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Ask the Expert: From Classroom to Boiler Room - A Discussion with K-12 Specialist Melissa Olson

Recently we sat down with our own Melissa Olson, AkitaBox Account Executive specializing in K-12 facility management. As a former teacher with 17 years of experience in the classroom, Melissa brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to the AkitaBox team. We wanted to get her unique perspective on the transition from the classroom to facilities management, the role facilities teams play in the learning experience for students, and the current trends that school districts are dealing with today. 

Melissa, great to be speaking with you today. Why don't you tell our readers a little about yourself and your experience in K-12 schools?

I have worked in the education space for the past 23 years, mostly teaching in the West Salem School District in Western Wisconsin. I have a passion for helping others, which drove me to the education space in the first place. That passion made me want to stay in the K-12 space as I transitioned out of teaching, which is how I found my way to AkitaBox. Today I help facility teams better manage their buildings, grounds, and assets so that the children and staff who enter those buildings know their learning environment has been maintained and is a safe place to spend their day. As I know from my years of teaching, the operations and maintenance teams are vital to keeping classrooms safe, clean, and prepared for learning.

What is something you know now that you wish you knew about school facilities when you were teaching?

I think the biggest thing I wasn't aware of is how expensive it is to maintain school buildings. When teaching, I was always focused on what was best for students.  Although I appreciated my clean classroom or swift assistance when something went wrong, I don’t think I truly showed appreciation for the maintenance teams that kept us up and running so I could just come in and do my job each day.  Honestly, when it came to funding for our schools, my focus was on teacher salaries and the supplies that I wanted to offer the best instruction for the kids. I now see how important it is to have the right budgets in place to keep our building safe so I could continue to teach

Everyone is always so busy at schools that teachers rarely have the chance to ask their facilities teams questions or talk to them. Looking back, is there anything that you'd want to tell them or ask them?

Now, better understanding the work that facility teams do in maintaining the building and grounds, there are a few things that I wish I had said to or done for this extremely dedicated and hardworking group. First, I honestly wish I had left more notes, treats, or letters from my students to thank them for keeping my classroom clean and the entire building safe.

Second, I often didn’t look past the cleanliness of my own classroom. My room was one room among many to clean, and their work goes so much deeper than cleaning. I never thought about the maintenance to the systems in the building, like the HVAC system, and what that was offering me and the students when it comes to air quality. I would say sorry for when I thought my need in the classroom was so important that you should drop what you were doing to take care of my “issue” when you have so many competing responsibilities. Thank you for caring for these buildings that must be maintained for the generations to come, for maintaining them for the taxpayers that want them to last forever, and for doing this with a team that's often spread too thin and on an ever-tightening budget with limited resources. You need to know that without the work you do, teachers and administrators would not be able to do the work they need to do as well. It does take a village!

And...I should have asked them...what can we teachers do to help make your team’s work a bit easier or more manageable? I don’t think I ever asked them that question. 

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Facility teams really are masters at keeping things running without causing interruptions, it can be easy to not notice all the work they do.

That's so true. So much of what I noticed was the work our maintenance teams did to prepare a space for a larger event we were holding, changing light bulbs in my classroom, or daily cleaning of the classrooms. I had no clue about the work that they did behind the scenes like changing filters, checking life safety equipment, and the preventative maintenance to keep things from breaking down sooner than they should.

You bring a unique perspective to how facility management affects student learning. What are the biggest impacts facility directors and their teams deliver to that learning experience?

In my years of teaching, I worked with a variety of facility teams. When I left Wisconsin to teach in a school district in another state, I realized how strapped budgets, lack of facilities support and the resulting limited staff are truly detrimental to the learning environment and what gets done. The new district had skeleton crews that struggled to complete the daily cleaning. This led to garbage cans that sat in a classroom filled for days on end, floors filled with paper and food crumbs, and desks, handles, and tables that were not sanitized. As the teacher, it then fell to me to TRY to tackle this issue.  A teacher has so many distractions in the classroom -- lack of cleanliness should not be one of them. Facility teams are CRUCIAL to keeping classroom technology running, areas well lit and comfortable, and spaces safe so that those limited hours we have in a day are spent educating our future.

Facility directors and managers often find it difficult to "sell" their needs to the school board. What are some best practices that you have seen be most successful in getting budgets approved?

The school board's job is to provide better learning environments and save the district money in the long-term. But often facility management is looked at as a cost line that only costs money. Tying facility needs and challenges to the board’s goals is key to improving this communication between facilities and the board -- for example, showing how much more it costs the district being in a reactive state all the time as opposed to a more proactive approach. Or highlighting equipment that needs to be replaced because they pose a safety or availability risk to the school. Whether emphasizing the value your FM team brings or trying to get a new facility management software, the bottom line is they have to understand where the gaps are.

Over the last 10 years or so, teachers have undergone a technology transition in the classroom. This sort of mirrors what school facility teams are going through now. 

Yes!  You are spot on.  What is wonderful about this is that more times than not the change or transition brings better instruction or better efficiencies and practices.  Unfortunately, not everyone likes change. I saw this first hand with some of the older staff I worked with who had their style down and liked the routine or pattern. If a solution is built to make their job easier or faster, more efficient….and they can see this, then you will slowly get buy-in to make the change.  This is what AkitaBox does so well.  The software is easy to use and yet it offers so much better efficiency gains when you compare it to other offerings.  So many people are visual learners, so the ability to give them a floor plan and show them how in one or two clicks they have what they need -- it’s a game changer. 

Emergency planning was certainly an important item for you as a teacher and one that typically facility teams own. What were you looking for as a teacher when it came to emergency and egress plans?

Safety and understanding where I need to be in an emergency is something teachers review regularly in education.  Knowing where I need to exit the building in the event of a fire and making sure those routes are not overly congested by too many students heading in the same directionway. Each teacher has to have their space and know where it is the best route to get there.  I wanted the visual map. I wanted it stored where I could find it quickly and where another teacher that is filling in for me could easily find it.  These maps were always on the back of our doors in each classroom.  In AkitaBox, these zones could be marked on the floor plans and easily accessible to administrators and printed off for teachers' rooms. 

AkitaBox Essentials: Software Built For K12 School Districts

We want to thank Melissa for taking time out of her busy schedule to sit down with us. Looking for a new facility management software in your school? Check out this video to see how AkitaBox Essentials works or download our implementation guide to see how you could be up running in just a few days. 

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