RTHS School Psychologist Chris Roberts to retire after 17 years, 2 stints with OCEC

‘It's contagious when you see such commitment from other people that you're working with’


ROCHELLE — At the end of the school year, Rochelle Township High School School Psychologist Chris Roberts will retire after serving at the school since 2007. 

Roberts’ position at the school is through the Ogle County Educational Cooperative. He also does school psychologist work at Steward Elementary School. The OCEC provides special education services and programs for students with disabilities who are 3-21 years of age and residents of Ogle County. It also provides services for some Lee County schools. 

Roberts started his school psychologist career with an internship in Kankakee before working in Freeport for three years. He came to the OCEC in 1987 and during that time he primarily worked in the Rochelle Elementary School District and early childhood program. He then left the profession for 12 years before returning to the OCEC in 2007, placed full-time at RTHS. He has previously worked with St. Paul Lutheran School in Rochelle as well. 

Roberts graduated from Princeton High School and Illinois State University. His inspiration to get into the school psychology field came from a neighbor and his parents. 

“I'd never heard of a school psychologist or what that was,” Roberts said. “My next door neighbor was a director of special education. I was in my senior year and she and I were talking one day and she told me to think about becoming a school psychologist. It was out of the blue and she was wondering what I wanted to do. She explained it to me and told me there was a huge shortage, which there still is. She kind of planted that in my head. My mom was an English teacher and my dad worked with adults with disabilities. So in some ways, what I do is kind of a combination of that. I was exposed to those professions.”

Along with watching the OCEC itself grow over the years, Roberts has witnessed changes in his field and in education in general. 

“Computers have been a big change,” Roberts said. “We've gone basically paperless this year and we've had online individualized education programs (IEPs) and special education documentations since 2009. Technology has been the biggest change in my career that I can remember. And working through that change has been a challenge. It all boils down to having a good relationship with teachers. People tend to learn more when they have a good relationship with teachers.”

While he may do some part-time work in retirement, Roberts said it will be “emotionally tough” to leave the school upon his retirement this year. He plans to spend more time with his family and friends and less time on his work, which he said can be high-pace. 

Among the things Roberts will miss most is seeing educators that he’s built connections with over the years on a daily basis.

“I've had so many connections through the years,” Roberts said. “When you're in the same school for quite a few years, you build a lot of good connections and see all of the wonderful work the staff does that some people never see. You're amazed at the dedication of these educators.”

In 2020 and the years that have followed, Roberts saw the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on education and the students and staff he works with. He said more issues have been seen with anxiety, anxiety disorders and depression, and social emotional needs of students have intensified. 

The effects of the pandemic have caused Roberts and staff to reorient thinking on what services and supports those students need. 

“We've had to go and do some structured interventions and services,” Roberts said. “Some kids got to the point where they needed a plan of accommodations that they might need to be successful throughout the day or an IEP for special education services and support. And it's been like that in the entire country. That's been a significant need here. I've spent a lot of time with teachers and counselors talking about certain students, especially in the past two years in particular. It all started with the pandemic. We had a huge increase in that concern.”

Roberts said he has three interconnected reasons why he enjoys his work: Students, staff and parents. He said positivity and wanting students to succeed is contagious among all three of those groups, and for his own work.

“Almost without exception, kids want to succeed, the parents want them to succeed academically and in life, and the teachers do too,” Roberts said. “It's contagious when you see such commitment from other people that you're working with, and you just join that team. It's infectious. And that's the way education should be. And it should be fun too. I think the teachers do an awesome job of trying to make it fun. That's the main reason I've stayed here for 17 years, that infectious spirit of trying to reach and educate these kids. In this community, it's easy to have that infectious spirit. It's not like that everywhere.”

In his 40-year career, Roberts has been amazed by the accomplishments he’s seen by students with special needs. He’s seen students with disabilities with an inner drive to succeed, disregarding their limitations. He’s always felt part of his job was to assist students in trying to be successful in whatever work or personal independence they could achieve. 

“There have been some kids that have done some phenomenal things both academically and in sports,” Roberts said. “ I've seen students achieve in paralympics and travel the world doing it. And I've seen students achieve at a very high level in college. That's been a fantastic part of my job to see that growth.”

Roberts has watched the culture in special education change over the years. Now when making IEPs, the first thing on the list is strengths of the student, not challenges. He’s enjoyed seeing that point reached in the industry. 

Another shift Roberts has seen is more overlap in special education and general education.

“I've always been impressed by the dedication of people I’ve worked with,” Roberts said. “The administration and staff have all been very supportive and complimentary, working as a team. Over the years, sometimes people think special education and general education are separate. They've merged more and more and we work as a team. That's another huge change I've seen in 40 years and that mentality is present here at RTHS.”