Sometimes a single teacher can change your life. Michael Atkins’ life was changed by his elementary teacher… years after he left school.
His journey was not always straightforward, but thanks to some friendly guidance, doors he once cleaned were opened up for him in the education system.
Michael had been working as a custodian, or janitor, in a few local schools before landing a job at Lowery Elementary, in Denver. It was this job that changed his life, and put him on the path to become the principal of a school in the neighbourhood where he grew up.
“It’s truly meaningful to be back in my own community,” Michael told the BBC.
He enjoyed school but found it tough, as he felt some teachers made students aware of their differences based on where they came from and what they looked like.
“Schooling was more like compliance for me,” he reflected.
But once he left high school he lacked guidance.
“There was no-one to show me how to access higher education. No-one in my family had the tools to guide me.”
So he decided to get a job and go to state college. He needed to earn money fast because at 19, he became a father.
What he did know, since his mother ran a day-care centre, was that he was good with children. So he went to school part-time to study business and applied for teaching assistant jobs.
“I couldn’t land any of them,” Michael said. But he managed to get positions as a custodian in schools. The principal of one of the schools turned out to be his former second grade teacher.
“She embraced me, asked about my family. I told her how I wanted to work with kids.” From there, Carolyn Riedlin – formerly Mrs Brown back in his schooldays – created a position for him as a reading and writing paraprofessional at the school.
“She was one of those teachers in elementary school who instilled a few good things into me – self-worth and love. She was very caring. She’d ask questions beyond school. Those things were meaningful.”
And that attitude and approach has stuck with Michael through the years. He says social and emotional development and wellbeing are just as important as academia.
“If we have children struggling with identity, culture, self-worth, then it’s hard for them to learn. It’s difficult to ask a child who’s experienced something traumatic in their lives to sit down and learn academic subjects. That’s a big ask.”
He now features on the front of Stedman Elementary’s Facebook page. Since starting his position as principal at Stedman at the beginning of June, many people have been congratulating him on social media.
Michael thinks having his first daughter so young and his past experiences have driven him to model excellence and strive for more.
“The cards might not be set up in our favour sometimes but through hard work and dedication, the only person you have to listen to is your own soul.”
Michael says a lot of teachers have been reaching out to him from across the United States, wanting to visit his school.
When asked what advice he would give to a student who was struggling, he said he’d target those around them.
“I’d tell their parents and teachers to give them the tools of advocacy. The only way you’re going to give that is by creating self-worth and celebrating the student. It’s our responsibility as educators to create self-worth and celebrate our cultures.”