia, I was again a daytime janitor for a short time. I was selected because I could slip in and out of formal meetings to clean up spills without disturbing the decorum of the moment. I arrived one mid-morning to have the front secretary hand me a plumbers helper and urgently point upward: “Women’s bathroom. Third floor!” This was a floor I normally did not work. On my way up, every secretary awaited my arrival and frantically pointed the way. An overcrowded party the previous night had, shall we say, clogged the system. I was, without doubt, the man of the hour, outranking even the executive director.
In 2000, I took a photo of a Shanghai high school on the one day each month when students stopped classes and all participated in mopping floors and washing school windows. It taught group responsibility to students: “we all made this mess; we all clean it up.” Today’s Chinese schools have changed. They have hired staff to “clean it up.” Now, their students are more cavalier about their trash. And more are prone to look down on what they perceive to be a lower class in a formerly class-less society. –Just like us.
Unfortunately, our supposedly class-less society remains loaded with class prejudice. There are administrators and even teachers and professors who do not know the name of their custodians and support staff. They may even rant about an overlooked smudge although their school facility is kept cleaner than the complainants’ homes.
Whether in schools or hospitals or our daily life, we are all working through this life together. Being paid more does not make a person a better human. Nor does education give us a right to treat others worse. They fix our cars. Plumb our houses. Remove our garbage. Clean our schools and houses.
If they are within our homes, our workplaces, our lives, they deserve to be known by name.