Cleaning up: Ed.S. student recalls path from custodian to curriculum director

Michael Courington
Michael Courington

Like many teens, Michael Courington was dying to get a job.

“My family didn’t have a lot of money growing up. I was chomping at the bit to turn 16 to start working because I wanted a car,” Courington says. “My mother was the school secretary at Rhodes Elementary School in District 84½, and they had an opening for an evening, part-time custodian. I got the job.”

Each afternoon, instead of flipping burgers or bagging groceries, Courington worked from 3:30 to 8:30 p.m. cleaning classrooms and hallways at Rhodes.

“I did that for 10 years, and it was awesome,” he says. “I put myself through college that way.”

Something else happened during those nightly five-hour shifts.

Courington became good friends with the director of Buildings and Grounds, who watched him grow up from a teen into a man with a bachelor’s degree in school psychology – a man with a post-college realization that school psychology just wasn’t his “thing.”

That supervisor had a suggestion: “He said, ‘Why don’t you start subbing, and you can still do your evening shift?’ ” Courington remembers. “I’d change into my work uniform and clean the classroom I’d taught in that day.”

Joining the proud ranks of substitute teachers stoked a long-smoldering ember and lit a fuse.

“When I was 16 or 17, one of the mothers who worked in the after-school daycare program had a little one, Jeffrey. He’d follow me around, and we’d talk. He was pretty rambunctious,” Courington says. “I can connect with kids pretty easily, and that began my interest in educating young minds.”

Back to college he went, this time for a master’s deegree in teaching and into a career journey eventually saw him become the principal of Scott Elementary School in the Franklin Park-based Mannheim School District 83.

He started at Scott as a fourth-grade teacher, a job recommended to him by Steve Sievers, then the principal of Rhodes.

Michael Courington (right) with a buildings-and-grounds worker during his custodian days.
Michael Courington (right) with his buildings-and-grounds colleague from his custodian days at Rhodes Elementary.

Five years later, the assistant principal at Scott gave birth and began maternity leave in February.

The principal approached Courington, who was almost finished with his master’s degree in educational leadership at the time, with an offer: Take on the assistant principal’s duties for no extra pay but, in return, a letter of recommendation.

Always one to say “yes” to growth opportunities, Courington agreed.

When that new mother decided not to return to Scott, Courington became the assistant principal full time – and when the principal retired five years after that, Courington applied to replace her, went through the interview process and earned his new title.

He has loved the job.

“Just being part of the schoolhouse, the energy is just something. Nothing comes close for me,” he says. “It’s been a pleasure serving everyone. I was never really in my office. I was always out in the building. I was the principal who, if there was getting sick in the second-grade hallway and throwing up and there wasn’t a custodian available, I was gloving up and throwing sawdust.”

Yet “the principalship is hardest job in education right now,” he adds. “It’s never the same day twice. You always have different things happening. You wear so many hats. There are so many expectations from the top and from below. It’s been a wild ride.”

Now Courington, who is pursuing his Ed.S. in Educational Administration at NIU, is ready for his next step. He begins a new role July 1 as Mannheim’s director of Curriculum and Instruction, filling another vacancy caused by retirement.

Working in the central office, he will oversee teaching and learning, prepare the district for external review processes, examine and prioritize standards, coordinate committees that balance literacy and English Language Arts and explore Mannheim’s potential for becoming a Visible Learning school district.

“I want to attack that Visible Learning piece from the get-go,” Courington says. “The theory behind that is that teaching-and-learning should not be a guessing game. We want students to truly understand what we expect of them so they can be successful.”

Meanwhile, he will begin his internship this fall as he continues as a doctoral student in the Department of Leadership, Educational Psychology and Foundations. Courington will intern “on the job” as he works under the mentorship of Mannheim Superintendent Kim Petrasek.

The Ed.S. program has been “challenging,” he says, “just to maintain the responsibilities of the principalship, being a dad and going back to school again.” He plans to complete the program and earn his licensure by June of 2021.

But the biggest challenge of his career will come this July when he moves his office to a building without children, teachers and classrooms.

“It’s going to be an emotional curve for me. This will be my first time stepping away from the schoolhouse, and with a central office position, there can be a tendency to not have as much time in the schools as one would like,” he says.

“The superintendent knows how much I enjoy being in schools,” he adds, “so I’m hoping to kind of change the script a little bit by trying to get into the schools as much as I can.”

And what does his mother, Barbara, think?

“She’s proud. She definitely was the person who started me on this path. She likes to talk shop all the time; she’s still connected with teachers and very interested in the ways schools work,” Courington says. “My dad felt the same way, that this is a definitely a noble profession in that we get to help kids and to help the adults who help kids. That’s what we’re all about.”

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