robertogreco + schoolclimate   2

How I Visit a School: Talk to the Janitor First – Dr. Cesar A. Cruz – Medium
"They’re the ones with all the keys. Every school visit, for me, would begin with the janitor. Not the principal, or the instructional leader. The person who cleans up after everyone. Why? Because while school leaders will agree that their janitors are core members of staff, they rarely, if ever, get invited to staff meetings because most schools don’t know how to value the wisdom, mentorship and know-how that they bring. But when I listen to janitors, I quickly learn that they know where the kids go to cry, where they hide, who is in pain, which adults are struggling, and so much more. They check the pulse of a school every single day. Try it, and you’ll wonder why you’d never thought of it before.

If you do go to speak to the janitor, have your hands free and be ready to roll up your sleeves. They won’t have time to stop for our 100 questions about the school — they’re busy wiping tables, removing gum, sweeping the floor, or cleaning the toilets. So I start by asking permission to help, and if they agree, I introduce myself and I’m real with them. I thank them for their often-thankless work. I acknowledge that some people may feel so entitled that they trash their classrooms every day.

Here are some of the questions I generally ask the janitor as we work:

What’s it like for kids to go to school here?

Who’s getting served well at this school? Who isn’t?

Who helps the kids who struggle?

Tell me about the parents, the neighborhood.

What is beautiful about this neighborhood?

One question always gives them pause, because so few adults recognize the role they play: What about the mentoring that you do? Tell me about the kids who gravitate towards you. Tell me about those kids.

Most janitors mentor, and a lot. I’ve met janitors who’ve given art supplies to school taggers. They are the first to respond to a kid who got beat up and comfort them. They come to the aid of the kid crying in the bathroom. They see it all, and engage on a human level, every day. And it’s true that the janitor is probably someone who looks a lot like most of the students at the school, which might be one of the many reasons kids go to them when no one else is looking.

I also ask about the unseen hardships of their job, their role at this school: What is asked of you, and how are you treated here? Do you have health insurance? A living wage? Are you invited to staff meetings, to conversations with the leadership? Where do you live? How do you live? What are the habits of the teachers here?

Finally, I ask them: If these walls could talk, what would they say? In fact, what have they said already? You see, graffiti is not just vandalism — it’s a data point — and one that comes directly from the students. So before I leave the janitor and thank them for sharing their wisdom and insights, and their hard work, I ask them who tags, and what they tag.

Kids tag five types of graffiti:

1. Their name or nickname, because they want to matter and they want to be noticed. They say, Please see me, see my name. I am invisible here, and I want to be seen.

2. Their block or neighborhood name, because they are proud of where they’re from and want to share that.

3. A response to a rival, because they want to lay their claim, or cross out another’s name and say you’re in my territory — not unlike presidents who bomb countries. Kids follow that lead, and mark their territory as well.

4. RIP [insert name of a loved one here], because many kids are mourning the death of a friend, of family member, and the pain is too much to bear without expressing it.

5. Freedom for [insert name of a loved one here], because many kids have a friend or family member who is locked up and their greatest wish is for that other person to be free — and if there is no chance of that, these kids are in a kind of mourning, too.

Imagine, all that we can learn by reading the writings on the walls and listening to the one who “cleans” it all up?

If we take very careful mental notes, not necessarily on a note pad like an investigative reporter, or a piece of technology, or a distracting rubric — we might leave so informed by a single conversation that it will lead to a much deeper analysis and understanding of that school.

Step 2. Listen to the one who runs the school (and I don’t mean the principal).

This person has almost as many keys as the janitor does. No, not the principal, but the administrative person, or secretary, who typically knows everything, and if they don’t, they know how to find out. It’s worth noting that the secretary may look like most of the students, and if much of the student population is bilingual, usually the secretary is, too. They’re sometimes the face of the school, and sometimes they present a façade that the staff is diverse, but with a monolithic staff behind them. That secretary may have to play every role at that school including the translator for every meeting.

With the secretary, I don’t ask them for anything before humbly and sincerely thanking them for all they do to keep this school running. I ask them about their work — what’s on their plate on a daily basis? A tip: Unless you are a school secretary, it would be great if you didn’t say, “I know how that feels.” It is well-intentioned, but most likely inaccurate, and probably won’t help you much if you’re trying to connect with them.

It is a blessing to listen deeply and practice patient empathy as they vent or release. They deserve it. Secretaries are often the de facto administrator, disciplinarian, nurse, the one who knows where everything is, the person with whom every parent has a problem, etc. It is a lot to carry, and with no real opportunity for release. So I start by being that for them, and gratefully.

