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‘Write Your Own Story’: Meet the Colorado Man Who Went from School Janitor to Elementary School Principal

A Colorado man who once mopped floors at a Denver middle school is now a top teacher after climbing the educational ladder to become an elementary school principal.

Michael Atkins, 39, is the new boss at Stedman Elementary School, and students couldn’t be happier to have him. Atkins is pretty stoked about his new gig as well.

Michael Atkins
Michael Atkins’ first job in Denver Public Schools was as a pupil. Now the 39-year-old the principal of a local elementary school. (Denver 7 / video screenshot)

“I have an opportunity to do diversity right,” he told CNN in a recent interview.

The Denver native, who’s spent over 30 years as part of the city’s public schools system, said initially, he didn’t see himself pursuing a career in education.

“Growing up in Park Hill, there weren’t many positive influences and/or opportunities in the neighborhood,” he told Denver7. “So, I didn’t really have any aspirations to be in education.”

Things changed, however, and Atkins discovered his passion for working with children.

He landed his first job with Denver Public Schools soon afterward: a part-time custodial position at Smiley Middle School (now McAuliffe International School). At the time, Atkins was juggling college coursework while also trying to raise his infant daughter. He was undeterred, however, and knew his experience as an African-American student at a school where treatment of students was separated by race could benefit his future students.

“I understood at that point in time that school was about compliance,” said Johnson, who was bused from his predominately Black neighborhood to a predominately white middle school as a youth.

He applied for a job as a teacher’s aide, but was offered the custodial gig instead. The part-time job soon became a full-time thing, and although it wasn’t what he initially hoped for, Atkins said he was fulfilled by his work. 

“There were times where I got comfortable within my custodial position, and I loved the work,” he recalled. “I loved the people that I met. I was still able to be in front of youth. But I knew that was just the first chapter of my journey.”  

According to CNN, it was second-grade-teacher-turned-principal that Atkins reconnected with who helped him climb the ladder, offering him a position as a paraprofessional.

With a degree and certification under his belt, Atkins finally landed his dream teaching job and later graduated to assistant principal. On June 1, he officially started as head principal at Stedman Elementary. 

National statistics show that while people of color comprise 20 percent of the nation’s educators, a paltry 2 percent are African-American men. Also, racial minorities make up half of the U.S. student population and research has shown that children perform better when taught by someone who looks like them.

“A lot of my African-American male students remind me of me,” said Atkins “And [that’s] not to say that they’re coming from the same situation that I came from.”

Reflecting on his remarkable journey, the janitor-turned-educator remembered a nugget of wisdom told to him by his grandmother that he hopes to share with his students.

“Don’t let someone write your story; make sure you write your own story,” Atkins said. “And if someone has something to do with your story, let them edit it, do not let them create it.”

Watch more in the video below. 

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