Sister Margaret teaches a lifetime of lessons
By Emily McFarlan firstname.lastname@example.org July 15, 2012 3:42PM
Sister Margaret sits down to discuss her retirement after 38 years of teaching the youngest special needs children at the Clare Woods Academy at the Bartlett Learning Center on Wednesday July, 11 2012. | Katherine Peters~Sun-Times Media
Updated: August 17, 2012 6:33AM
BARTLETT — Sister Margaret Gazdik leaned over one boy’s shoulder and chastised, “You’re not squishing.” She showed him again how to squish the green tissue paper and glue it to a blue construction paper earth.
“The earth is in our hands. We’re taking care of the earth,” Gazdik said.
Next, she leaned over the shoulder of a paraprofessional in her classroom at Clare Woods Academy in Bartlett, instructing her to help another boy who had finished his project think of ways he can care for the earth.
For 38 years, primary school students — and many teachers — at Clare Woods Academy have been in Gazdik’s hands. The Catholic sister, who lives in Elgin and was named private/parochial Kane County Educator of the Year in 2008, is retiring from her post as a teacher and chair of the primary department.
“Our hearts are already breaking,” said Linda Frye-Danner, development director at Bartlett Learning Center, Inc.
“She is the rock of the school. She is the ultimate teacher to the children. She is the ultimate mentor to the staff. She’s gentle, she’s sincere and I just can’t say enough about her. She’s just a treasure.”
Clare Woods Academy is part of Bartlett Learning Center at 801 Carillon Drive, founded and sponsored by the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Third Order of St. Francis, according to the academy. The private, nonprofit school provides special education services to students ages 3 to 22 with autism, hearing disabilities, behavioral problems and cognitive impairments.
Gazdik joined the school not long after it was founded in 1968 with five students with special needs, she said. She previously had taught at schools in Arlington Heights and Chicago, where “there were children in the regular schools whose needs were not being met.”
“That’s when special education came to its fore.”
She’d grown up in public schools in Elgin, she said, and an associate pastor at St. Joseph Catholic Parish in Elgin encouraged her to attend college at Alverno College in Milwaukee, which had been chartered in 1887 by the School Sisters of St. Francis. That’s where she discovered her interest in teaching and in joining the sisters, she said.
On Wednesday, Gazdik pointed to one boy working at desk in a corner with a paraprofessional in her classroom. When he first came to Clare Woods, she said, he was under the desk.
The sister remembered another student of hers who had spent most of her first year at the academy in the hallway, overwhelmed by the noise in the classroom. She’d coaxed her into the classroom with “a little table with beans;” she’d sit and play with the beans and slowly began to interact and sing with the class.
That little girl recently sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” at her eighth-grade graduation from Clare Woods and will begin high school at Crystal Lake Consolidated School District 47, she said.
In her time at Clare Woods, Gazdik also has coordinated the academy’s character education program. She has started its “Friday clubs,” which give students the opportunity to take art in extracurricular activities like sports, dance, fishing and a Pinewood Derby.
The job has been both “demanding” and “life-giving,” according to the sister. And it’s been “more than just a job,” she said: It also has been a “great way to carry out my community mission of giving, healing and preserving life.”
“This place is a nurturing place,” she said.
The academy now has more than 100 students from 41 different school districts, including Elgin School District U46 and Carpentersville-area Community Unit School District 300, according Frye-Danner. About 95 are part of its summer program, she said.
As she prepared last week to leave, Gazdik said she is taking “one day at a time.”
“I was thinking of the Dr. Seuss quote, ‘Don’t cry because it’s over; smile because it happened.’ That 38 years I was here — it’s more than a smile. It’s gratitude it happened.”