Custodians among frontline heroes of this pandemic
By Xavier Botana
At the Portland Public Schools, we’ve always been grateful to our custodians for making sure the buildings we walk into each morning are clean and safe. Now, however, we are even more aware of how important their work is to safeguard the health of our students and staff. COVID-19 has made us value these essential staff even more.
Their work to thoroughly clean and disinfect our schools helps enable our students to attend school in person – an experience increasingly important at this time for students’ learning and social/emotional well-being. Our custodians are among the frontline heroes of this pandemic.
This month, as part of an ongoing series about members of our outstanding PPS staff, I’m turning the spotlight on one of our exemplary custodians: James Benner, head custodian at East End Community School.
James joined our district 14 years ago and is clearly a lifelong learner. He uses every opportunity at work to learn more about building systems to make sure everything runs smoothly, and takes Portland Adult Education classes in his spare time. A class on playing the piano has led him to take private lessons. Here’s more about James:
How did you get into this line of work?
Portland’s Teen Center helped me find a job at the start of my working career. They help kids get their foot in the door in a lot of places. I got a seasonal job grounds keeping, and then I got a job working at a hotel, mainly dishwashing, but I also was a prep cook and set up for banquets. I started with the school department after that. My mother is a custodian, she’s now head custodian at Lyman Moore Middle School, and she knew I was trying to get something with more solid hours and security.
What do you like about custodial work?
Jobs like dishwashing, you’re doing the same job over and over again, but there’s a lot of different tasks we do as custodians and you deal with different scenarios. I have an inquiring mind and I like puzzles. I enjoy the puzzle of trying to figure out all the different things that come up through the days and making everything work. I love the staff here and my custodial staff here is great. They’re an amazing team.
How has COVID changed your job?
Ramping up to get school ready for the fall, there was a lot of figuring out. I was part of the Tiger Team, four head custodians who worked with our bosses and did a lot of studying about COVID-19 and cleanup procedures and helped create the guidelines we go by. We learned about upgrading HVAC systems and we were a huge part of setting up classrooms to make sure that everybody is maintaining distance. Cleaning became extra important, disinfecting and sanitizing specifically. And I like to think we played a pretty big role when staff came back into the building, helping to calm people and letting them know it was OK, things are staying clean and we have procedures in place to keep it as safe as possible.
What inspires you about your job?
I’m a custodial rep in my union, and I like working with union members and management to try to find a middle ground between everybody. I have a son, he’s a teenager, and even the kids have a stronger appreciation now of being in school. The school system is about teaching kids and I think that’s such important work, and it’s nice that my job has such a strong impact on keeping that going.