Almost four decades ago at age 23, Carlson began substitute teaching for the Sycamore school district studying for his master’s degree in sport management at Northern Illinois University.
Even back then, Sycamore High School was his favorite building to work in, Carlson, now 59, said.
“I always said, of all the schools I subbed in the county, of all the schools I subbed in California, that this was the best school,” Carlson said. “This was where I think there’s such a connection with people, a connection with the community, which makes it unique.”
Sycamore High School Assistant Principal Brian Swanson will become the school’s new principal July 1, when Carlson retires.
Despite substituting throughout DeKalb County while finishing his graduate degree, Carlson’s lifelong career in Sycamore wasn’t always a sure thing. After graduating from NIU, Carlson moved to California and, while substitute teaching, worked part-time coaching basketball at community colleges.
You’re not going to be successful in this job without really good teachers and teachers who trust you and then to have good relationships, but I have such a good staff that I am really, really fortunate, honestly.— Tim Carlson
Carlson spent three years in California before returning to northern Illinois to work as Sycamore High School’s Head Basketball coach. The first year he was back he worked as an adaptive physical education teacher and a paraprofessional, then later on began teaching driver’s education classes.
Carlson, who has yet to decide on any big retirement plans, said he’s going to remember the student athletes he coached during the 1993-94 basketball season.
“They started my coaching career, so those five kids are really important to me. They bought in to what I was trying to do, and that set us off on a good trajectory for basketball,” Carlson said.
In 2003, Carlson became the athletic director for the Sycamore school district. He held the role for six years and said it ranks as his favorite job he’s undertaken for District 427.
“I think athletic director’s probably the job where you work the most hours in the district of anybody but also probably one of the most rewarding jobs because you’re watching kids compete, you’re watching fun, positive events,” Carlson said. “I think the principal job is a little bit more challenging than that, just because it’s all encompassing. You’re overseeing everything and everybody and it’s not always in a positive light because of the challenges kids and family, and teachers sometimes have.”
Carlson said as a young adult, his dream job was to become an athletic director. Working as a high school principal was not on his list of goals while substituting in 1987.
When the opportunity to become Sycamore High School’s principal came, however, he took it, and eventually found some parallels to help.
As principal, Carlson said he’s focused his day-to-day on trying to help people solve problems. He credits who he is as an administrator, however, to what he learned as a coach.
“It’s a lot of the same thing. It’s a lot of conflict resolution, and team concepts, and setting goals you’re trying to achieve and trying to motivate people, it’s helping get people through the good and bad times,” Carlson said. “So I think a lot of what I’ve learned structurally, how to be a principal, came from my days as a coach.”
Superintendent Steve Wilder believes Carlson’s career decisions have made his name synonymous with Sycamore High School.
“I’ve often heard people say that when you think of Sycamore High School, you immediately think of Mr. Carlson,” Wilder said. “He’s worked here for so long, but it’s been more than work for Tim. It’s truly been a vocation because of his passion for having a positive impact on students’ lives and providing them with opportunities to pursue their dream.”
Carlson said for his first few years as principal, he leaned on the school’s faculty he’d already created relationships with while working in the building for the past two decades. That relational philosophy helped in later in his career, too.
“We have an excellent staff and I’m very, very lucky,” Carlson said. “I always tell the staff, I say ‘The school is not the four walls, the school is the people within the four walls and the impact they have on kids.’ And our staff does a really, really good job of working with kids, they have a high expectation for themselves as teachers, they have high expectations for kids and we get a very good result.”
After spending a career in his favorite building, Carlson said he’s fortunate he started a career in a district that let him grow and learn from mistakes.
The longtime administrator credits his colleagues – from assistant principals, previous superintendents, all of the school’s administrative staff, and the teachers – as the reason for his success.
“You’re not going to be successful in this job without really good teachers and teachers who trust you and then to have good relationships,” Carlson said. “I have such a good staff ... I am really, really fortunate, honestly.”
Wilder also gave credit to Carlson, however, praising him for fostering relationships that have positively impacted the greater Sycamore community.
“While Sycamore High School will move forward I think it’s fair to say that it truly won’t be the same,” Winters said. “I’ve met few people in my career that have such a focus on students, and Mr. Carlson is one of them. I’m privileged to have worked alongside him and to call him a personal friend. We wish him the absolute best in his retirement.”