Staff meetings can occasionally be... unpleasant. But throw in that this one was scheduled well after work and just before a much needed holiday break and you could understand why Panhandle Superintendent Aaron Hopper was giving Lincolnwood Principal Ken Schuster the third degree about the meeting scheduled for 2:40 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 24.
“The teachers have a lot of questions. At 2:40? Yeah, at 2:40. You know tomorrow’s a holiday, right? Yeah, they have a lot of questions,” Schuster replayed the exchange with Hopper in front of an auditorium of Lincolnwood staff members on Tuesday. “I’m like, ‘Quit asking me questions! I can’t tell you why we’re having this meeting!’”
The reason for the meeting, and the secrecy behind it, was to honor Hopper with the Kaskaskia Region Superintendent of the Year, given out by the Illinois Principals Association.
“You honestly get the award for catching me off guard,” said Hopper, who was genuinely shocked when he saw his daughters, Emily and Eden, and son, Evan in attendance when he entered the auditorium with Dean of Students Joe Webb. “I really try to be prepared for things and what might happen in the future, and this was not one of them.”
The award recognized a superintendent from the Kaskaskia region, which includes Macoupin, Bond, Fayette, Clinton and Marion counties, who has succeeded in providing high quality learning opportunities for students and staff. The award recognizes those who are highly respected by students, colleagues and the community and sets high standards for staff and students, while working productively with board members.
One such board member, Dana Pitchford, was there Tuesday to commend Hopper for his accomplishment.
“I feel like his presence in every atmosphere, whether it’s in the office, the classroom, the hallway, at the park or in the gym, is always positive,” Pitchford said. “You’ve chosen to lead under the theme of patience and grace, two characteristics that don’t come very easy for many people, but you excel at both, always seeking the good in everyone in every situation. Through the years you have touched so many people in so many ways. This is one of the many reasons you are well deserving of this award.”
Through good and bad times, Hopper has had plenty of opportunities to connect with staff, students and the community. Even before COVID was a thought in anyone’s mind, tragedy followed the Panhandle School District around like a lost puppy, with the illnesses and accidents that have affected students, staff and their families in unimaginable ways.
Through it all, through the heartbreak and healing, Hopper has been a steadying force, first as a principal at the grade school level, then as co-superintendent and now as full-time superintendent.
As he accepted the award from Principal Schuster, Hopper was reminded of an anecdote from Jon Gordon regarding a coffee bean.
Hopper said that some items change under pressure, like when a carrot becomes weaker or an egg hardens in boiling water. But a coffee bean changes the environment around it, while basically remaining steadfast itself.
“We have to have that type of mentality and impact that we have to change the people around us and not be changed by it,” Hopper said after the program. “That’s been uplifting this fall. Happiness and believing is still important, even more so in COVID. We do what we do because we believe that we can make a difference and be a part of someone else’s life.”
While Hopper has been a central cog for overcoming all of the adversity, he is quick to give credit to where he believes it is due.
“You are why we are here. It’s not about me. It’s really a reflection of all of you and all of your efforts collectively to step away from your own wants and to be a part of a family,” Hopper said to the staff. “That means so much to me and Mr. Schuester and Mrs. Masten.”
He continued, saying that he knows that this semester has been a challenge for all involved, but reminded the teachers that they are truly making a difference in the lives of the children in their community.
“What more can you be thankful for? You’ve really made a difference this fall in the lives of these kids,” he said. “The fact that you made an impact and you believe in them, and I believe in you, what more can thanksgiving be about?”
As he finished, Hopper thanked his family for coming, which included several siblings and his parents. Before wishing everyone a happy Thanksgiving, Hopper spoke to his children.
“You’re why I get up each day and do my job and what I get to come home to, too. We’re making better memories for the future,” he said, before adding to his staff. “I hope you all get to make great memories this weekend, too.”
School isn’t about awards, but it is, in a way, about memories. And Hopper and his staff are doing the best job they can to ensure that the students of the Panhandle School District are making as many happy memories as they possibly can. A noble goal, and one worthy of recognition.