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What Schools Can Do to Make Sure Support Staff Feel Appreciated

Having the right teachers in classrooms is, of course, incredibly important for students’ success.

But there are other—often underappreciated—staff members who make sure the school day runs smoothly who deserve recognition, too, according to Superintendent Rob Anderson in Boulder, Colo.

Without support staff such as bus drivers, food service workers, custodians, and maintenance technicians, so many critical tasks would go undone, leaving students without safe and comfortable school environments that play an important role in their success.

These workers, however, often fly under the radar in schools, many work for contractors, and their pay is generally low. While teachers earn an average salary of around $68,000, according to the National Education Association, support staff tend to earn less and work more inconsistent hours. Bus drivers earn about $22 per hour on average, cafeteria workers around $16 per hour, and janitors about $18.50 per hour, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Many employees in those jobs don’t work a full, 40-hour-week.

Districts have encountered particular difficulty filling support positions in recent years, and support staff have raised concerns about their compensation, notably in Los Angeles last year when 30,000 workers staged a three-day strike that shuttered schools. The strike resulted in a new agreement that increased workers’ pay by 30 percent along with retroactive increases of $4,000 to $8,000.

The strike had far-reaching implications on the nation’s second-largest district, underscoring just how critical the positions are to schools’ operations.

So, it is important that school and district leaders make sure these staff members feel valued, and that they are an integral part of the school community, Anderson said. Doing so takes intentional effort, he said. Sometimes, support staff work nontraditional hours and are not present in buildings at the same times as students and other school employees, sometimes making them unable to participate in traditional staff meetings and building activities.

“As superintendent of the school district, one of my major responsibilities is to create the right conditions for folks to be successful and the right working conditions, and a big part of that is the culture of the district,” Anderson said. “We really want our people—all of our people—to know they are important and appreciated, and that their work impacts kids and the community.”

The Boulder Valley school district has twice in recent years been named the second best employer in Colorado by Forbes Magazine, in part because of its multi-faceted, intentional approach to including and celebrating service workers, said Rob Price, the district’s assistant superintendent.

From smaller gestures—like announcing a custodian’s birthday over the school’s intercom or forwarding a bus driver a nice note from a parent—to larger events to honor and celebrate their contributions, the Boulder Valley district has made including support staff a core piece of its day-to-day work.

It’s important that the acknowledgment work isn’t just a fair-weather task that gets sidelined when something else more urgent pops up, Price said. In fact, appreciating and celebrating staff, especially those who are often overlooked, is most important when things get tough, he said.

“I would say that when things get crazy is when you shouldn’t walk away from efforts like this,” Price said. “It’s when people need support and encouragement the most, so it’s really when you should lean in.”

Anderson and Price shared five tips for school district leaders to better incorporate support staff into the school community and value them, outlined below.

Really believe in their value

District leaders have to understand and truly believe that nothing happens in the school district without the support of service workers. Buses wouldn’t bring kids to school or take them home, meals wouldn’t be prepared and served, buildings wouldn’t be clean, and repairs wouldn’t be made—all imperative for schools to function.

Make time to hear from them directly

Whether by setting up small, roundtable meetings or inviting service workers to participate in regular staff meetings, making time to hear directly from them about the challenges they face, what’s going well, and what they need can make all the difference in staff members’ morale. Have a set meeting time on a recurring basis, and be intentional when setting meeting times—don’t make bus drivers who work a split shift come in during their off hours to participate.

Share when you receive positive feedback for their work

When a parent, community member, or other staff member highlights a service worker’s contributions to the school district, make sure that the staff member hears about it. Take the time to share the positive feedback with them either in person, via email, or over the phone.

Celebrate their contributions

Hold a quarterly or annual ceremony in which support staff are recognized and honored for their contributions in front of their colleagues. Consider celebrating their birthdays in the same way teachers’ birthdays are celebrated.

Maintain an open-door policy

School and district leaders should consider maintaining an open-door policy for all staff, and ensure service workers know they are welcome at any time to share feedback or ideas. Encourage communication, and really listen and respond when concerns are raised or new, innovative ideas are offered to solve a problem.

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