Paul Vandersteen: Leaving a legacy as a leader, coach and educator


NCTV17 Sports

Paul Vandersteen, a beloved educator and coach at Neuqua Valley High School, retires this year.

Lily Ha, Editor-in-Chief

Paul Vandersteen, a leader of the science program at Neuqua Valley High School, is retiring in the summer of 2023. Mr. Vandersteen has served as the Department Chair of Science at Neuqua Valley High School since the school opened in 1997. He started teaching at Peoria Notre Dame in 1988. Before coming to Neuqua, he also taught science at Waubonsie High School for three years.

His educational journey of 35 years as a teacher has been successful and honorable to be remembered as an amazing model for future educators. 

During his tenure at Neuqua, he has displayed incredible leadership as the boys’ head cross-country coach and assistant coach for track and field. He has guided Neuqua Valley to not only State Championships three times, but also to the Nike Cross Nationals title in 2007. He coached Nike runner, Chris Derrick, who won the national title in 2007. He was inducted into the Illinois Track and Cross Country Coach’s Hall of Fame. Mr. Vandersteen’s mentality and teaching style toward young athletes has always been admired. In an interview with a local news outlet in 2016, he described his coaching philosophy as “athlete friendly. I don’t yell. I am not a guy that tries to push athletes for extrinsic reasons”. He added, “I tried to work with our intrinsic motivation. I want to lead with ‘why they want to run.” He is a big believer in making student-athletes continue to think about why they are doing this if they are not having fun.

Many think that it would be too demanding to serve as the department chair and coach at the same time. But Mr. Vandersteen felt strongly that it was his dream job. Happily espousing a calling to be in a leadership role, he has maintained a strong desire to coach and teach. He has found a passion for coaching something. His favorite school memory is when Neuqua Valley won a state championship in cross country in 2007. It was one of his dreams to win a state championship as a coach, so the emotions he felt at that moment were indescribable. “That was monumental. It was one of my dreams to win a state championship as a coach. And so, when that happened, that was pretty cool,” he says.

The period of 35 years as an educator has been a long journey. Though he admits that there are times when he thinks he is never going to miss certain things again, there are also many things that he believes he will miss, including the students he has gotten to know over the decades.

He has consistently prioritized students’ well-being and growth. He kindly provided heart-warming advice to Neuqua students who are feeling like they are not good enough. “Don’t play the arms race of comparing yourself to one another.” He wants Neuqua students to remember who they are and not compete against one another. “When you start to compete for one against one another, that’s when your mental health starts to suffer, and you start to doubt yourself. That’s just not a good way to handle things, do what’s best for you. And take classes and pursue interests that you want to do. Don’t worry about what everybody else is doing.”

Mr. Vandesteen believes that Neuqua is different from other schools. He remembers what the school was like when he first came to Neuqua. “We started a school from scratch. Other schools had a very custodial environment; everything was based on rules, checking to make sure students were doing the right thing all the time.” He continues, “However, when Neuqua Valley opened, it was more based on a humanistic approach, focusing on relationships and building positive relationships with students. Positive communications with a desire to make a good school would just naturally happen”. Mr. Vandersteen thinks that is what we have done well at this school, focusing more on relationships rather than rules. He believes that Neuqua fosters a more open communication and more positive interaction atmosphere than most high schools.

Students who have had the privilege to interact with Mr. Vandersteen have felt his profound influence on their lives. 

“I know Mr. Vandersteen through cross country and track,” Connor Boehm, a senior at Neuqua Valley and a four-year member of Cross Country, says. “He’s helped me grow as a person and he has taught me and the team a lot of important values.” Boehm likes Mr. Vandersteen’s coaching style because he gives athletes more freedom, as he is always willing to listen to their feedback. He would like to say “Thank You” to Coach Vandersteen because he has been a big influence in his high school life.

Ryan Palmer, Neuqua senior, has also felt inspired by Mr. Vandersteen’s kindness and leadership. He says, “Mr. Vandersteen has influenced me tremendously by being a mentor and someone whom I look up to for advice in running and beyond. He always wants the best for me and the team while also making sure we do the right things on a daily basis”. 

Ryan adds, “Mr. Vandersteen makes going to practice enjoyable and helps us grow as human beings. One unique characteristic of his coaching style that separates him from other coaches is that he never yells. No one wants a coach who yells at you when you have a bad performance or make a bad decision. However, he keeps us accountable for our actions and pushes us to our limits.”

Ryan shared a story about how he first met Coach Vandersteen when he was in 6th grade. He had gone to and ran the Tom Schlegel 5k race. Ryan ran a solid time, and after finishing, Mr. Vandersteen personally came up and asked for Ryan to join the fast cats camp. Although he did not end up participating in the fast cats camp, he did partake in the summer runner program, and his relationship with Vandersteen grew from there. 

“I would like to thank Mr. Vandersteen for all that he has done for my teammates and me, as well as the hundreds of runners he once coached,” Ryan says.  

 The students at Neuqua firmly believe that Mr. Vandersteen’s leadership, his belief in his athletes, and the happiness he brings to the classrooms and fields every day, are what makes him an amazing influence. Since Neuqua’s opening, Paul Vandersteen has been a crucial part of Neuqua’s growth, contributing to the best things about the school. Mr. Vandersteen has left a positive impact on us all and will be missed. 

Congratulations, Mr. Vandersteen, and thank you for leaving a legacy at Neuqua Valley High School!