A Pasco man’s journey from cleaning schools to teaching in them

Kevin Knibbs never thought about working with students ó until he started interacting with them.
First-year Cox Elementary School teacher Kevin Knibbs, 33, of Dade City, walks with students Angel Young, 8, left, and Kaivion Williams, 9, right, while en route to his third-grade class on Sept. 30 at the school in Date City. Knibbs decided to become an educator after working as a school custodian. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD  |  Tampa Bay Times
First-year Cox Elementary School teacher Kevin Knibbs, 33, of Dade City, walks with students Angel Young, 8, left, and Kaivion Williams, 9, right, while en route to his third-grade class on Sept. 30 at the school in Date City. Knibbs decided to become an educator after working as a school custodian. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Tampa Bay Times
Published October 22

DADE CITY — Kevin Knibbs stood before the 20 third-grade students in his second-floor classroom at Cox Elementary School and pointed to the clock on the wall.

Today, he said, the class will begin a new math objective — time as a measurement.

“A lot of you keep asking me, What time is it?” Knibbs told the children.

To start the lesson, he turned the question on them.

“That’s easy,” one boy said. “It’s 7:03.”

Knibbs reminded them that the little hand marks hours and the big one indicates minutes. The boy revised to the correct time, 1:35 p.m.

The teacher quickly transitioned to a related exercise, counting by fives to make sure the children recognize what the numbers on the analog clock stand for. He pulled the clock down and held it for effect.

First-year Cox Elementary School teacher Kevin Knibbs, 33, of Dade City, teaches the components of time: hours, minutes, seconds, to his third-grade class on Sept. 30 at the school in Date City. Knibbs decided to become an educator after working as a school custodian. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD  |  Tampa Bay Times
First-year Cox Elementary School teacher Kevin Knibbs, 33, of Dade City, teaches the components of time: hours, minutes, seconds, to his third-grade class on Sept. 30 at the school in Date City. Knibbs decided to become an educator after working as a school custodian. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Tampa Bay Times

“Are you going to get in trouble for that?” one girl shouted out.

“Nah,” he responded. “I’m a rebel.”

As far as elementary school classroom teachers go, Knibbs wasn’t far off the mark.

He’s a man in a field dominated by women. Just 11 percent of elementary educators were male in the most recent national data available, down from a decade earlier.

He’s a 33-year-old first-time teacher, unlike so many recent college graduates entering the profession.

And even among career changers, he’s taken a different path. Knibbs decided he wanted to become a teacher after working nearly a decade as a school custodian and finding that he liked interacting with the students.

“I had a teacher at Quail Hollow Elementary who began in the cafeteria,” said Cox principal Kim Natale, who hired him. “I’ve had instructional assistants. Even secretaries. ... Kevin is the first person I’ve seen who has come from being a custodian.”

Teaching isn’t a job he ever thought about while growing up in Chicago.

Knibbs recalled moving to Pasco County at age 20, primarily because his older sister got a teaching position with the district. She invited him to move down, too — mainly to help with housing costs.

He worked odd jobs at places like Target while finishing his on again, off again associate’s degree in business . Then one day, Knibbs’ sister called to say that her school, Seven Oaks Elementary, had a full-time custodian job vacancy.

He applied.

In the following two years, he found that being a school janitor didn’t mean just mopping floors and emptying trash. It also meant providing a positive role model for the children.

“We were able to interact with the kids,” Knibbs said. “They made it like we were part of the school community.”

A couple of teachers even told him he was good at it. Encouraged, Knibbs applied for an instructional assistant post at Connerton Elementary in Land O’ Lakes. While there, he served as the one-on-one helper to a student with autism who was being mainstreamed.

“If I could have stayed an (instructional aide), I would have,” Knibbs said.

But the pay was too low. And with a baby on the way with his then girlfriend (now wife), Knibbs couldn’t afford to continue.

He headed back to Seven Oaks, this time as assistant plant manager and then transferred to a similar post at Pasco Elementary.

. So fast forward a few years, when his daughter was entering prekindergarten, and Knibbs had a free morning after dropping her off.

Driving past St. Leo University, he steered into the parking lot and headed to the admission office. He left a half-hour later, enrolled in the education program.

“I wanted something that would drive me and make me happy for the next 20 years,” Knibbs said.

For the next two years, he trained to become a teacher. And he remained a school custodian.

Some semesters, that meant arriving as a classroom intern at dawn, working a full school day and then changing clothes for an evening of cleaning up after himself and others. His principals’ willingness to flex his schedule made it possible.

“I hijacked the Keurig machine in the teachers’ lounge” to ensure he was adequately caffeinated, Knibbs said.

After finishing his degree, Knibbs jumped at the chance to teach at Cox.

“Every elementary school needs male influences, but in these low socioeconomic areas, even more so,” he said. “I just wanted to help do something.”

First-year Cox Elementary School teacher Kevin Knibbs, 33, of Dade City, answers questions about the components of time: hours, minutes, seconds, to Eternity Johnson, 9, center, and Zachariah Johnson, 9, right, while teaching his third-grade class on Sept. 30, at the school in Date City. Knibbs decided to become an educator after working as a school custodian. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD  |  Tampa Bay Times
First-year Cox Elementary School teacher Kevin Knibbs, 33, of Dade City, answers questions about the components of time: hours, minutes, seconds, to Eternity Johnson, 9, center, and Zachariah Johnson, 9, right, while teaching his third-grade class on Sept. 30, at the school in Date City. Knibbs decided to become an educator after working as a school custodian. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Tampa Bay Times

Knibbs is one of only two male classroom teachers at Cox. That fact didn’t go unnoticed by third-grader Kaivon Williams.

“I’m a boy, and if I do something bad, I didn’t mean to do it," said Kaivon, 9. “He understands me, because he’s a boy teacher.”

Such connections are important, said University of Pennsylvania education professor Richard Ingersoll, who recently studied the changing demographics of the nation’s teaching force.

“There’s a large number of elementary schools where there’s not a single male teacher. So there’s a big concern there, particularly with large numbers of single-parent families,” Ingersoll said.

The rising percentage of women in the field could have the effect of making it even less attractive for men to work in the schools, he suggested.

Principal Natale said she knew Knibbs would be a perfect fit for her school — and not just because he is a needed positive male role model. He also offers a lesson in pursuing goals, she said.

“He brings that lens of perseverance and that lens of having a dream and working to accomplish it,” Natale explained. “Children in our day and age need to have people in their lives who have worked through that experience, worked to achieve their goals.”

Using his life experience as a guide, Knibbs kept his classroom active and involved in his math lesson. Children who were off-task got a quick reminder to behave, as Knibbs stayed focused on the learning rather than the discipline.

“He’s nice,” said Zachariah Johnson, 9. “He helps people understand.”

“He helps me not get angry at people,” added Eternity Johnson, also 9 and Zachariah’s cousin.

Knowing he’s making a difference gratifies Knibbs. He avoids getting weighed down by the low pay and other complaints that upset so many educators.

“I’m glad I made this choice," he said. “It’s a fulfilling job.”

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at jsolochek@tampabay.com.

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