Out of the Spotlight: Recognizing the work of maintenance, security and cafeteria staff

Out of the Spotlight: Recognizing the work of maintenance, security and cafeteria staff

A few months into her sophomore year, Caroline Cook ’19 knew firsthand about the importance of work done behind the scenes.

Perched on the edge of her seat at a lunch table outside of Seaver, she stared at the script before her. Though she didn’t have musical rehearsal that day, Cook had stayed after school to chat with friends and finish her intimidating pile of homework.

As she hummed a song from “Les Miserables” to herself, Cook looked up from her work and made eye contact with a member of the maintenance crew. She smiled, Jesus “Jessie” Vazquez walked toward her table, and the two instantly became friends.

“There’s no way that Jessie [Vazquez] could’ve known that I was having a hard time adjusting to the Upper School and how much I appreciated his friendliness, but I really did at that moment and still do today,” Cook said. “He always says ‘Hi’ to me at school, and my brother and I have had such nice conversations with him.”

Vazquez has been a member of the maintenance staff at Harvard-Westlake for three years. He said he enjoys interacting with students at the school but believes their busy schedules prevent them from engaging in full conversations with him.

“Most of the kids are always open and always saying, ‘Hi,’ ‘Hey,’ ‘Good morning’ and ‘How are you doing?,’ but some of them are quiet,” Vazquez said. “They’re working on their projects and homework, and sometimes I think they just don’t want to be bothered.”

Vazquez’s separation from students also stems from his absence on campus because his duties often include cleaning the baseball field and tennis courts off-campus. Members of staff who work on campus all-day, however, also said they notice a social division between themselves and students.

“I think it can be improved but right now, [the administration’s] doing a good job,” cafeteria manager assistant Vattanachai Iapatcharawut said. “The way I see it, there’s still a gap between the staff and the students. It can be better.”

Some students said that they try to bridge this gap by seeking out conversations with staff members.

“Obviously, we’re in a very privileged school, so it’s important for us to appreciate all the faculty and all the people that work here who make the school the way it is — the [people who] keep our school clean, keep our school safe,” Dylan Wan ’18 said. “So I think that’s why I’m good friends with [cafeteria cashier Phairot Janthep and Iapatcharawut], because I have the utmost respect for people who work here and protect our school.”

Administrators also often express their appreciation for the staff, upper school dean Beth Slattery said, and wish to increase communication through more than informal conversations.

“I do think that we are doing a better job – I think that we’re more aware of it – but I think communication is something that we struggle with as a school in general: communication to students, communication to parents, communication to faculty,” Slattery said.

Maintenance staff did not have school email addresses until recently and have since been more included in school-wide communication, Slattery said.

John Hernandez, who has worked at the school for eight years, said that the school also makes an effort to highlight the different members of staff and the work they do.

“They capture that in their own [new family] orientations and let [the Harvard-Westlake community] know, especially the parents, that this is what we provide here at Harvard-Westlake and this is the type of security staff that we have,” Hernandez said.

When the school celebrates certain staff members who help facilitate events in assemblies and meetings, staff members said that they appreciate the recognition.

“That’s really nice when they do that on the stage for us, and it’s something we don’t even expect,” Vazquez said. “We know that that is our duty, and we do it happily to help everybody. It’s really nice when they do that, but it’s not a requirement.”

However, 79 percent of 358 student respondents to the March Chronicle Poll said they believe the school does not adequately recognize the work done by staff members on campus.

After more than ten years working at the Upper School, Janthep said he enjoys when students establish a personal connection with him; it not only makes him feel closer to other members of the community, but acknowledges his work.

“I like it when they call my name and everybody knows who I am,” Janthep said. “I’m happy.”

Students and faculty are generally respectful, except for when faculty members try to rush through the checkout lines, Janthep said. Administrators said that often parents and students don’t recognize how hard staff members work because they aren’t as aware of all the work they do behind-the-scenes.

“There are so many people who are doing all this work on students’ behalf that I don’t think they’re as aware of,” Slattery said. “I don’t know exactly how to do that, but I would like to see it done because I do think that many of those people are the ones who make this place run.”

Throughout her 13 years at the school, Slattery said she’s learned that students’ lack of appreciation doesn’t stem from maliciousness but more from distraction and forgetfulness. This absent-mindedness is particularly prevalent in the accumulation of trash and the messiness of the lounge, Slattery said.

“I think a lot of it has to do with individuals’ upbringing, kind of their own sense of awareness,” upper school dean Celso Cardenas said. “It’s not necessarily something we need to [teach] as a school. For individuals, their upbringings and what their parents have taught them are factors that have made them more aware.”

As a former teacher in Mexico, Vazquez said he enjoys conversing with students about their futures, such as what they want to be when they’re older.

“I know that’s one of the biggest decisions in your life, and at that age, and even at my age, we get confused like deciding, ‘do you want to become a doctor or become a lawyer,’” Vazquez said. “But I try always to say ‘Hi’ and try to motivate them to do things and accomplish their dreams and goals.”

Though he said his mother constantly asks him why he works as a member of the maintenance crew when he holds a computer science degree, Vazquez said he wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

Many students who regularly interact with staff members said they cannot imagine school without them.

“I just really appreciate how kind all of the maintenance guys and members of [Harvard-Westlake] staff are,” Cook said. “I think it is so cool that we go to a school where all adults on campus are always thinking about us and care a lot about each of us as individuals having the best experiences we can at Harvard-Westlake.”

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