I ask the secretary the same questions I ask the janitor, above.

If they have the time, I ask for a tour (from the janitor, too). This tour will be undoubtedly different from one the instructional leader will give.

Step 3. Roam.

Then, if allowed, I roam the school. I make sure to wear my visitor sticker in a place where people can see it so they know I’m a safe person. Some visitors, from certain identities, fit in more with the school than others. If you are not that person, walk slowly and proceed with smiles and try not to scare anyone. (For some reason, schools struggle to allow a plus-size Mexican man with lots of tattoos to roam a school, as many adults struggle to believe that he might have a doctorate in education and is a professional. But I digress.)

I try to find the kids who are actively trying not to be found. I reassure them that they are not in trouble, share something about myself, keep it real. Mine might sound like this, “What’s up, my name is César, I’m a teacher, and I’m trying to create a bomb school for kids, I could really use your wisdom.” That seems to work most of the time, and then ask them what they really think of the school: Who are the cool teachers, and why? Who brings you down and why? You will be surprised to learn that there are many dream-crushers at schools — at least kids think so. If you were the principal of the school, how would they make this place awesome? At this point, listen, as if time had stood still, and see where these geniuses take you.

I ask them how the kids at the school deal with sadness. If they mention popping pills or smoking weed, I ask them what the school thinks about that. I ask them who connects with them, who understands them, who has their back. Ask them what brings them deep joy. Ask them about the janitor and the secretary.

If allowed, I have them show me their school. In particular, I ask them to show me what you see, that most others don’t. I ask them who feels like they belong at the school, and who is made to feel like an outsider.

I ask them what’s beautiful about their neighborhood and their school.

Step 4. Focus.

If the school will allow it, I get a focus group together with a diverse group of young people. I specifically ask the school to include some of the students who “hate” the school, too. Or if that seems like an alienating concept for the adults at the school, I’ll reframe it: “I would love to listen to the students who are both struggling, and may possibly be disengaged. It’s great to hear from the students who “push” the school’s buttons.”

I listen closely to how the adults in charge at a school describe the kids who “cause problems.” A lot of coded and not-so-coded language. A tip: Be prepared to say something when you hear the words “bad kids.” This is your moment, what you do with it will be very telling of your leadership skills. You may hear words like “trouble makers,” “those little gang bangers,” “bunch of truants,” you may even hear words like “crack babies,” and so on. The coded language of the poverty of expectations shows up in interesting ways. You may hear words like those “low SES kids” (socio-economic students), or the classic “free and reduced lunch” kids. When you do, you have an interesting opportunity to ask, how might those kids be described through an asset lens? Please pay close attention to what these leaders say and don’t say, and their body language. This single interaction can be incredibly telling. And you haven’t even gotten to the focus group yet.

By listening deeply to the janitor, secretary, and the students who are not “assigned” to speak with me on a school visit, I learn so much. Keeping it real and leading with humility goes a long way so people can feel safe enough to tell me what they really think. That insight is priceless.

It’s the wisdom that doesn’t always appear on the official tour, the pamphlet, or on the website, that we need to capture. This isn’t the only way to do it, but it’s how I do it.

Let’s hear from you: How do you approach a school visit? Have you ever … [more]
schools  sfsh  2017  cesarcruz  janitors  schoolclimate  whoknows  mentoring  mentors 
may 2017 by robertogreco

Who We Are.
Teachers 4 Social Justice is a grassroots non-profit teacher support and development organization in San Francisco. T4SJ is project of the Community Initiative Fund.

Our Mission.
Our mission is to provide opportunities for self-transformation, leadership, and community building to educators in order to affect meaningful change in the classroom, school, community and society. See more about our goals, principles, and vision in the next pages.

What We Do.
T4SJ organizes teachers and community-based educators and implements programs and projects that develop empowering learning environments, more equitable access to resources and power, and realizing a just and caring culture.

Join us!
If you want to join us and you live in the area, come to one of our general meetings or any of the events to get plugged in and connect!"


Teachers 4 Social Justice is a grassroots non-profit teacher support and development organization. Our mission is to provide opportunities for self-transformation, leadership, and community building to educators in order to affect meaningful change in the classroom, school, community and society.

T4SJ organizes teachers and community-based educators and implements programs and projects that develop empowering learning environments, more equitable access to resources and power, and realizing a just and caring culture."


1. Maintain a network of progressive educators to develop an environment of support and professional development.

2. Sustain a membership that is engaged in a continuing process of critical self-reflection and growth.

3. Evolve an education system that is responsive to the needs of the communities it serves and promotes equitable access to resources and power.

