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A homecoming 40 years in the making: Lynn Gibson starts second career at NIU

October 8, 2018
Lynn Gibson
Lynn Gibson

During Lynn Gibson’s undergraduate years in the NIU College of Business, then housed inside Wirtz Hall, she lived directly across the street in the Timbercrest Apartments on the corner of Lucinda Avenue and Garden Road.

Hers was Apartment 5, she knows for certain, because a couple of her six children currently share Apartment 4 in the same building.

Gibson picked the place because it provided a quick walk to Wirtz, where she was studying to teach high school with a bachelor’s degree in Business Education. Her major reflected the inspiration of some amazing teachers throughout her K-12 education.

“I took classes in law, finance, marketing, math, computer science – those topics you would teach in a business classroom,” she says. “I floated in a number of departments, including Accountancy and Finance, and we took our education classes right over here in Graham. I used to roller-skate over here carrying my books – my hair was in a ponytail.”

Forty years later, and now retired from her stellar career in K-12 schools, which culminated with the superintendency of the Hononegah Community School District, Gibson is back at the NIU College of Education’s Department of Leadership, Educational Psychology and Foundations.

This time, however, she’s the professor.

And although her wheeled boots and teenage hair are things of the past, her philosophy of the power of influence remains intact.

“When I retired from the superintendency, I wasn’t ready to leave education, because I’ll never leave education. Even when I was a superintendent and an assistant superintendent, I was still a teacher. It was in my DNA,” Gibson says. “I see education as a calling and as a strong influence in people’s lives, and I like that I have the chance to pay forward the influence I received throughout my education.”

She teaches courses in Educational Administration, including the master’s-level Principal Prep program and the Ed.S.-level Superintendent Prep program, as well as in the School Business Management program.

Her curriculum is steeped in raised consciousness – “to keep us remembering what education really is all about because people will always remember those powerful moments,” she says – and in educational policy, “the backbone of how a school district is run.”

The alumna’s new connection to her quadruple alma mater came through Jim and Becky Surber, instructors in the Principal Prep program who spoke with her after a Hononegah-related news conference where they were observing one of their M.S.Ed. students.

“They called me to do seminar for one of their classes. They said, ‘Hey, would you teach school finance this summer about the strong connection between teaching and learning and finance,’ ” Gibson says. “I also knew Terry Borg – I used to work on grants with Terry – and I also knew Portia Downey and Laurie Elish-Piper from the grant writing world. I began teaching evening graduate classes. After I retired, Carolyn Pluim called me and said, ‘I’ve got a full-time position open.’ It was such a neat feeling.”

Gibson clearly has a wealth of diverse experience to draw on for her classroom lessons.

Lynn Gibson studies in the 1970s.
Lynn Gibson studies at NIU in the late 1970s.

The graduate of Rockford West High School, and one of six siblings, followed an older brother to NIU. She remembers liking the cornfield-lined drive to DeKalb as the family brought him here to study biology. She also remembers the Altgeld Hall castle and the sprawling campus that surrounded it.

Originally bunking in the Neptune North residence hall allowed her to “see everything going on” as she eventually joined her brother and a sister here to pursue her own childhood dream.

“Becoming a teacher? I knew that from a young age, and I knew it because I was observing my teachers, although I didn’t really know it at the time. I observed what worked well, and I observed what didn’t,” she says, “and I had many good teachers who had an influence on me to become a teacher.”

She began her career in the Harlem School District of Loves Park and Machesney Park, two bordering and interconnected towns just north of Rockford. She taught high school classes in computer science, business and math as well as coaching sports.

Meanwhile, she continually observed that “influence is the strongest characteristic we can pay forward” as her administrators encouraged her to obtain Type 75 certification.

NIU naturally was the logical and familiar choice for that, and with an M.S.Ed. in Educational Administration earned in 1992, she became a building administrator; later, she became an assistant superintendent and a writer of state and federal grants.

Again, the influence of her superintendent and colleagues motivated her return to DeKalb for the Ed.S. and Ed.D. degrees, which she completed in 2013.

That journey began Labor Day weekend of 2008; Teresa WasongaHidetada Shimizu and Rosita Lopez were her first professors. Charles Howell chaired her dissertation committee.

While still in the program, she became the Hononegah superintendent in the summer of 2012. Her office was connected to the Hononegah Community High School building.

Hononegah voters approved a referendum
in April of 2017 to build a fieldhouse.

“I felt that if I were to become a superintendent and lead a school district, then everyone who had influenced me would be there with me leading the school district,” she says.

Hononegah proved the perfect place for that previous mentorship to come alive.

“My favorite part of Hononegah is the legacy that’s always been there. I define legacy as our alumni, current students and those students who’ve yet to walk through our doors,” she says.

“I also include staff and administration. They create the legacy with our students, our community and our board of education. Thinking through the lens of strategic planning, the decisions we make continue to create the legacy, and there’s no reason to create anything other than a positive legacy,” she adds. “Our job at the district office is to clear the way for our staff to do what they do best – teach and influence our students.”

During her tenure, Gibson confronted many challenges. A flood. A fire. A collapsed dome that covered an athletic facility. “These things strengthened the district,” she says. “They showed us what we were made of.”

There were triumphs as well, of course. Hononegah holds the honor of the highest test scores in the region as well as being one of the top school districts in the state and nation.

Voters also approved a referendum in April of 2017 to build a fieldhouse on the site of the collapsed dome; Gibson, who is still helping with some administrative tasks in Hononegah, visited the construction site recently in boots and blue jeans to check on the construction.

Considering her hard-to-miss love for Hononegah, that level of dedication only makes sense.

“Some of my favorite times at Hononegah were to go into the hallways at the high school when classes were changing. When you release 2,000-plus students into the hallways, it’s music to my ears. I loved attending various events that would occur, greeting parents and students in the morning, watching the music videos of our very talented staff,” she says.

“That was also the way I worked with our Board of Education during board meetings so that every single board meeting was designed to move the district forward in a positive way, through that lens of legacy,” she adds. “I see that same legacy here at NIU. I see that here with our own kids.”

The Gibson siblings (from left): Mark, Chelsey, Taylor, Jiaping, Chloe and Bryn
The Gibson siblings (from left): Mark, Chelsey, Taylor, Jiaping, Chloe and Bryn

Gibson and her husband, Mike, count five Huskies among their flock.

Chelsey, the oldest, earned a degree in Nursing and now is employed as a nurse in Rockford. Mark, who holds a degree in Engineering, lives and works in Madison.

Bryn recently graduated from the College of Business and is considering law school. Taylor, an alumna of the Department of Communication, remains at NIU working toward a master’s degree in Speech-Language Pathology. Chloe, who earned a degree from the Department of World Languages and Cultures, is teaching at Rock Valley College. Jiaping, the youngest child, who was adopted from China, is in a pre-dental track at St. Olaf College in Minnesota.

She is proud that her family shares her NIU affection.

“NIU provided me with an amazing education that has stood the test of time in my career – as well as for my children,” she says. “I have lifelong friends who I’m still in contact with from my NIU days, and there’s not a time that I walk the campus that I don’t think about roller-skating with a ponytail, or, more often, about walking into Graham now as a professor here.”

Teaching in the NIU College of Education, meanwhile, affords her “the chance to truly change lives for the better” and to keep learning while she’s teaching.

“We just had a conversation this week in all three of my classes about the sheer enjoyment of learning and understanding the power of moments and, as part of that, knowing that you will never know everything. To me, that’s profound, because it means that learning never stops,” Gibson says. “I really want to continue hanging out at NIU as long as NIU will have me.”