Teacher Feature: PHS’ Sue Quinlan


“I believe that every student is capable, and it’s just a matter of helping them realize those capabilities.” – Sue Quinlan

Sue Quinlan

As an advocate for diversity and programs that support the multicultural population at Palatine High School, Sue Quinlan has spent much of her educational career trying to help students embrace opportunities that can enrich their lives. While she traveled abroad as an exchange student in high school and studied international relations in college, she has spent much of her life as a teacher and high school counselor in Palatine Township District 211 helping students learn more about themselves as they explore the world of options available to them today.

With more than 33 years in the district, Quinlan has impacted the lives of many students through her dedication and commitment as a school counselor with a drive to spearhead initiatives that help them develop the skills and the confidence to succeed. Now, in her final year before retirement, Quinlan reflects on how important it is for teachers to have a positive attitude in dealing with students, particularly with those who face hardships outside of school.

“I believe that every student is capable, and it’s just a matter of helping them realize those capabilities,” Quinlan said. “I always work with students to push themselves. It’s about learning, but sometimes they come to school and it’s about a whole bunch of other outside factors for them. Trying to help students maintain their focus on education by continually supporting and believing in them is what I try to do. ”

After working for the VISTA (Volunteers In Service To American) program and the Peace Corps, Quinlan started her educational career in District 211 at Conant High School, teaching Social Science Survey and Psychology. When her interest in Psychology increased, she received her master’s degree in guidance and counseling and moved to Palatine High School. Over the years, she has worked with others to develop several positive initiatives that continue making an impact at PHS and throughout the district, including Project Excel, Palatine’s Promise, TRUST Peer Counseling and TEAM Student/Faculty Mentoring. Additionally, she helped to write the proposals for the Blue Ribbon, American Schools, and Drug Free School honors won by PHS. She received the Golden Apple with the district team charged with initiating RtI.  Recently, she received a Sonya Peterson Award in recognition of her leadership, community service and compassion for at-risk youth and families from the Barrington-Palatine Child and Adolescent Local Area Network.

Helping students stay on track with their schoolwork even when home life might be a bit tough is Quinlan’s motivation. She said many at-risk students (students who are at-risk of failing classes or dropping out of school) that she saw freshman year have turned out to be exceptional students. Programs such as Project Excel have helped Quinlan make a connection with her students, and let them know someone is on their side.

“I can’t imagine retiring, to be honest, because I come to school every day and I love what I do,” she said. “Yes, there are ups and downs just as with every job, but on days when I am feeling frustrated, I look at the kids. They are waiting for me as I walk in the door sometimes, and it’s good to know that they know I am always willing to help.”

And the students are always full of surprises, such as the time a group of seniors told her she made a difference in their lives by telling them “no.” Quinlan, who strives to be positive when working with her students, was surprised at their response. “What are you talking about,” she said to the students, “I never say no to you guys for anything.” “That’s not true,” they countered, “when we want to drop an AP class, you tell us no. When we feel like we want to work more hours instead of studying, you say no.’ When we want a boyfriend or girlfriend… ”

Sue Quinlan addresses students in Project Excel.

“I realized that in problem solving, and encouraging them to think through difficult choices, it sometimes sounds like no,” Quinlan said. “It’s really not about ‘no’ but about making good choices and looking at all of the options. I am so proud that, in the end, those seniors stayed in school and have gone on to college, scholarships in hand.”

Quinlan realized what an impact she had on some of her students when they approached Principal Gary Steiger about finding a counselor to continue working with Project Excel. They told him how the support and encouragement they experienced with the Project Excel staff and other Excel students kept them in school and helped them to focus on their future. “After meeting with the students, Mr. Steiger came to me and said, ‘You have changed lives’. That affirmation was one of the best moments of my career,” Quinlan said.

Even though she wishes that she could help every student to be successful, Quinlan understands she can only do her part. After she provides support and encouragement, or helps brainstorm options, it is up to the students to make it happen. And once they identify their dream, she encourages them to go after it, no matter what obstacles may be in their path.

“I have worked very hard on numerous initiatives to help improve PHS for our students, and in the last year or two everything has come together,” Quinlan said. “I am lucky. Usually people go through their careers, and then they’re done and leave. I have seen PHS continually change and strive to improve the educational opportunities for kids, and that is very cool.”