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Murray Journal

Murray School District honors exemplary custodian, teacher

Jul 06, 2021 03:41PM ● By Julie Slama

Parkside Elementary custodian Tabitha Brooks was awarded Murray School District’s outstanding classified employee of the year. (Photo courtesy of Tabitha Brooks/Parkside Elementary)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

In the late 1960s, Barbara Eden played a 2,000-year-old genie in “I Dream of Jeannie” who, with a blink of her eyes and a swish of her ponytail, could clean a room instantaneously.

A Parkside Elementary head custodian may be the real-life mirror to that image as teachers nominated her for the classified employee of the year award with the words: “Tabitha is so good at her job that sometimes I swear she has magical powers.”

Tabitha Brooks was recently named Murray School District’s outstanding classified employee of the year and honored at a Murray Board of Education meeting. John Johnston, who teaches career and technical education at Riverview Junior High was honored as the outstanding teacher of the year.

The two were presented clocks that stated they received the awards “for professional excellence and outstanding support of the students of Murray.”

Brooks had received a letter earlier knowing she was nominated, but it was during a schooltime meeting about what was going to be needed that summer, when Murray School District Superintendent Jen Covington and Director of Support Services David Roberts surprised her with a bouquet of flowers to let her know she won. 

“It was very shocking,” she said. “I love Parkside. I’m a perfectionist. I like it clean and tidy. I love being around kids and it’s a joy to see the end-product shine.”

Brooks does more than the typical school cleaning and overseeing two employees, said Principal Heather Nicholas.

“Tabitha has to climb on the roof every morning to get our swamp coolers working (and our heat),” she said. “She works in our lunchroom and has such a great connection with the students. She is very patient and kind. This year she has spent countless hours with cleaning protocols. She has had to spray down the building each day and the playground equipment twice a day. She is constantly working to make Parkside a clean and inviting place for all.”

Brooks did say that she, like many custodians, had to ensure the cleanliness of the school during COVID—only since her employees at the time were high school students and too young for the vaccine, she did it on her own for six weeks.

“I sanitized everything from top to bottom. I cleaned the carpet, I scrubbed the floors, I washed the walls. I used a special sanitizing spray, and everything got wiped. It was basically like a makeover,” she said about tasks that were consistently repeated during the pandemic.

Then, she got to do some extra cleanup after May 18, 2020, when a 5.7 magnitude area earthquake cracked a window and damaged ceiling tiles.

Brooks did all this on top of being available to the needs of the faculty and staff.

In the nomination, the teachers appreciated her efficiency and her demeanor.

“When I email her about maintenance-related needs in my classroom, it seems as if she walks into my room seconds after pressing ‘send.’ Not only is Tabitha very prompt to respond and help around the entire school, she is extremely kind and professional,” the nomination stated. “Waking up at the crack of dawn to clean, sanitize, and heat the school building and then zip around all day responding to everything from bathroom mishaps to retrieving items off the roof, is really taxing. She does all of this and more with a smile on her face and a happy disposition.”

While Brooks has only worked as Parkside’s head custodian for two years, she did work for the district office and Hillcrest Junior High beforehand. Previously, she was a room stewardess on a private yacht after she basically fell into the cleaning industry at age 13.

“I absolutely love it,” she said. “I’m proud of the changes I’ve made at Parkside.”

Johnston went home one day to find a yard sign honoring him as Riverview’s teacher of the year. Then, he received a letter from the district informing him that he was being considered as district of the year. 

Later, Assistant Principal Scott Bushnell, Secondary Teaching and Learning Director Robin Williams and others surprised him while teaching seventh-grade students woodworking and asked him to accept the district title.

“The hardest thing for me is I know how many good teachers there are in our district, and especially at my school, I know them,” he said. “I know I’m a good teacher and I know I enjoy it, but I know that there’s so many other ones that deserve it. They put in so much time and effort. It’s made me realize I can do even more; that’s probably the best part.” 

Johnston was honored for his teaching as a 2017 Murray School District Pinnacles Award recipient.

“The best thing about teaching is the kids, 100%—seeing them just have fun and learn and discover things and realizing that they can do things that look scary at first,” he said.

Johnston began his career in education teaching technical modules in the ’90s. He switched to teaching woodworking after a long-term substituting stint. 

“I fell in love with it,” he said. He wants to make sure his students have a positive experience.

Johnston’s principal, Earl Kauffman, adds, “John is a humble individual who enjoys working with his students.”

In Johnston’s introductory woodworking classes, students traditionally make a clock and pen, where they get to use different tools and the lathe; a CO2 car, which they also learn more woodworking tools, and race the cars against each other at the end of term; and sometimes, a wooden miniature hockey game, again he exposes students to their knowledge of the tools available.

He also teaches the technical and engineering components of the seventh-grade college and career awareness course, which exposes students to various fields from business to cooking. In his section, students learn about bottle rockets; make speakers from Styrofoam plates, wire and magnets; and compete against one another with mousetrap cars they build.

“I give them an incentive that if they can get it to go 100 feet, they can have an A through the whole quarter,” Johnston said. “We only had one girl do it this year, but it’s always easy (to offer) because it’s the same kids that really get into it and like everything, so they want to do everything else. It’s fun because it gets the kids that generally don’t participate or don’t try real hard—they’ll always try on that one.”

While he encourages the students to gain experiences and build a resume, Johnston was hired in 1996 directly after finishing college and never put his experience on paper—until now. 

As Murray School District’s nominee for the state teacher of the year, Johnston is compiling his own resume, including his teaching philosophy, and writing answers to essays in the application.

“It seems kind of weird to be writing it for yourself, to get an award,” he said. “It’s an honor I’m surprised by and appreciate.”