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From Custodian
To Principal

After working with students and teachers as a school custodian, Jack Yates knew he wanted to be an educator. With support from family and colleagues, Yates earned two degrees, and now is an elementary school principal. Included: A description of Yates' journey to becoming an educator.

When Jack Yates became a principal, he brought with him the knowledge of how schools operate -- from the boiler room to the administrators' wing.

Yates, who has been the principal of Hawkins Elementary School in Brighton, Michigan, since January 2001, discovered his love of teaching and children during his first career as a school custodian.

He began working in the Brighton Area Schools as a substitute custodian in 1979. He moved up from there. Eventually, he was promoted to head custodian at Maltby Middle School. While at the middle school, Yates said he had the idea that he might "showcase my enthusiasm for the teaching profession and my dedication as a hard worker" in a different way. He spent nine years going to college part-time to get his teaching degree. Then Yates literally made an overnight career switch: One afternoon in August 1992 he was working as a custodian, setting up chairs for new teacher orientation; the next day, he was sitting in one of those chairs as a new third-grade teacher.

Yates went on to earn a master's degree in educational leadership in 1999, and soon after that he began looking for a principal's job.

Principal Jack Yates with students.

Yates talked with Education World about his unusual route to the principal's office, his dedication to his goal, and the people who supported him along the way.

Education World: What inspired you to return to school to earn a teaching degree?

Jack Yates: I began taking classes at Washtenaw Community College back in 1983 and finished in the summer of 1992 [at Eastern Michigan University]. Fortunately, Brighton Area Schools had trust in my abilities and hired me as a teacher soon after I completed my coursework. There were many factors that influenced my decision to become a teacher. My mom and dad thought that I'd be good in that profession. My mother, Ruth, has always encouraged me over the years. My father, Ray, was a Detroit policeman who worked unbelievable hours yet still found time to teach me everything I wanted to know about sports. I believe those traits were passed down to me.

Others who influenced me were the teachers at Lindbom Elementary School in the Brighton Area Schools, where I worked as a head custodian. They witnessed my people skills and how I related well with the children at the school. They were good friends and colleagues who thought that I would succeed [as a teacher.] Of course, I owe a tremendous amount of gratitude to my wife Debbi and children Jessica and Joshua. They were always encouraging, inspirational, and supportive throughout this entire endeavor.

EW: Can you describe your schedule when you were taking classes and still working as a custodian?

Yates: My schedule was pretty tough when I was working full time, going to school, and taking care of my family. After working my day shift, I'd come home usually for a half hour before driving to Washtenaw and later Eastern Michigan University. I got really good at power napping in those days. When it came time to work on a project or paper for a class, my family knew that I needed that time to concentrate and would make sure things were quiet around the house.

" I can sincerely say that I've had total support from everyone that I've been lucky enough to have worked with over the years. The teachers sometimes like to tell my story of persistence and dedication to children in their classrooms," says Jack Yates, elementary school principal.

Student teaching was another story, because my schedule was so chaotic. I'd start the day at 8:50 a.m. at Hilton Elementary teaching fifth graders. By 4 p.m. I would be at Maltby Middle School maintaining and cleaning an area until midnight. Something probably not recommended, but that part of my life lasted only four monthsthank goodness!

EW: What was the hardest part about making the career switch?

Yates: What I found most difficult about switching professions was the organization involved with becoming a teacher, especially at the elementary school (I taught third grade) where on some days you can be teaching eight different subjects. You can never give teachers enough credit when it comes to preparing and performing daily. You're always on stage and have to be at your best no matter how you feel.

EW: What sort of unique perspectives or insights does your unconventional route to the principal's office give you?

Yates: As a head custodian, the diligence and dedication of hard workers around me constantly made me aware that it takes a team to run a school properly and to its highest potential.

EW: Why were you eager to become a principal?

Yates: I felt after eight years of teaching that I could offer more to an entire school's population. I hoped that I could inspire and motivate even more children while becoming a significant and positive role model in people's lives. Again, I was fortunate that the hiring team at Hawkins Elementary School had the confidence in my decision- making skills to hire me as interim principal in January 2001. After a year, our superintendent Dave Pruneau talked to a couple of committees of parents and teachers about my job performance [and I was hired permanently]. I certainly owe a debt of gratitude to Mr. Pruneau. I truly appreciate his belief in my abilities and willingness to give me a chance.

EW: How do you use your experiences in talking with students about goals and life choices?

Yates: I've had a chance to talk with many fifth graders at Hawkins about careers. I tell them it seems a little bizarre where I ended up. My first love was baseball. I really thought I'd be in the major leagues, but some other things were just meant to happen. I also have mentioned that I don't think many kids dream of becoming a principala teacher maybe, but not a principal! They laugh and I explain that working hard at wanting something has a lot to do with what road they might take when it comes time to choosing a profession.

EW: What has been the reaction from other staff members to your education and career switch?

Yates: I can sincerely say that I've had total support of everyone that I've been lucky enough to have worked with over the years. The teachers sometimes like to tell my story of persistence and dedication to children in their classrooms. Also, our secretaries, Joanne and Cheri, have made my life easier with their kindness and professionalism when dealing with everyone and taking care of just about anything that transpires in the office. Again, I owe a lot of people who have put their faith in me.

EW: What would you say to people in other professions who may feel they have a calling to teach?

Yates: Prepare yourself for maybe one of the hardest jobs possible, yet the most rewarding. I'd also mention that teaching is a profession that you can always be proud of and that the work that you do will benefit the future of our youth. Young adults who I've had the pleasure of teaching years ago have come back to say that I was a positive influence on their lives It doesn't get any better than that.

This e-interview with Jack Yates is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.

Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
Copyright © 2009 Education World


Originally published 2003
Last updated 09/22/2009