Darren Atkinson might be the last person you’d expect to be an elementary school principal. 

His résumé includes 20 years as a Marine Corps helicopter pilot, five years working on Wall Street and 10 years in the medical industry—not to mention farming in his free time.

“My background is broken and doesn’t seem to add up,” said Atkinson, 58. “What I tell my kids in school is that education truly is the equalizer. I grew up in a poor family in Hazard, Kentucky. My parents stressed to me that if you want to get ahead, it’s education. My mom and dad both pushed education.”

Atkinson graduated from Eastern Kentucky University in 1984 with a degree in construction management, which he’s only used once to build his own house.

He has spent the past 14 years in education, starting out as a science teacher at Carrithers Middle School. He was assistant principal at Moore High School before becoming principal at Fairdale Elementary School in 2016.

Though his path to a career in education is atypical, Atkinson brings his unique skills to the classroom.

He takes sixth graders to his farm in Waddy, Kentucky, and teaches them about milking cows. He said that many aren’t aware that milk comes from a cow’s udder.

Atkinson encourages his teachers to familiarize themselves with their students’ neighborhoods.

“You’ve got to understand what they’re exposed to every night. The gun shots. They don’t have heat. They don’t have water,” said Atkinson, a Southeast Christian Church member. “The worst thing you can say is, ‘Oh, poor little kid. He can’t learn.’ No, no, no. You want to keep pushing them and instilling in them that they don’t want this the for rest of their lives.”

Investing in the future

About 90% of Fairdale Elementary’s students qualify for the free and reduced school meal program. Many come from single-parent homes or are being raised by grandparents. The student population includes children from 26 countries.

Atkinson, who has a 17-year-old son, said less than 5% of his school’s kindergarten students know the alphabet the first day of school.

“It’s not just education anymore; we provide everything,” Atkinson said. “We do social care. We provide food. We provide clothing. We’re basically a one-stop shop. It’s no longer just teaching. It’s all the problems that come in from the neighborhood.”

Atkinson wants his students to grow up to become productive members of society, and he is hopeful for the future.

“When I was in school, you did something wrong, and you got your butt wore out, and you got your parents called,” Atkinson added. “That’s the last thing you wanted to have happen. Today, the kids don’t seem to really care … but we build relationships with the kids, and we build their trust. They trust us, our judgment and what we’re trying to tell them to do, so they understand we’re not leading them down the wrong path.”

‘One at a Time’

It took Atkinson a while to find God. He had a “depressing” view of the church throughout his childhood.

He grew up being told he would go to hell for dancing or looking at a girl, so he figured, “Why am I trying?”

Atkinson put God in the background, but near-death experiences while in the Marine Corps had a big impact on his belief in Christ. He visited Southeast for the first time in 1997.

“When I first went in and saw singing with music that was not just a cappella, I was kind of like, ‘Whoa, OK. This is different,’” Atkinson said. “At first, it was a strange feeling, but I love it now. As a matter a fact, I talk to my mom about it once every couple of months because I always remind her that David was dancing naked playing the harp or cymbal.”

Atkinson attended Southeast over the years, but he really became serious about his relationship with Christ when he began teaching 14 years ago.

“When I left a sales job knowing that I was making six figures and going into education making $30,000, I realized I needed to do God’s will every day,” he said.

At Carrithers, Atkinson would write a Bible passage without the chapter and verse reference on the whiteboard each morning.

“The funny part is that the Christian kids said, ‘I know what you’re doing,’” he said. “It was kind of like, ‘Well, you keep that a secret between you and I, and we’ll just keep doing that.’”

At Fairdale, Atkinson has organized Fellowship of Christian Athletes meetings for students and All Pro Dad meetings that help fathers learn about family dynamics.

“I try to get as much God in that building as possible,” Atkinson said. “When I speak to the teachers all the time or when you’re working with a kid, it’s normally one-on-one. It’s that relationship. It’s that one moment. It’s that one instant. That one conversation.”

Atkinson is focused on building relationships one at a time.

“They talk about in education all the time that what we say can really devastate or hurt a kid,” Atkinson said. “You don’t know what’s going on in their neighborhood or what went on in their life last night. We have to go slow to go fast to build those relationships with those kids so hopefully at the end they’ll respect us and do what we ask them to do.”