A Caring Adult in a Different Setting

In schools where people know each other well and focus on supporting academic and personal growth, meaningful relationships blossom in offices, in the library, on the basketball court, or in the lunchroom, wherever adults pay close, caring attention to students. Gary Heyder, custodian at Hilliard Weaver Middle School in Hilliard, Ohio, one of thousands who support CES school communities nationwide in countless ways outside the classroom, talked with Horace about his connection with students and the meaning of his work to the school community.

I am one of five custodians. I’m the first one here in the morning, getting the building open and prepped for the day. I set the tone for the school—the kids need that friendly atmosphere. I love my job, love working with kids.

I am not a teacher, and that’s important—kids can talk with me about things that aren’t school related: cartoons, baseball cards, Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh, skateboards. There are kids who I target: kids who struggle, who spend time at the principal’s office Sometimes, their home lives are not what they should be, and sometimes I can find ways to build relationships with them. I am a person in the school building who gives kids a different perspective on life. I didn’t go to college and am not a teacher, but I still can help kids.

Sometimes a teacher will come to me and say, “This kid and I need a break from each other. Can she hang out with you for this period?” I show these students what I am doing for the day, and I say, “Come on, help me do this.” Then we pick up trash, or fix lockers, and just talk. Being with a caring adult in a different setting really works with some kids who are angry, shut down, or having a hard time. You are an adult and a role model. If you’re having a bad day, you have to show how to handle stress and pressure in a positive way.

Safety is a huge issue in schools. Because I don’t teach, I have the freedom of roaming the building. I greet any adult immediately. Nothing beats the eyeball, checking someone out. That promotes a positive feeling—parents feel like their kids are safe at school.

I graduated from this school district; I’ve been here since 1970 and I’ve watched it grow and change. Hilliard is one of the fastest growing districts in the state. All the time, we’re getting new families in and different kinds of students, especially more ESL students. There’s a girl that I see every day who speaks Spanish; she can’t say very many words in English yet, but we have made a bond. I am a familiar face. I am a non-threatening person for her because I am not a teacher.

I think that having a building that isn’t run down helps kids learn. If you’ve got bathrooms with stall doors broken off, people can’t feel good about their school. The district believes in that and spends the money. The custodians wear uniforms, so when you see us you know who we are. It makes a difference Kids know we’re there, and we are proud of taking an active role. Teachers can only do so much, so custodians and other school staff members feel like we have to help kids make the right choices when parents and teachers aren’t there.

We believe that if we can personalize our jobs and make the students realize that someone has to clean graffiti, they’re more likely not to do it. And we see the effects of our leadership: the baseball team always cleans out their own dugout after school. We want them to be as proud of the school as we are.

Gary Heyder, Union Secretary
OAPSE Local #310