From wrestling coach to Illinois Superintendent of the Year
When you tell Thomas Bertrand Ph.D. ’02 he can do something, he will prove you right.
As a sophomore in high school, a wrestling coach placed confidence in the then 15-year-old’s ability despite having never stepped on a mat. Bertrand quickly became a standout athlete in the sport.
“He believed in my ability more than I did at that time,” Bertrand said. “Several experiences similar to those fueled my passion for education. I have always wanted to make a difference with young people, and in some cases, to believe in them and their ability more than they do.”
Bertrand began his career as a middle level and high school English and history teacher, coaching wrestling and football along the way. His ability to inspire his students and colleagues at Mendon Unity High School quickly caught the attention of the district’s superintendent, Gerhardt Jung. Jung placed confidence in him, and at age 26, Bertrand became principal.
At first, it was not only his age that made the role an awkward one. A member of the faculty was his eighth grade teacher. But before long, Bertrand’s youth became a nonfactor, and the school embraced his leadership.
“For me, leadership is not about having all the right answers. It’s about building the capacity of others,” he said. “Everyone learns along the way. But my general approach to leadership never changed.”
For the past 13 years, the career educator has served as the superintendent of Rochester Community Unit District 3A (RCUD), and in 2014, he was recognized with Illinois’ highest award for the position by the Illinois Association of School Administrators (IASA).
The strides made by RCUD under Bertrand’s leadership were significant. He directed the overhaul of technology infrastructure to deliver one-to-one computers and Wi-Fi access for all students and staff—including on school buses. He also prioritized differentiated professional development for faculty and staff as well as the creation of what has become a nationally acclaimed bullying prevention program.
Still, the recognition has been a humbling experience for Bertrand, who redirects credit to the district’s staff, parents, teachers, and students. “They make me look good,” he said. “They are the heart of the organization.”
Immediately prior to serving as Rochester’s superintendent, Bertrand earned his doctorate in educational administration and foundations from Illinois State.
“The primary reason I went to Illinois State was because it was and remains the flagship University for not only future teachers, but school leaders,” he said. “The courses struck a balance between theory and foundational knowledge and practical application, and served me well in the next step in my career.”
Bertrand’s dissertation chair at Illinois State was Elizabeth Lugg, associate professor in the Department of Educational Administration and Foundations.
“I believe Tom is successful because he blends intelligence and knowledge with a desire to do the most that he can for students,” Lugg said. “In my experience, you need all three attributes in order to be an effective educational leader.”
Moving forward, Bertrand is focused on protecting his district against external influences, and encourages fellow school and district leaders to do the same.
“Some of the changes occurring under the guise of reform we know in our hearts are not what is best for teachers and students,” Bertrand said. “Now more than ever I think it is important for administrators to start challenging the status quo and challenging these reforms. We need to advocate on their behalf. If we don’t, who will?”
Given Bertrand’s track record, his voice promises to inspire many to act.