Tricia Rollerson grew up in various homes around the country, moving from one state to the next.
So did Teresa Polson.
Both went to college, earning bachelor’s degrees in psychology and social work, respectively.
Later, they both found paths into education, eventually becoming principals of middle schools in suburban Valley View School District 365U. Rollerson’s John J. Lukancic Middle School in Romeoville and Polson’s Jane Addams Middle School in Bolingbrook are separated by just a few miles.
Rollerson and Polson also have long been classmates in the NIU Department of Leadership, Educational Psychology and Foundations, where together they are completing multiple graduate programs to enhance their knowledge and improve their professional credentials.
Every Wednesday evening and many Saturday mornings, they carpool to their Ed.D. in Educational Administration classes. It only makes sense, given their proximity – and, oh yes, the fact that they are sisters.
“It was always a goal that we both had to obtain our doctoral-level degrees,” says Rollerson, who is older by four-and-a-half years and has earned all three of her degrees from NIU.
“We’ve both quit the program on multiple occasions – well, not officially quit, but, ‘I don’t know if I can do this; this is too much to handle’ – and the other will support the one in that time of need. We push each other. We will get to that day when we both walk across the stage and get our doctoral degrees.”
Polson is happy to have followed her sister to DeKalb after completing her first two degrees elsewhere.
The thought of where they are – side by side, working to put “Dr.” in front of their names, something she’s wanted since she was a little girl – renders her without words, “just knowing where we came from.”
“I couldn’t do it without her, that’s for sure. She keeps me in order,” Polson says. “Being able to experience this together, we share the celebrations and the obstacles that we face.”
The sisters were born in Iowa, but their childhood travels took them to New York, Arkansas, Oklahoma and finally back to Grimes, Iowa, a suburb of Des Moines, where they both graduated from Dallas Center-Grimes Community High School.
“We were a mobile family – constantly moving,” Polson says. “Our mom just did what she needed to do to make it happen for us.”
Mother Patsy Blazek, who still lives in Des Moines, is a high school graduate who took classes at a trade school to learn cosmetology.
“Our mom is a very hard-working person who would give anybody the shirt off her back. She always made sure our needs were met long before being concerned about her own needs. She was very encouraging,” Rollerson says. “Things weren’t always easy. There wasn’t tons of money. We weren’t well off. We just figured out how to make do.”
“We have a close relationship with our mother,” Polson confirms. “She is often brought to tears by what we’ve done – she can’t believe it – but she is the biggest supporter you ever could meet. We tell her, ‘We’re proud of you. If you weren’t such a strong backbone for us, we wouldn’t possibly be where we are.’ ”
Father Lyle Polson, who would see his young daughters at various times during the year, also deserves credit. “The importance of education came from our dad as well,” she says. “He went to college, and that was something that he encouraged us to pursue.”
Rollerson came to the Land of Lincoln first, following her husband to DeKalb. The couple attended the University of Northern Iowa, and upon his graduation, he chose NIU to earn an M.F.A. in acting. She enrolled in the Department of Psychology.
“I’ve always had a passion for helping people and for understanding what makes people function. I went on and earned my master’s in social work, and I was working in a youth service agency. I was the educational advocate in a clinical position,” she says.
Her workplace was a group home; her young clients all were wards of the state.
“That fueled my passion and interest in helping to support and further kids’ education and making sure that I was advocating for their needs,” she says. “Most of the students had IEPs (Individualized Education Programs), and I was making sure that their IEPs were being followed and making sure they were successful in school. I was in the parental role, making sure they were accessing the supports they needed.”
Feeling a call to become a school social worker, she obtained her certification and took a job in Valley View School District 365U.
After serving a few years in that position, she progressed to roles as a student resource team leader, coordinator for special education services and, in 2006, as assistant principal at Lukancic. She became principal in 2010.
“I love middle school kids and, really, just the varying needs of middle school kids. One day, they need the nurturing kind of coddling, and the next day, they’re totally grown and have no need for adults,” she says.
“It’s like they’ve got this whole thing of life figured out, but their emotions are a roller coaster, and I just love being able to support kids in going through this lovely adventure of adolescence,” she adds. “I’m also supporting parents through these times as well, because sometimes they’re experiencing things for the first time as parents, and they’re unsure of what to do. I’m normalizing things for them that really are just a part of the growth and development of 11- and 12-year-olds.”
Polson always shared her big sister’s interest in the betterment of humanity.
“Something I was interested in growing up was helping people,” says Polson, who earned her bachelor’s degree at Illinois State University. “I worked in the social service field, providing some counseling support.”
