David Dutka in library at school

From custodian to teacher

A unlikely path leads Palmetto College, education graduate to his dream job

His is not an uncommon story — Pennsylvania native David Dutka went to community college after graduating from high school. In his freshman year, financial and family obstacles led him to drop out. The uncommon part is what Dutka accomplished 14 years later.

In May, Dutka was one of 17 students who earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education through Palmetto College, the University of South Carolina’s online degree completion program. He is the first person in his family to earn a college degree. In August, he will begin his first year as a fifth-grade teacher at Midway Elementary School in Lexington, South Carolina — the same school where he repaired pipes and buffed floors as a custodian for several years. 

“I’ve always considered myself a lifelong learner,” Dutka says. “Whether I was working with the maintenance crew learning about plumbing or in my university courses learning about teaching strategies, I just really enjoy learning new things.”

His passion for learning impressed the principal of Midway Elementary School, Janet Fickling (‘92, M.Ed. '97), who encouraged him to consider elementary education when he decided to complete his degree.

“I knew from talking to him that he was well read and very smart,” Fickling says. “He mentioned that he was thinking about teaching at the high school level because teenagers are, of course, more advanced in their studies. But I encouraged him to stay open minded about teaching young children.”

I’ve always considered myself a lifelong learner. Whether I was working with the maintenance crew learning about plumbing or in my university courses learning about teaching strategies, I just really enjoy learning new things.

David Dutka, education graduate

While attending Midlands Technical College, Dutka worked as a substitute teacher at Midway Elementary.

“As a substitute, I learned so much from working with the kids,” Dutka says. “They challenged me to think differently. They ask such thought-provoking questions. You have to be ready for anything. They are capable of learning advanced concepts just like older students.”

After earning an associate degree from Midlands Tech, Dutka enrolled in the elementary education program through Palmetto College. During this time, he joined the custodial staff at Midway elementary full time.

“I liked working with the custodial crew in the summer and needed full-time pay and benefits. The online learning environment of Palmetto College allowed me the flexibility to continue working, which was imperative for me and my family,” Dutka says.

Like all College of Education students, Dutka was taught by experienced education professors and spent weeks in the classroom alongside veteran public-school educators during his clinical experiences.

Fickling, who also worked full time while earning her degrees from Carolina, gave Dutka the flexibility with his job to complete coursework and student teaching. She then welcomed him back with open arms when he graduated in May.

“He is a role model for our children,” Fickling says. “He is proof that if you continue to pursue your dreams no matter the obstacles, you can find success.

"His experiences will help him be a better teacher. We teach our students to set goals, persevere and work hard to obtain them. David did just that.”

The next time Dutka walks through the doors of Midway Elementary, he won’t be carrying a broom or hammer. Instead, he’ll bring the tools of an educator — a heart for service, a skill for inspiring children to learn and a No. 2 pencil, of course.

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