Lowell Outland was a custodian at Tates Creek High School for seven years, a high school dropout who dreamed of becoming a teacher.
The 59-year-old Air Force veteran made it happen. On Wednesday, the start of the school year 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.
“It was his dream and ours that he be able to be a teacher here,” principal Marty Mills said. “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.”
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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, commonly known as a GED. After 12 years in the Air Force, he got a job at a tire factory in Western Kentucky. When it 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, 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 in 2010.
“I got along great with the kids. I enjoyed the work,” he said.
At the same time, he went to Morehead State University for a bachelor’s degree in technology and engineering.
He took classes at night and early morning, and he earned his degree in 2013.
Outland entered a program called Troops to Teachers, helping veterans with bachelor’s degrees get teaching certificates.
Then he began applying for teaching jobs, and substitute teaching.
When the Tates Creek teaching vacancy came up, he applied and was hired. He worked as a custodian until July 31.
“It’s been an interesting journey,” he said. “I tell people not to give up.”
Superintendent Manny Caulk said he first met Outland as a custodian in 2016, when the district was having a leadership conference at Tates Creek High. Caulk thanked Outland and other custodians for keeping the school in pristine condition. The next time Caulk saw him, it was at this year’s new teacher orientation. Caulk was awestruck.
“Think about how disciplined he had to be to do his job and still go to school. He cares about students. He cares about Tates Creek. It’s a wonderful, shining example of what’s possible in Fayette County schools,” he said. “I think it says you can grow here.”
Outland’s wife, a business teacher at Tates Creek, said she also got a later start on higher education, entering community college at age 31 before getting her bachelor’s and then master’s degrees. She said her husband will teach 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 to 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.”
Lowell Outland is featured on the district’s website. In that article, he said 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 he gained more self-discipline with time.
On Wednesday morning, sophomore Jermiah Madison, who watched Outland’s journey from custodian to teacher, said, “It’s pretty cool to me.”
Jermiah 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,” Jermiah said. He admired Outland’s perseverance.
On the website story, Outland said, “It’s overnight success that took 40 years.”