Former custodian becomes elementary school principal: 'Find mentors, don't quit'

A Denver man shifter his career trajectory from working as a custodian to becoming an elementary school principal (Credit: Getty)
A Denver man shifted his career trajectory from working as a custodian to becoming an elementary school principal. (Credit: Getty)

Years after taking his first full-time job as a school custodian, a Denver man’s career shifted from cleaning schools to leading one, as school principal.

Michael Atkins became principal of Stedman Elementary School, Denver, Colo. on June 1, years after taking his first job as a custodian at another public school "I took pride in the bathrooms I cleaned,” Atkins said of that time, in an interview with 9News. “I took pride in the rooms that I vacuumed.”

Although Atkins valued the role, he knew that he was capable of something more — an idea that took root thanks to his second-grade teacher. "It was the relationship that I was able to build at 7 years old that opened up the doors for me in education," he told 9News. His former teacher ended up helping him land a starting job in the classroom, after which he moved from teacher to assistant principal, to — this year — principal.

Though his elementary school teacher was key in moulding Atkins’ career path, his experiences in school weren’t always positive, and in middle school he began to realize how black students were treated differently. That’s something he’s hoping to change.

"Just the different interactions that I had with the teachers, I had the social intelligence at that time to understand there were differences," Atkins told 9News. "Teachers telling me that I'll be dead by the time I'm 21.”

Atkins believes that as a principal, he will be able to use his skills and unique perspectives as a former custodian and student to empower students — especially students of color — to navigate their own paths.

“I know as a student of color it’s difficult to navigate the world of education and the cards aren’t always set up in your favor, but I know through persistence, perseverance and dedication anything is possible,” he told Yahoo Lifestyle. “I will continue to give students these unique skills as they embark on their own journeys.”

“I think it’s important to give students opportunities to increase their own intercultural development through cultural interactions and celebrating each other’s differences,” he added.

While Atkins did not kick off his career as an educator, he always knew that he wanted to serve the youth in some way.

“I wanted to be a model for my own children, my family and the students I came in contact with,” Atkins said to Yahoo Lifestyle. “Growing up my mother owned a daycare center so I knew I enjoyed serving the youth as a mentor. I had my first daughter at the age of 19 and I knew that I wanted to give her a different experience than I had growing up.”

Now, Atkins is a strong proponent of the power of education, and advises his students to “find mentors, don’t quit, learn the skills of advocacy early in life, and know that education is the gatekeeper to success.”

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