When Jan Goldberg walked into Room 232 at Riverside-Brookfield High School for the first time in August 1976, she was a 23-year-old teacher coming off a one-year assignment at Morton West High School. Gerald Ford was the president.
Bill McCloskey was in her American government class that year.
“She was a tremendous teacher,” said McCloskey, later a member of the District 208 Board of Education. “She was fabulous. It was a cool time to have her, because there was so much going on. Every day you really looked forward to going to class because she was so passionate.”
This week Goldberg walks out of Room 232 for the final time. She’s retiring after teaching at RBHS for 34 years (she twice took a one-year leave of absence after having children), but she’s still the same passionate, energetic and opinionated teacher that she was 36 years ago.
“I like to think my classroom has changed more than me,” says Goldberg.
Her current students would probably agree. They say the same things about her that her early students said.
“She’s a great teacher,” said Andrew Payton who is in Goldberg’s American government class this year. “The students really like her. She’s really energetic. She’s really just talking all the time, keeping us motivated and interested. Kids really get into her classes.”
Only one teacher, Kathy Peterson, has taught at RBHS longer than Goldberg, who has taught American history, American government, urban studies and sociology.
In her classes Goldberg mixes lecture and discussion.
“You lecture a little bit, you discuss a lot,” said Goldberg.
And she takes her students’ education beyond the four walls of the classroom. She has taken students on field trips to the Cook County Jail, Chicago’s City Council, bus tours of inner-city neighborhoods and public housing projects and trips to courtrooms.
As the longtime advisor to the school’s now defunct Forum Club, she brought in speakers on controversial issues such as the death penalty and nuclear power.
In 2009 she drew criticism and received two threatening letters, after the Forum Club hosted former 1960s radical Bill Ayers.
“It started so innocently,” Goldberg said. “I just had a student who wanted to know why he was involved in the 2008 campaign and why Sarah Palin kept calling Obama a ’60s terrorist when Obama was like 7 at the time.”
Goldberg describes her own views as progressive, but not radical. She says that she has never tried to indoctrinate her students.
“I am bored when my students mimic my views,” Goldberg said. “I want them to have their own views. That’s the whole point of social studies. And when the class is leaning one way, I will purposely play devil’s advocate to get them to see the other side.”
Payton has seen that in her classroom.
“She has strong political views and everyone knows that,” Payton said. “I don’t share all those views, and I can honestly say that I haven’t felt that she’s tried to influence me personally at all.”
Her department chair, John Beasley, says that Goldberg’s commitment to students will be missed.
“Jan has been an unyielding advocate for so many young people,” said Beasley. “As a teacher, she was able to challenge some of our most academic students, but also motivated some of our most struggling students to be active learners in her classroom. … Her selflessness and compassion have made a huge difference to both the students and the faculty here at RB. We will miss her greatly.”
Goldberg, who turns 59 this week, grew up in the West Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago. Her father taught math and electronics at a vocational high school in Chicago and later at a trade school.
Goldberg, who has lived in either Brookfield or Riverside since 1979, said she decided to become a teacher by process of elimination.
“When you’re growing up in the ’50s and ’60s you don’t see too many women in high-powered roles,” Goldberg said. “I basically thought there were four professions for women, and one by one I cancelled them off my list.
“I knew I wanted to teach high school,” Goldberg recalls. “I really didn’t care what subject as long as I was good at it. I really wanted to be a math teacher at first, because I was really good at it. And then the Vietnam War happened, and that changed everything.”
Deeply influenced by the anti-war and the women’s movements while a student at the University of Illinois, she decided she was better at explaining social movements than she was at explaining calculus.
She graduated from U of I in 1975. It was not an easy time to get a teaching job as school enrollments were beginning to drop. She took a one year assignment at Morton West and the next spring began applying again and also got scant interest.
“I had two interviews the next year: RB and Maine South, and RB called first,” Goldberg said.
She was the only woman in the RB social studies department, which remained that way for 17 years. She wasn’t exactly greeted warmly by all her new colleagues.
“One guy asked me if I was going to be absent every month,” Goldberg said. “There was a lot of sexism back in the ’70s. One man came up to me and said ‘I can’t believe he hired you.'”
Never a shrinking violet, Goldberg had a quick response. “I said, ‘Maybe I was the best man for the job.'”
What changes has she noticed at RBHS over the years?
“I think the teachers dress worse and the students dress better, especially the female students,” Goldberg says. “You’ll see female students wearing a dress for absolutely no reason. You wouldn’t have seen that in the ’70s.”
Other than boys having shorter hair and kids waiting longer to get their drivers licenses, Goldberg doesn’t see many differences in her students compared to 35 years ago.
“I don’t think that they’ve changed a bit,” Goldberg said. “Kids are the same. They still worry about being accepted, about graduating on time, about balancing their time. They worry about college.”
Goldberg loves teaching. She never served as a department chair and never had any interest in becoming an administrator.
“I never wanted to be an administrator,” Goldberg said. “Never wanted to be taken out of the classroom for even one period. No way.”
She knows it will be difficult to leave Room 232 this week for the last time.
“It’s going to be very sad,” Goldberg said. “I definitely have a lot of fond memories there, and I feel like I have a lot more years in me, but with all the changes that are going on at both the state and local level, I really didn’t see that I had much choice.”
Goldberg says that she has applied to volunteer at two battered women’s shelters, and she might just do downtown to Obama campaign headquarters and volunteer on the re-election campaign.
But she will miss teaching.
“I’ll miss the daily contact with the kids,” Goldberg said.
And there will be another difference at RB next year.
“Faculty meetings will be a lot quieter next year,” she said.