While working in a program supported by a Title Grant through the State of Illinois, she would push in-services to at-risk middle schools in Will County.
“I realized, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m making an impact on maybe six kids. Imagine the impact I would have in the classroom with 28 kids,’ ” says Polson, who enrolled at Governors State University to earn a bachelor’s degree in education and, with it, her teacher licensure.
Hired to teach eighth-grade science at Valley View’s Martinez Middle School, she knew that she’d found her home. She taught there for two years and then became student resource team leader and coordinator of special education services during her third.
“Middle school kids feel like they’re independent, but they’re really trying to figure out who they are. They’re doing so much growing socially, academically and emotionally,” she says. “Science was something I always soared in – I was always a grade or two ahead – and I taught science hands-on. That’s how kids learn. That’s how adults learn. That’s how I learned.”
Eventually, though, she felt called to administration. She arrived at Jane Addams as an assistant principal in 2013 and became principal in 2016.
“It was kind of a similar thought process from social work to education: Imagine if I could have an impact on 700 kids versus the 150 kids I served as a teacher,” she says. “I saw the bigger picture of how I could make change. I had great experiences in school, but I could have always had more. My passion is to give my students more than I ever had.”
NIU has served as the incubator for the sisters’ ambitions.
Their degree collection includes the M.S.Ed. and the Ed.S. in Educational Administration. This fall, they began their journey toward the Ed.D. in Educational Leadership, which they expect to complete by 2021.
“They bring the experience of truly being researchers but also having the experience of being in the trenches and knowing the practical applications. It’s giving me a better framework for the work I have been doing. People always want to know ‘why,’ and now I can present them the research behind it,” says Polson, adding that she has immediately applied some of her newly learned strategies in facilitating meetings or interventions.
“I’ve never had a poor experience with a professor,” she adds. “They’ve always brought something to me that I can take back and put into practice. Being professionally developed is something that’s important to me.”
Rollerson has appreciated broadening her professional network, “all the way from Rockford to Gurnee,” she says. “It really is a wide variety of people I’ve connected with. We all face similar issues and, many times, we’re a resource for one another when we come across an obstacle and we’re looking for different ways to problem-solve.”
NIU is also helping her to put K-12 education under a microscope with coursework relevant to her daily life.
“In education, sometimes, we make changes. We’re doing things that we believe are in the best interest of our kids,” she says. “But being in very research-heavy coursework now, it’s really caused me to question these decisions we’re making. Are they grounded in research? Do we have anyone who’s really taking the time to go through and research different ways to do these things, or are we just sitting around a table and saying, ‘Yes, this sounds good’?”
With their next graduation still a couple years in the future, neither is completely sure what they will do with doctorates.
“I’m keeping my options open. I have a passion for being a learner myself, and growing as a professional, and I’m open to whatever might come my way if I feel like I could have more of an impact on people,” Rollerson says. “I can’t say that I definitely want to be a superintendent.”
Polson is also unsure of the superintendency but eager for “higher-level leadership in the education field. I’m also interested in the political end of it.”
For now, though, the pair are “focused on finishing” and proud to bestow positive influence on their schools.
“It’s a pretty awesome feeling,” Polson says. “Sometimes you just have to pinch yourself. How did this happen? Is this really happening? I’m speechless when reflect on it, and I don’t often think about it. I’m just going through it. I know I’m humbled and honored by the experience. I have the honor of serving such an awesome community of students and staff.”
“We both are very passionate about being a voice,” Rollerson says. “Our district has a high level of low-income families that we support. We are equitable to students regardless of their background, whether it be socioeconomic status, their race or their religion. Both of us, as human beings, are passionate about making sure that everybody is accepted and is respected.”
Of course, sometimes these human beings are just sisters.
They squabbled as children, became friendlier when Rollerson left for college and now are close-knit travel and dinner companions.
During their commutes to class, “a lot of our conversation is about school or work, just because we’re together in the car,” Rollerson says, “but sometimes we say, ‘No talking about school today. No talking about work today. Really, we’re just sisters now.’ ”
And they still love to watch the faces of classmates and faculty when they first understand a sibling relationship obscured by different last names.
“It was kind of funny as we went through getting our Ed.S. Probably for the first year, most people had no clue. We looked like these two friends coming to class. We came together. We left together. One brought dinner for both of us,” Rollerson says.
“As we started building more and more connections with these people in our classes, they would say, ‘What? You’re principals in the same district? No way!’ And we’d say, ‘Do you know we’re sisters, too?’ They would say, ‘We had no idea!’ ” she adds. “Dr. Oest, who was our internship supervisor, was like, ‘How was I the last to know?’ ”