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Breaking The Glass Ceiling . . . and Sweeping Up The Pieces: Tara Gummere’s Story

Union Elementary School head custodian Tara Gummere on the job. Photo by John Lazenby.
Every morning when she arrives at the Union Elementary School in Montpelier, Tara Gummere is making history. While the staff at any elementary school tends to be dominated by women, the custodial staff is likely to be male. Gummere isn’t only a woman, but also the first first female head custodian at UES, although not the first in the district. 

Although things are beginning to change, men still outnumber women in maintenance and custodial work by about two to one, and when a woman is hired to supervise a custodial crew, it’s news. If you google “female head custodian,” the word “first” will pop up as well. 

Why don’t more women go into this field?

While women have been trained in our society to feel confident with mops and brooms, Gummere believes they shy away from custodial work because of the ratchet and wrench aspect of the job. Men, she notes, are often taught by their fathers how to repair things. 

“I grew up working on a farm,“ Gummere says. “My dad and stepdad taught me things like fixing cars and yard work. I was kind of a tomboy.” She adds, with a smile, ”I was always drawn to nontraditional work.”

She did try being a dental assistant for a while. Gummere laughs, “I didn’t like looking in people’s mouths all day. I lasted three months.” 

Gummere grew up in New York State and went to college at SUNY Cobleskill. She focused on agriculture and equestrian studies and met her boyfriend there. In 2009, they moved to Vermont and Gummere found a job in a Barre Town applesauce factory. At 18 years old, she was the youngest employee in the company. “My boss took me under his wing, showing me how to do things for myself without needing to call in a contractor. I started out as a production clerk and ended up pretty much running the company as the production manager, doing marketing and purchasing.” She recalls the challenge of being a young woman supervising older and more experienced men.

“When the company was sold to Stonewall Kitchens in 2020, I began subbing as a custodian in this district. I was pretty comfortable in all the schools. I worked my way up to head of maintenance.” 

Gummere notes that she may have an advantage in this typically male field. “Men think they have to know all of it right away. I’m always open to learning.” 

She’s found ways to make the job her own. “The kids brighten my day. They’re cute … but they’re messy … I go into the classrooms and talk to them about keeping their rooms picked up. I let the kids know how much time they save us when they take care of things.” 

Gummere enjoys her connection with students. They greet her with, “Hi Miss Tara,” in the halls and like to write notes to her. “Miss Tara is an awesome custodian,” says third grader Alastair Kittredge, “She helps with different things all over the school and … she’s very nice.” 

It’s a long work day, though. Her usual schedule is 5 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., but when the winter arrives and the shoveling must be done before the first bus arrives, it means starting work as early as 3 a.m. 

Not surprisingly she has a lot of fans. First-grade teacher Susan Koch says, “Tara is incredibly hard working and always has time for the kids’ concerns … We adore having her here at UES.” 

Anju Sharma, a paraprofessional at the school, likes to greet Gummere with a hug. “Tara is one of the kindest souls in our building,” Sharma says. “She’s always happy and eager to help anyone. The way she treats others, especially the kids, is truly amazing.” 

Gummere has a management style that seems to work well. While her current staff includes her brother and a friend, the basic principles remain the same, “When you have a good group of people, you work together as a team … I want them to come back here … I stay positive and keep the environment drama-free, at least for my custodial crew.” 

“I hope my story will encourage more women to take on this work. They shouldn’t feel they can’t do it,” she says. “There’s good job security here. People will always need schools and people need clean schools.”