Jack of All Trades

By Bess Keller — September 10, 2003 8 min read
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This is a story of ambition. Gentle ambition.

A former school custodian rises to the principal's chair.

A man takes a job as a school janitor and works his way to school principal, never blind to either the good or the harm he might do. The man, dogged and easy-going at once, finds his true métier. He makes scores, then hundreds, of children happier, and many look up to him.

Jack Yates says he managed those feats through the help of many people along the way. But, questioning him in his moderately large office at Hawkins Elementary School here, you know there’s more to it than that. He was the one who did double duty as custodian and student-teacher, sat through more than a dozen years of night school in two decades, and left his 3rd grade classroom to take the job that, he jokes, hoar-frosted his full head of brown hair. At 42, he may not have more than the usual load of debts, but he’s unusually ready to acknowledge them.

Starting with his parents. He grew up on the northwest edge of Detroit, the son of a homemaker and a city policeman. His father, Ray, got lucky and drew crowd-control duty at old Tiger Stadium. In that setting, the father passed his keen love of sports, particularly baseball, to his only son.

At 9 or 10, Jack started collecting baseball cards with their romance of names and numbers—which may today, he says, account for his facility with student names. He’s got most of the 530 children at Hawkins down pat.

In his father’s house, the mostly short-stop dreamed of life as a pro. “We tried to talk him into going to college,” says his mother, Ruth, “but he said he didn’t want to go then.”

When Jack graduated from Henry Ford High School in 1977, Ray had retired, and his parents had moved into what was then the country town of Fowlerville, northwest of the city. Jack’s sister, Barb Young, lived not far away in Brighton and was driving a school bus for the Brighton Area schools.

The young Yates needed a paying job. His sister suggested he try the district’s maintenance department.

Filling in for others led to a full-time position at what was then Miller Elementary School. “I realized,” Yates later wrote in an article for Principal magazine, “that if I worked hard, I could become a head custodian, work days, and make a little more money.”

And sure enough, he was 19 when he landed the job of head custodian at Lindbom Elementary School, supervising two older people on the afternoon shift.

One little girl is already sitting pale and anxious on the edge of the nurse's cot in the office suite at Hawkins Elementary when Von Hardesty, a classroom assistant who helps with putting children on the buses at the end of the day, walks in. Nothing's unusual for a suburban elementary school a week before the close of the year. Yates, the principal, still has a heap of thank-you notes to write to parents who helped at the spring fund-raiser. The courtyard garden with its native wildflowers, its butterflies, and its timid bat clinging to the wall goes unused because teachers are trying to squeeze in last bits of curriculum. And a stomach virus may be rampaging through the younger pupils. "A 1st grader just threw up on the sidewalk," Hardesty reports to the two secretaries and a teacher or two milling in the office. She has come in to call the child's parent. Yates is passing through. "Just slosh a bucket of water," the former custodian says, stopping for a second. "Ah," responds Hardesty, who hadn't thought of that.

A few years later, Yates had signed up for some classes at Washtenau Community College. More important, he was about to meet his future wife, Debbi Walker.

In the summer of 1983, Walker was working as a custodian, while Yates had a temporary assignment to strip and refinish gym floors in the district. He came to her school, and co-workers made sure they sat together at lunch. They were married two years later, making Yates an instant father. Debbi, seven years older than her new husband, had a 7-year-old girl and a 6-year-old boy from a previous marriage, whom he adored from the start.

‘Somebody like Jack who's been on the inside has an advantage.’

“We knew I could further myself in my life,” he says now about those years. “There was something out there.”

But baseball couldn’t be the means; it was too unpredictable for a family man. And, besides, he found himself drawn in another direction: teaching. He not only liked being around Jessica and Josh, his new children, but also the students at school.

The teachers at Lindbom, who had allowed him to make up for the temporary loss of physical education classes by getting up some games of floor hockey and volleyball in the gym, told him he had a gift for working with children. And the youngsters made him feel good.

Soon he was taking classes toward an education degree at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti. The drive from Brighton was 35 minutes each way, and he did it several times a week for more than eight years, but education seemed to make sense in a way it had not in high school.

“College actually came easier to me,” he says. “My priorities were different.”

The priorities included Jessica and Josh, and he coached their baseball and softball teams, eventually becoming vice president of the youth group that ran the sports program. Debbi matched her schedule to the children’s by driving a lunch wagon for the school system.

Yates transferred in 1988 to Maltby Middle School, where he supervised five people and made more money. He had another motivation for the change. The middle school then occupied the same building as the superintendent, and he wanted to be seen.

He decided, too, that he would try to teach elementary or middle school, where men are rare compared with high school. He added three minors—science, social studies, and English—to his elementary education major. “I was thinking about how can I be marketable.”

When at last it came time for his student-teaching, administrators rearranged his custodial schedule so he could be in the classroom at Hilton Road Elementary School in the morning. To fit it all in, Yates worked from 7:45 in the morning to midnight.

“I would go to Maltby in my shirt and tie and then change into my T-shirt and jeans,” he recalled for the Detroit Free Press the following September. “I just put it on automatic pilot and did it.”

Just as at Lindbom, he had boosters at Maltby, among them Principal Rae Ann McCall. She recalled putting 250 youngsters jostling for places in the lunch line in Yates’ care for a minute when she was called to the office.

“When I came back, all the kids were sitting down,” she told the newspaper. “We’ve used his technique ever since.”

