BRADENTON -- Suzanne Theiss jokingly refers to herself as the "secret-tary" at Southeast High School, serving as an unloading station for stressed-out teachers, administrators and parents.
Her office, with a photo of two empty chairs by the beach, is a sacred location for those in need of venting or advice. Students will store items there, including food and soda, during the day, because they know it's a safe place and Theiss won't mind.
"A lot of times, this is like a psychologist's office, people just come in and unload and it's all good," she said.
As the senior school secretary, Theiss is the official secretary for the principal and the assistant principals. Her official responsibilities include organizing substitutes, but she's also a jack of all trades, answering any question that comes her way and filling in on any necessary tasks.
On a recent Tuesday morning, Theiss staffed the station inside the school's main office for students who were missing their ID cards. As she printed the temporary cards for the day, she reminded students of the possible punishments they face. The first forgotten ID is a verbal warning, but multiple lost or forgotten IDs can lead to an in-school suspension.
Sipping on green tea -- after two cups of coffee -- Theiss printed IDs until the bell rang at 7:30 a.m., before handing over the responsibility to another staff member and retreating to her office.
There, the phone was ringing off
the hook. A recent change in the FOCUS system, which teachers use to take attendance and track student grades, has teachers thrown off. Theiss points them back to a schoolwide email that has the instructions, putting out one fire.
After that call, another one comes in. A mother has arrived at the office and wants to see the principal. First, she sees Theiss. It's an issue Theiss is able to handle, and takes a message to pass along to the assistant principal. Another fire extinguished. It's Theiss' ability to put out fires with ease and a comforting smile that makes her one of the four support employees of the year finalists for the Manatee County School District Excellence in Education awards.
'That's what I'm here for'
Theiss is one of the first people at the school each morning, showing up around 5 a.m. It's that time, between 5 a.m. and when school actually starts at 7:30 a.m. that Theiss said she's actually able to get her required work done. She can catch up on emails, listen to voicemails, start calling in substitutes to cover absent teachers and complete other paperwork.
But once students and staff start showing up, Theiss moves into question-and-answer mode. This year, Theiss has gotten better about getting off campus by 3:30 p.m., even though school officially lets out at 2:05 p.m.
"I want to be interrupted during the day," she said. "That's what I'm here for."
Theiss fields questions on a number of topics, and after 10 1/2 years in different positions for the district, if she doesn't know the answer, she probably knows someone who does.
"I feel blessed to be able to have the different positions," she said. "When I don't know, I call."
The job makes her both laugh and cry at times, Theiss said, but she tries to keep a positive attitude, even when things are not in her control. (Every now and then, she gets a call from someone complaining about traffic created by the train running nearby.) She does her best to listen to the complaint, and when she can help, she jumps to it.
"This is where God has put me, and this is my calling," she said.
After Southeast High School senior Caleb Francois organized a walkathon to benefit children and students in his family's country of Haiti this school year, he asked Theiss to join him for a television interview with SETV -- the school's TV production station. Theiss, who said she sent a few emails and helps get the word out among the other high schools, was humbled by the offer.
"When a student walks up to you and says that, I say, 'Who am I?'" Theiss said.
But Francois tells it differently. He says Theiss played a huge role in the success of the event, passing out flyers, sending emails throughout the district and providing Francois moral support. She helped with registration during the event.
"Mrs. Theiss' supportive attitude and proclivity to always lend a hand is a great illustration of why she is so loved and appreciated by all of the students and staff at Southeast High School," Francois said. "She is the glue to Southeast and is committed to serving the students and staff of our school."
Principal Jim Pauley agrees.
"She is the octupus that runs the school," he said, adding that Theiss has a hand in everything going on at the school.
Her work, Pauley said, "allows us to do other things."
Meghin Delaney, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Follow her on Twitter @MeghinDelaney.