4. A membership with a level of competency in creating empowering learning environments."


1. Involvement of teachers of color in all aspects of the organization is crucial.

2. Democratic decision-making processes need to be upheld, ensuring the meaningful participation of every member in systems and structures.

3. Shared accountability for our actions as individuals and as an organization.

4. Learning and collective action is a partnership between the students, teachers, parents, and community.

5. Our actions address root causes of systems of oppression at individual, group, and societal levels (racism, sexism, homophobia, age-ism, able-ism, etc.)

6. The development of our organization is based on the evolution of our individual and collective processes."

"We have established the following platform to offer a different vision for what is possible in American Public Schools:

Our Platform

1. Democratic School Governance:

TAG supports efforts to strengthen schools and communities by ensuring and protecting local parent, educator and student leadership of school governance at all levels. We believe in diverse, democratically elected local school boards and councils. We support the creation of structures that enable meaningful and informed inclusive participation.

2. School and Community-Based Solutions to School Transformation:

TAG believes that local communities and those affected by school reform should be looked to for the wisdom and knowledge to transform their local schools. This process should be bottom-up, participatory and highly democratic to engage schools and communities in school improvement and transformation. There should be mutual responsibility and accountability among educators, families, youth, and communities. This process must secure the voice, participation and self-determination of communities and individuals who have been historically marginalized.

3. Free, Public and Equitable Educational Opportunities for All Students:

TAG supports measures that ensure every student access to a fully funded, equitable public education that is not threatened by market-based reforms such as vouchers, charter schools, or turnarounds by entities that divert public funds to private enterprise. We demand increased funding to end inequities in the current segregated and unequal system that favors those with race or class privilege. We believe that resources should be distributed according to need, and particularly to those historically under-resourced by the impact of structural, racial and economic discrimination and disinvestment. Public schools should be responsive to the community, not the marketplace.

4. Curricula and Pedagogies that Promote Creative, Critical and Challenging Education:

TAG supports transformative curricula and pedagogies that promote critical thinking and creativity in our students. Curricular themes that are grounded in the lived experiences of students are built from and extend community cultural wealth and histories. We promote a pedagogy that leads to the development of people who can work collaboratively, solve problems creatively, and live as full participants in their communities. We promote a vision of education that counters the multiple forms of oppression, promotes democratic forms of participation (community activism) in our society and that generates spaces of love and hope.

5. Multiple, High-quality, Comprehensive Assessments:

TAG supports creation of assessments that identify school and student needs in order to strengthen, not punish, schools. We call for ending the reliance on standardized tests as the single measure of student and school progress and performance. Comprehensive assessment should include work sampling and performance-based assessment and should be an outgrowth of student-centered curriculum and instruction.

High stakes tests have historically perpetuated existing inequality; in contrast, fair assessments should be used to provide teachers with the information they need to meet the needs of all of their students. High-stakes tests should not be used to determine teacher and school performance. Instead, teacher evaluation should be an on-going, practice with the goal of improving teachers’ pedagogical, content, and cultural knowledge and should be based on authentic standards for the teaching profession, not student test scores.

6. Teacher Professional Development that Serves the Collective Interests of Teachers, Students, and Communities:

TAG believes that teacher professional development must support teachers to become effective partners with students and parents, and to be responsive to community needs. The form and content should be determined by teachers themselves with advice from parents and students and should work to develop social justice teaching practices.

7. Protect the Right to Organize:

TAG believes teachers have the right to organize to protect their rights as professionals and workers. Unions should be a place where teachers have a voice in creating and protecting an educational system that is set up in the best interests of students, families, and teachers. We support truly democratic governance of teacher unions and believe that they should champion policies that ultimately serve their communities.

8. School Climate that Empowers and Liberates Students:

TAG believes in working for school discipline policies and a school climate where students and teachers can thrive. Schools must be institutions that support the holistic social and emotional needs of all students, help equip young people with empathy and conflict resolution skills, and work to interrupt and transform oppressive dynamics that threaten the safety of the whole school community.

We support ending the practice of and reliance on punitive discipline strategies that push students out of school and into the military or prisons. Schools should remove zero tolerance policies, institute restorative practices and restorative justice models, and create time in the curriculum for community-building practices and social/emotional supports."
conferences  education  teaching  teachers  socialjustice  sanfrancisco  sfsh  community  society  schoolclimate  professionaldevelopment  inequality  pedagogy  curriculum  governance  democracy  equity  equality  race  racism  sexism  gender  homophobia  age  ageism  ableism  disability  disabilities 
november 2016 by robertogreco

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