Peoria principal shares credit with team, community for top schools honor

During a classroom visit, St. Mark principal Noreen Dillon works on a word game with first-grader Tommy Tomlins. Helping people discover their strengths and use them is one of the reasons she went into teaching. (The Catholic Post/Jennifer Willems)

Dr. Noreen Dillon accepts that she has been named the Distinguished Principal of the Year by the Office of Catholic Schools, but says, “It really had nothing to do with me.”

“It had more to do with the really good team I’m working with and the families that we have here supporting the school, and the alumni supporting the school,” said Dillon, principal at St. Mark School in Peoria.

The list grows as she adds volunteers.

“There’s a lot of good, positive energy going on,” she told The Catholic Post as some of that enthusiasm wafted from the gym into the open door of her office. “To me, that’s maybe more of the ‘why’ behind receiving that award really.”

Dillon will be honored at a celebration planned for May 13 at the Spalding Pastoral Center in Peoria. Also being recognized at the Mass and luncheon will be Msgr. Mark Merdian of St. Pius X in Rock Island as the Distinguished Pastor of the Year and Jim Taber of Central Catholic High School in Bloomington as the Distinguished Teacher of the Year.

FAITH AND COMMUNITY

Dillon credited the teachers and the staff at St. Mark for collaborating with the idea that the students come first.

“I really appreciate the way in which our school as a whole and the community around our school engages in faith formation and building one another up and being there and supporting one another.” — Dr. Noreen Dillon

“It’s not necessarily about ourselves, but about helping our students be successful, building them up, and helping them realize what their gifts and talents are,” Dillon said. “I think everyone has that in mind. It drives them and directs them each day.”

And because the teachers and staff love what they do, St. Mark is a fun environment to be in, she said.

That was demonstrated at the beginning of the school year when the annual retreat took the faculty and staff to Hooked on Fishing. While they worked together to catch fish, they considered a variety of questions Dillon posed: “What would you do to help your students if you see they’re struggling?” “Have you challenged yourself within your own faith journey?” “How are you going to build your faith?”

“That’s because we’re role models for our students,” she said. “That’s our number one reason for being here, to make disciples.”

The outing was based on four practices of the “FISH! Philosophy” by Stephen C. Lundin, Harry Paul and John Christensen: play, be there, make their day, and choose your attitude.

Things like this also build on one of the strongest things St. Mark has going for it, which is its sense of faith and community, Dillon explained.

“I know from the first time I came here I immediately felt accepted as part of the St. Mark’s community,” she said. “I really appreciate the way in which our school as a whole and the community around our school engages in faith formation and building one another up and being there and supporting one another.”

In addition to a weekly Mass, eucharistic adoration, and rosary, each day begins with morning prayer in the gym. There are also monthly faculty meetings with short sessions on faith formation offered by Deacon Jim Heatwole or Msgr. Brian Brownsey, who was honored at Distinguished Pastor of the Year for 2019.

When the staff said they missed seeing each other – they cover multiple lunch periods — Dillon established Third Teacher Thursdays. Everyone comes to school early for prayer, a light breakfast, and fellowship.

“It’s those kinds of instances that show me they do love what they do, they do want to be together, and they like that sense of community,” she said.

SUPPORT RECEIVED, GIVEN

Dillon earned a bachelor’s degree in economics and French from Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa, in 1994, and a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from DePaul University in Chicago in 1997. She holds a doctorate in education administration, with superintendent endorsement, from Illinois State University.

She has taught middle school in Chicago and Peoria public schools.

Her favorite part of teaching is helping people discover their strengths and empowering them to do what they didn’t know they could do, she said.

With students that means building confidence. With teachers that means listening to see what the needs are and then determining how to support them and their students.

“I do think education is huge and it’s not just for our kids,” Dillon said. “It’s important for our teachers. It’s important for us to keep learning and being open to those changes we might need to make.”

“We may have different types of schools in terms of size and demographics, but sometimes our needs are similar and it’s nice to have one another to lean on. While they may not be in the same building, I know that they are here to support me and I want to be there to support them.” — On the camaraderie of the Region I principals

Her support network extends to nearby Bradley University, where she was a part-time teacher in the College of Education for eight years and a certification officer and clinical coordinator for two years before coming to St. Mark in 2013.

She also cited Peoria Public Schools for special services offered to St. Mark, including help with English as a Second Language.

And she loves working with the principals at the other Catholic schools in Peoria and surrounding communities.

“We may have different types of schools in terms of size and demographics, but sometimes our needs are similar and it’s nice to have one another to lean on. While they may not be in the same building, I know that they are here to support me and I want to be there to support them,” Dillon said.

Married to Tim Dillon of J.C. Dillon Inc., she is the busy mother of twin sons who are seniors at Peoria Notre Dame High School and an eighth-grader at St. Vincent de Paul School, also in Peoria. This spring she is looking at two high school graduations, one grade school graduation, and confirmation.

“It helps me as a principal to be able to say to parents, ‘I’m doing it, too,’” she told The Post with a laugh.

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