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Daily Journal
     June 10, 2020      #15-162 KDJ

Secretary reflects on 32-year career with I-KAN

By Stephanie Markham

Paula Sutter had no idea when she started her job in 1988 at what is now the Iroquois-Kankakee Regional Office of Education that it would be where she’d spend the next 32 years.

She also didn’t know it would be so hard to say goodbye.

“I will miss working with teachers and administrators,” she said, getting a bit teary-eyed during an interview with the Daily Journal two days before her retirement. “I really, really enjoy that. I enjoy helping somebody figure something out. It makes me feel good I was able to help somebody achieve something.”

Sutter, 67, of Bonfield, has served as administrative secretary for three regional superintendents — the late Alan Lemon, Kay Pangle (retired in 2011) and Gregg Murphy (current). Her last day was May 29, and she will officially retire at the end of June.

“I thought, ‘I’m gonna turn 60 and retire,’ but I didn’t because I still liked my job,” she said.

A self-described “people person,” Sutter is a familiar face in the community, not just to local educators, State Scholar inductees and spelling bee contestants, but also as an active member of the Kankakee Valley Theatre Association. She has acted in 16 shows and will have directed 28 after completing two more next year.

She first got involved at the suggestion of a coworker. Her first part was a nun in “Do Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?”

She was president of the KVTA board for 16 years and a board member for 24 years. Some of her favorite productions to direct have been “Beauty and the Beast,” “Wizard of Oz” and “12 Angry Men.”

She’s also current president and a 20-year member of the Xi Delta Xi service sorority and said she hopes to do more volunteer work in her retirement.

Sutter applied to be a bookkeeper for the Kankakee County regional superintendent’s office when a friend who worked there left for another job.

Lemon hired Sutter on the spot, and her first day was June 16, 1988.

Before then, Sutter worked for 17 years starting at age 16 at the Thrift-T Mart in Kankakee.

“I’m not one to move around,” she said.

Though she loved interacting with customers as a cashier, the irregular hours were difficult to manage with two small children in the picture, she said.

For her first three months at the regional education office, Sutter checked out VHS tapes to schools from the office’s film library. Then, Lemon’s secretary retired and Sutter moved into her current position.

“This position has grown exponentially, because at that time we had like 14 employees,” she said. “Now we have 43.”

As chief certification officer, Sutter ensured teachers met the requirements needed to teach in Illinois. She checked credentials when schools hired new teachers and worked with districts to fill open positions.

“I just love helping them figure things out,” Sutter said. “How can we get a teacher for you? What can we do? What’s the special things at [the Illinois State Board of Education] right now that will allow us to get you a teacher in the classroom?”

Over the course of her career, Sutter has seen ISBE change requirements for teacher certification in Illinois at least a dozen times, and she’s seen state mandates create new challenges for schools.

She said finding teachers has been a particular challenge for districts, especially for smaller ones like Donovan, St. Anne and St. George. Without a large tax base like Kankakee has, it can be difficult to pay enough to incentivize teachers to work in small communities, she noted.

“I’ve noticed over the years, it used to be, you need a P.E. teacher, there’s 35 of them out there applying,” she said. “Now I get districts out there calling me going, ‘I just need a first-grade teacher and I have one person applying.’”

On top of existing struggles, school districts were thrown into e-learning in March when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and some were not ready.

“I’m just worried that they’re not going to go back in and that they’ll have to do e-learning,” Sutter said. “I don’t know if that’s good for kids or not. I would struggle with that.”

Despite the uncertainty, Sutter said she has an optimistic outlook because teachers and administrators “really have the kids at heart.”

“I’ve seen some of the things that some of our teachers have done above and beyond just doing Zoom meetings,” she said. “They’ve gone to kids’ houses; they’ve been available longer than their office hours. I think that shows a lot of heart in our community for both counties.”

Sutter played an important role in the regional spelling bee for the past 32 years. As coordinator, she contacted schools to participate, made sure they signed up properly, arranged for the judges and announcer, and set up the day of the competition.

She had a similar role in organizing the regional office’s annual dinner to honor students who were named State Scholars by the Illinois Student Assistance Commission.

Some of her favorite moments from spelling bees have been times when the competition was tough. Once the bee went on for more than 35 rounds.

“There have been a couple where, boy, I didn’t think anyone was going to misspell a word,” she said. “I thought we were gonna have to call it because it was like 10 o’clock. I was like, ‘OK, we have school tomorrow.’”

She said it was exciting and rewarding to see how hard students studied for the competition.

“I always think, oh, the eighth-graders are gonna kill these fifth-graders, and sometimes that’s not true,” she said. “Sometimes a fifth-grader is in the final two over an eighth-grader, and I’ll think, this kid has three more years they can come back. That’s really good.”

The camaraderie is there, too, she added. By the end of the bee, students always show great sportsmanship in congratulating the winner, who goes on to compete in a national contest.

Sutter is now looking forward to traveling with her husband, Mark, and spending time with their two granddaughters, family and friends.

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