PLYMOUTH, Minnesota — The substitute teacher greeting students is a familiar face at Plymouth Middle School.
“Good morning,” Mike Peterson says as chatty sixth graders enter the classroom.
Though not their regular teacher, Peterson is familiar with the room.
He should be. He painted it.
For nearly 30 years, Peterson worked as a custodian in the Robbinsdale School District. Most of that time was spent at Plymouth, where he rose to the ranks of head custodian.
But even as he traversed the school in his janitorial role, Mike was keenly aware of the need for substitute teachers.
School principal Leah Ward is, too.
“It's immense,” she says. “Our human resources department has done a lot of different work trying to recruit in different ways and we are still seeing a shortage.”
Always quick to assist, Peterson seized the moment.
“They need my help,” he thought. “Teachers need my help.”
But before he could teach, Peterson needed a bachelor’s degree. Taking night classes, he got one.
“This old dog is learning new tricks,” he says with a smile.
In the spring of 2021, Peterson said goodbye to students and teachers.
That fall he returned, surprising students like eighth-grader Tyson Tate.
“We we're like, ‘Oh, you're coming back to teach now?’” Tatum recalls. “So, you're like, ‘Okay.’”
Turns out, as Peterson went about his custodial work, he was also listening - and learning - from teachers like Paula Engel.
“This is my mentor,” Peterson says during a chance meeting in the hall with the Plymouth Middle School Spanish teacher.
Engel, too, was caught off guard when Peterson returned to work in a different role. But she’s convinced the school’s new sub has something unique to teach.
“I think kids need different role models, with different backgrounds, and I think the kids can relate to that,” Engel says.
So, the guy who built the wood and plexiglass COVID shields in the school media center is the same guy now teaching students on tables he painted.
And doing it at 64 — after he retired.
Social studies teacher Barb Wurdeman, whose class Peterson is teaching today, is grateful.
“He could be home; he could be doing other things, but he's choosing to help us,” she says.
Peterson subs at other district schools too, but when asked why he wanted to come back to Plymouth Middle School, specifically, Peterson pauses for several seconds.
His voice quivering, he finally answers. “It’s my family."
The former school custodian pauses again, collects himself, and continues. “These are the people I support.”
The connection between Peterson’s old job and his new one has not been lost on Wurdeman.
“He took care of the building. He took care of all our needs,” she says.
“Still taking care of us,” Wurdeman says.
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