Yates is going over a mental checklist for the Principal's Pals lunch—pizza ordered, certificates in hand, Kool-Aid in the fridge. By the time he gets to the school library satisfied by the preparations, six tables have filled with squirming honorees. "Hi, guys," the principal begins, speaking just loud enough to be heard at the back in a voice with no rough edges. He's dapper in a dark suit and bright white shirt, but it's hard to take the baseball player out of him—the ruddy complexion, the gap between the front teeth overhung by a generous mustache. He looks powerful and friendly at the same time, a combination not lost on Derek, who gets his certificate for exercising self-control. The old principal was "scary," the 5th grader remarks. "She had long fingernails." Yates, on the other hand, gets Derek's outspoken endorsement—both as a teacher and a principal. The 5th grader even shows the visiting reporter how Yates handled an acting-up Derek a couple of years ago. "'OK, don't do that,'" says Derek, imitating Yates, who taught him science. The boy shrugs, still in character. "'I'm giving you 10 minutes of wall time during recess.'" "He doesn't lose his temper, and he doesn't raise his voice," Derek explains. "And he makes sure kids don't push other kids around."

Heather Allen, a classroom veteran of more than two decades, helped interview Yates when he applied for a teaching job at Hawkins Elementary School. But she had met him years before at Lindbom Elementary, where he had come to her classroom to fix a radiator. A good encounter, a working radiator, she remembers.

The job in leafy, well-clipped Brighton, where a subdivision immodestly called “The Dominion” recently opened, drew about 60 applicants. But thanks to his years in the 7,000-student district, Yates stood out as a known and respected quantity.

‘We used Mr. Yates as an example of someone who put forth effort, and made a success of his life. They know him, so it means more.’

And so it was that one day Jack Yates set up chairs for the district’s new-teacher orientation and the next, the 32-year-old former custodian sat in one.

In professional terms, that first year was the hardest of his life, he says now, sharing the sentiment of many who have gone to the blackboard before him. “You have to plan for lessons every day,” he says. “You have to entertain every day, be on top of your game, and have that good attitude.”

But soon the tension melted into a new goal, his wife recalls. “He would always say, ‘You know, I’m going to be principal. I’m going to be Hawkins’ principal.’ ”

Yates started back to school at Eastern Michigan in the mid-'90s, earning a master’s degree in educational leadership in 1999. By that time, he had proved himself as a teacher and a professional peer.

“He’s a delight as a colleague,” offers Allen, who taught alongside him in 3rd grade for his 8½ years as a teacher. “Easygoing, wonderful with kids, fun to be around.”

Those qualities served Yates well when the principal’s job at Hawkins opened up in 2000.

“Somebody like Jack who’s been on the inside has an advantage,” says Brighton’s superintendent, David Pruneau. Roughly translated, that meant Yates pulled ahead because, in addition to knowing the school and the district, he had gained people’s trust.

“I’ve known administrators who have put on a show of being positive, but it’s manipulative,” says Allen, the veteran teacher. “He’s completely genuine.”

He also brought a style to the job different from that of his predecessor, who had been known to clash with a teacher or two. Yates, in the term of just about everyone interviewed for this story, as well as by self-description, is “a people person,” trying always to meet others more than halfway.

Not surprisingly, he was the clear favorite of the committee of Hawkins staff members who participated in the selection. About the only downside to the change, according to Pruneau, who has pushed promotion from within, was the loss of the elementary school’s only male teacher.

Yates got the job, but as an “interim” because he lacked administrative experience. A year later, the modifier was dropped. With the new position went a $22,000 salary hike, from $53,000 a year to $75,000, a considerably larger increase than many teachers get going to the principal’s office. Typically, teachers are higher up the experience ladder before moving to administration.

Today, Pruneau is confident of Yates’ abilities, cautioning only that “being a nice guy, he sometimes struggles with the tough decisions.”

‘I think students don't want to disappoint him. A lot of them don't have a father figure.’

Yates also rates well with a top local union official. The principal is making his experience in the boiler room and the classroom pay off, says Jim Ponscheck, who until June was the director of the Brighton Education Association. On a district committee devoted to the concerns of support-staff members, “he brought that sensitivity with him,” says Ponscheck. “It played well with that group.”

Within the school, the principal wins kudos from teachers and support workers alike, including 26-year-old head custodian Timothy A. Parks, who says the school “feels like a family.”

A classroom assistant takes aside the reporter to make sure it’s understood that the children weren’t putting on a show for outsiders when they planted themselves beside the principal, waiting to be recognized, or lunged at his waist for a hug.

“I think students don’t want to disappoint him,” says Von Hardesty, who works in the school’s one special education classroom. “A lot of them don’t have a father figure.”

Yates is a guest of honor in Hardesty's classroom, where the children have prepared a full eggs-and-pancake breakfast for him and other notables such as the school's part-time social worker and its speech pathologist. Amid the many words that adorn the walls, one stands out. On a big red cutout of a heart, bold black letters spell "effort." At a low point in the life of the classroom, the adults chose that as the group's watchword. Ally, 9 years old but small for her age because of a thyroid ailment that for a while played havoc with her development, bounces over to Yates and pipes,"I love you." "What did we learn about Mr. Yates this year?" queries her teacher, Peg Regruth. Then to the visitor: "We used Mr. Yates as an example of someone who put forth effort, and made a success of his life. They know him, so it means more." When her teacher is done, Ally eagerly responds to the question. "I learned you used to be a janitor," she recites, "then a teacher, then a principal."

Don’t tell Ally and her schoolmates if ambition should be made of sterner stuff. Many believe in just what they see before them: Jack Yates, principal, success, and real nice guy.

Coverage of leadership issues in education—including governance, management, and labor relations—is supported by the Broad Foundation.

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