A high school dropout goes from custodian to teacher

Lowell Outland is a new teacher at the same Kentucky high school where he once worked as a custodian. (Photo: Fayette County Public Schools)

Lowell Outland was a custodian at Tates Creek High School in Lexington, Kentucky, for seven years, a high school dropout who dreamed of becoming a teacher.

With hard work, the 59-year-old Air Force veteran made it happen. Last week, on the first day for Fayette County Public Schools, Outland stepped to the front of his classroom as the new graphic arts and photography teacher at Tates Creek High School.

“As a custodian, … it was his dream and ours that he be able to be a teacher here,” said principal Marty Mills. “He has a capacity for learning. He’s very driven and very motivated. I knew that he would be a teacher somewhere. I’m just glad that it’s here.”

“It’s an amazing story,” Mills said.

First career change

Outland, born in Tennessee and raised in Wisconsin, was a high school dropout.

“I had no interest in education 40 years ago,” he said. “Life has a funny way of changing things.”

He joined the U.S. Air Force at 23, and the military required him to get his general equivalency diploma or GED. After 12 years in the Air Force, he got a job at a tire factory in Western Kentucky. When the tire factory shut down, the company paid for him, at 47, to go to Somerset Community College. In 2007, he earned a two-year degree in industrial maintenance, computer maintenance and electronics.

About that time his wife, Angela, got a job teaching at Tates Creek High School and they moved to Lexington. Outland took a job at an electronics company. When that company downsized, he went to work as a custodian at Tates Creek High in 2010.

“I got along great with the kids. I enjoyed the work,” he said.

Continuing on

At the same time, Outland went back to Morehead State University to get his bachelor’s degree in technology and engineering.

He took classes at night and early morning until he earned his degree in 2013.

Outland entered a program called Troops to Teachers that helps veterans with their bachelor’s degree get a teaching certificate.

That accomplished, he began applying for teaching jobs, and substitute teaching

When the Tates Creek vacancy came up, he applied and was hired. Outland worked as a custodian, right up until July 31.

“It’s been an interesting journey,” he said. “I tell people not to give up.”

Fayette Superintendent Manny Caulk said he first met Outland when Outland was a custodian in 2016 and the district was having a leadership conference at Tates Creek High. Caulk stopped to thank Outland and other custodians for keeping Tates Creek High School in pristine condition. The next time Caulk saw him, it was at this year’s new teacher orientation. The superintendent was awestruck.

“Think about how disciplined he had to be to do his job and still go to school. He’s cares about students. He cares about Tates Creek. It’s a wonderful, shining example of what’s possible in Fayette County schools,” said Caulk “I think it says you can grow here.”

A two-year college start

Outland’s wife, Angela Outland, a business teacher at Tates Creek, said she got a later start on higher education too, entering community college at 31 before getting her bachelor’s and then master’s degrees. She said her husband will teach right across the hall from her.

“I’m very proud of him because I’ve seen his struggle and I’ve seen how hard he’s worked to try get where he is,” she said. “He has a great story to share with the kids because not everybody is college material when they are young. Sometimes we have to take a different route to learn some skills before we are ready to see what we want to do.”

Outland is currently featured on the district’s website. In that article, he said that he will bring life experience to the classroom. His message to students is not to quit if they don’t make the right choice the first time. He said that he gained more self-discipline with time.

Last Wednesday morning student Jeremiah Madison, who watched Outland’s journey from custodian to teacher said, “It’s pretty cool to me.”

The sophomore told Outland that he would take photography and graphic arts, just so he could be Outland’s student. “He’s always looking out for others,” Jeremiah said. He said he admired Outland’s perseverance.

Outland spoke to that in the article on the school district website, saying: “It’s overnight success that took 40 years.”

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